Boston's Water Agency Earns Plaudits for Improving Operations, Fiscal Responsibility and Public Outreach

The award-winning Boston Water and Sewer Commission outperforms standards in providing excellent drinking water and services.

Boston's Water Agency Earns Plaudits for Improving Operations, Fiscal Responsibility and Public Outreach

John Sullivan, chief engineer with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission

You won’t find a treatment plant at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. You will find a highly dedicated operations team that serves more than a million people. 

Some 450 team members maintain 1,000 miles of water pipes and 1,500 miles of stormwater and drainage lines. They are responsible for maintenance and emergency repairs to the water and sewer mains, service connections, hydrants and drains.

Their success comes from ongoing training and capital improvements. They are strongly committed to education and environmental protection. Sustainability is a priority, and so is maintaining predictable rates. Challenges include rain events and stormwater management, along with a pipe replacement program.

The commission has received awards for drinking water quality and for sustainable operations and community outreach. These include an Outstanding Performance Award for drinking water from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in 2017.

In 2018, the commission received a Sustainable Water Utility Management Award from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. That award recognized improving operations, maintaining fiscal responsibility, and increasing public awareness to improve water quality and protect the environment.

Much improvement

The commission was established in 1977 to maintain and improve the quality and reliability of water, sewer and stormwater services in the city of Boston. Governed by a three-member board, the commission’s main goals are efficient delivery of service, cost control and environmental protection.

The potable water distribution system serves 670,000 residents and 600,000 daily commuters in Boston’s 48 square miles. Treated water comes from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority through 29 metered connections at various delivery points. Raw water is drawn from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs and the Ware River.

The Operations Department handles the maintenance and operability of the water, sewerage and drainage infrastructures. Team members perform preventive maintenance and emergency repairs to water mains, service pipes, hydrants, gates, valves, catch basins, manholes, sewers and storm lines. They also maintain the materials and equipment inventory, fleet vehicles, buildings and properties, and administer the cross-connection control and grease trap inspection programs.

Overseeing all this is John Sullivan, chief engineer, who has been with the commission since the beginning. “The cast iron pipes date back to 1848,” he says. “When the commission was formed in 1977, the pipes were in bad shape. Since then, our capital improvement program has rehabilitated 95 percent of the water system infrastructure, by a process of cleaning and cement lining.”

Aggressive leak detection/repair and progressive metering programs continue to reduce unbilled and unaccounted-for water. The commission initiated several meter programs, switching to smaller meters and installing smart meters (Aclara).

Highly decorated

Besides the awards mentioned earlier, the commission has won others, including:

2018 National Environmental Achievement award for operations and environmental performance, National Association of Clean Water Agencies

2017 STAR L (Systems Taking Action to Reduce Lead), state DEP.

The commission also won the 2017 New England’s Best Drinking Water Taste Test competition held by the New England Water Works Association. It was ranked highest in customer satisfaction in the Northeast by J.D. Power in its 2018 water utility residential customer satisfaction study.

Sullivan believes the commission won these awards for doing better than the standards. “DEP looks at performance and whether you have any violations,” he says. “They look at your cross-connection programs and whether you protect public health. We survey buildings to make sure no one is changing the plumbing. Our leak detection program has reduced leaks to 8 percent. It used to be 50 percent.”

The commission has replaced all lead pipes in its public water mains. “We do more than is required,” Sullivan says. “The STAR L award acknowledged our collaboration with the city’s public schools and our efforts in the community to protect children from the dangers of lead.” 

The lead replacement incentive program encourages property owners to replace lead water services. “We give them a credit up to $2,000 toward the cost of replacement, and the ability to pay interest-free over 48 months.”

Dedicated team

Of the commission’s 450 team members, 206 work in operations, including water and sewer and support people. Most laborer positions are equipment operator, service repair and service repair foreman. “Some specialize in water or sewer, but they all have to take training classes in both and they are able to work on both if a situation requires it,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan has 46 years in the industry and certifications in water treatment and distribution. “My father retired as chief engineer at the commission after 40 years, and my grandfather before him retired after 52 years as division engineer,” he says. “I have replaced pipes that my grandfather put in.” As chief engineer, Sullivan oversees 90 people and all consultants. He reports to Henry Vitale, commission executive director.   

Reporting to Sullivan is Paul Canavan, director of operations, who has been with the commission for 22 years and oversees four superintendents. He holds Grade 4 water distribution and Grade 2 water treatment licenses.

Sullivan credits the staff with keeping customers happy: “Our customers expect a lot. Every customer has unusual conditions and needs, and every problem is different. Our people have to face that situation, so empathy is important. We have some remarkable people who do a great job.”

The commission believes in employee recognition. Each quarter, an All-Star Award goes to a team member. Employees may nominate a co-worker; a call for nominations is sent by email and is posted on three digital signs around the facilities. The executive director chooses the winner. Award criteria includes creative problem-solving skills, enthusiasm, commitment to teamwork, and resourcefulness.

“Most people love their jobs here,” Sullivan says. “We know that our guys will jump in a hole full of water when it’s freezing outside and it’s the day before Christmas. That shows all the commitment I need to see.”

Sustainable rates

Sullivan feels the commission’s greatest achievement is keeping rates low by planning for improvements and spreading the costs out over time: “We take care of business in the most cost-effective manner possible. That allows us to keep rate increases under 5 percent. We have very few people showing up at our rate meetings.”

The greatest challenges are rain events and dealing with stormwater. “During a small rain event, we drain to the ocean,” Sullivan says. “For extreme events, our emergency preparedness plan ensures that we have the right personnel and equipment available.” The staff checks storm drains in low-lying areas to make sure they are free of debris and free-flowing. There are flap gates in flood-prone neighborhoods. Tide gates are inspected monthly, regardless of weather.

An ongoing challenge is pipe replacement. Sullivan says, “We have televised every sewer pipe, so we know what shape they are in. We continually need to upgrade; it’s a never-ending program. It’s the same with the water pipes. Even though our leak detection program has dramatically reduced leaks, it’s like a weight-loss program — you have to keep after it or it comes back.”

Educating the public

The commission is deeply involved in education. A full-time education coordinator, Adriana Cillo, presents daily to classrooms, senior housing residents and community groups. She also leads youth and adult volunteers in a citywide storm drain stenciling program. Participants mark storm drains with decals that remind residents that the drain leads to a waterway.

The commission works with river associations and makes grants available that help them educate the public. The commission also partners with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on community education.

The commission’s water truck is another community service. “It allows us to distribute our tap water to Boston residents and visitors attending events and walking through the city,” Sullivan says. The truck has six taps for filling water bottles, four drinking fountains and two doggy bowls.

The truck is featured at community events and social functions: “It’s especially good in warm weather since the water is chilled. In fact, we are the only source of freshwater at the Esplanade on July 4, where people are sitting out in the heat waiting for the Boston Symphony to perform.”

Sullivan sees a bright future for the commission but sees a challenge in climate change: “We know we will get bad storms from which we will have to recover in 24 hours and get right back to normal. But I’m confident that we will make it.”


Fixing the leaks

At the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, leak detection teams have played a major role in greatly reducing unaccounted-for water. Leak detection has also helped prevent potential paralysis of busy areas and essential services in the city.

In November 2017, a commission leak detection team responded to reports of water entering a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority vent. Led from headquarters by Roodly Dorleans, manager of field engineering, leak detection and dye testing, the team went to work.

They surveyed the area, a busy street near City Hall, with a real-time digital leak noise correlator (DigiCorr from Itron) and quickly identified a compromised 16-inch water main. A dig crew immediately excavated, found the leak and replaced rotting bolts that secured a coupling. If that water main had given way, the shopping district known as Downtown Crossing, and the area’s two major Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority routes, would have been severely affected.



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