As he rose through the ranks in the water utility industry, Mark Knudson never forgot the essential role of water and wastewater operators.
The two years Mark Knudson spent as a wastewater operator at the Cowlitz County (Oregon) Water Pollution Control Plant made all the difference in his career.
As the CEO of the Tualatin Valley Water District, a recipient of the George Warren Fuller Award for distinguished service from the Pacific Northwest Section and the AWWA, and a former member of the AWWA board of directors, he says those early years taught him the importance of operations and maintenance and the roles operators play in successful water management.
“I’d gone to college, gotten a master’s degree, and was doing exactly what I wanted to do, designing water and wastewater systems,” Knudson remembers. “But I realized that operations was the missing link. I needed to understand the operator’s perspective. I was fortunate that the Cowlitz plant manager took a chance and hired me as an operator.”
He says those two years gave him tremendous perspective on how plant operators were the key to success: “That experience has stayed with me through my career.”
Knudson was named CEO of the Tualatin Valley district in 2013, where he had served as chief engineer since 2007. The district serves more than 200,000 customers in Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tigard and unincorporated Washington County, Oregon.
Before joining the district, Knudson worked for Carollo Engineers, the Portland Water Bureau and the Clackamas River Water District. A native of Tigard, Oregon, he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s in environmental engineering from Oregon State University.
He received a 2014 Award of Recognition for Service to the Water Profession from the AWWA and a 2005 Powell-Lindsey Citation for Outstanding Service from the Pacific Northwest Section AWWA. He is a registered professional engineer and certified water distribution and treatment operator in Oregon.
Making a difference
How did he decide on the water profession? “My father was an electrical engineer,” Knudson says. “He worked for a Portland-based consultant who designed water and wastewater facilities.” That gave him exposure to treatment plants and water management at an early age and led to his education in water engineering.
He has no regrets about his early career decisions. “The initial reward came through the technical side, optimizing treatment processes, increasing efficiency and performance, simplifying operations and improving reliability,” he says.
He was also motivated by the idea that wastewater treatment can make a difference in the environment: “Early in my career, I began to appreciate the public service nature of what we do. The experience at Cowlitz County allowed me to better appreciate the public health significance of the role of the treatment operator.”
As his career developed, Knudson was challenged by security issues around 9/11, and the need to harden facilities against the risk of major earthquakes in the Northwest. Now as general manager, he’s in a position to put all the pieces together: operations, engineering, environment, public service, public health and safety, and organizational management.
“He has extraordinary administrative skills,” says Jim Doane, who serves on the district board and has known Knudson for more than 30 years. “He has so many balls in the air. He has a good staff. It’s unusual to find someone with his credentials who has also been an operator. We go where he leads us.”
Security and 9/11
On Sept. 11, 2001, Knudson was director of operations and maintenance for the Portland Water Bureau. The terrorist attack changed his own and the entire water industry’s focus. “I was driving to work when I heard about the planes crashing into the towers,” he recalls. Immediately, his attention switched to security.
“We mobilized security, developed a command system, and implemented a security plan. Suddenly we recognized how precarious the water system could be, at Portland or anywhere.” At the time, Portland had large, open-water reservoirs. Recognizing their vulnerability, the bureau hired security services to monitor them. Over time, Portland formed its own security team to guard key facilities.
Oregon also needs to protect water systems against natural disasters, including earthquakes. Knudson helped lead development of seismic hardening plans for the state. He made presentations on the vulnerability of water systems before the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. And when the state legislature authorized preparation of an Oregon Resiliency Plan, Knudson became co-chair of the work team to identify seismic vulnerabilities and resiliency strategies for water and wastewater systems.
“Historically, the Northwest wasn’t considered especially vulnerable to a large earthquake,” Knudson says. “But recent research shows it’s at significant risk. It’s imperative that we plan for a magnitude 9 earthquake in the next 50 years in the Northwest. It would be similar to the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and the impacts on our communities would be catastrophic.
“We aren’t able to upgrade everything, so we focus on developing a resilient backbone of key facilities and pipelines that are designed to withstand such a quake. Pipelines represent some of the biggest challenges. They need special protection, especially at the joints.”
Knudson is putting his planning experience into practice as part of a new regional water supply program the Tualatin Valley district is managing. It’s a 100 mgd supply system that includes a treatment plant, transmission pipelines and reservoirs that will draw water from the Willamette River to supply the district and five other partnering agencies.
“Our district gets about half its water from the Portland Water Bureau, which is expensive, and much of that system was built before we understood the seismic risks,” Knudson says. The new system will take advantage of the district’s previous investment in an intake on the Willamette. The new supply system will cost about $1.2 billion and employ “awesome technology” to meet the region’s needs, Knudson says. The project must be operational by June 2026.
The success of the regional project has required open communication and cooperation. “It has been a six-way conversation,” Knudson says. “The secret to success is to be clear about our objective, and not get lost in the details. We’re providing a resilient source of water for generations to come.”
Reaching the public
Public outreach is one of the most important factors in the Willamette regional supply system and in successful water management overall, Knudson believes: “We need to be open and honest to maintain the confidence of our customers and the trust of our regional partners.”
He notes that people often don’t understand that basic services like firefighting require a safe, reliable municipal water system: “In the Portland area we average 37 inches of rainfall a year. Water falls from the sky and the public assumes it should be cheap. We need to continue to remind people that their public health and safety depend on clean water.”
Knudson observes that for years, the water industry has been a silent service: “We’ve done great work for decades, but haven’t talked about it.” He believes it’s time for the industry to speak up and share the good news by making better use of communication tools and strategies that respond to customers’ concerns and needs: “Use a video rather than a bill-stuffer.”
And focus on the value of water: “Water rates could triple and people would still pay less for it than for cable TV. We need to build support for the essential nature of our service. We can’t afford to wait for a disaster, like an earthquake, to begin making investments in reliability.”
Facing down challenges
Mark Knudson sees little difference between his personal and professional challenges: “I’ve done water management my entire life, and now they’re really one and the same.”
At the top of the list he puts partnerships with other water jurisdictions, followed by personnel, and then customer expectations. Historically, water supply has centered around independent systems that sometimes behave in a parochial manner.
Today, Knudson believes systems need to rely on multiple sources and interconnections to achieve the resiliency they need to continue providing quality water. That and the need for rate efficiencies are driving water agencies toward regional solutions.
“Technology is the easy part,” he says. “The real need is for cooperation and coordination among boards and councils of multiple jurisdictions. They need to surrender a little bit of control in order to achieve the greater public good.”
Finding great people is another challenge: “Good isn’t good enough. We need people who are bitten by the public service bug and get personal satisfaction from meeting a critical community need as opposed to receiving a big salary. We need to grow the future leaders and our industry.”
As for meeting customer expectations: “We tend to be a conservative industry and slow to change. At the same time, the expectations of our customers regarding billing, account access, updates and social media are evolving rapidly.”