Team Effort, 24-7. That Approach Means Success for an Oregon Clean-Water Utility

From team members to local groups to passionate members of the public, Diane Taniguchi-Dennis helps Clean Water Services forge ties that help protect the waters.

Team Effort, 24-7. That Approach Means Success for an Oregon Clean-Water Utility

Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, CEO, and Dennis Evans, electrician, at the motor control center cabinets (Eaton) at the Durham treatment plant.

“In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships,” wrote author and management consultant Meg Wheatley. 

The words aptly describe the work of Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, chief executive officer of Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Oregon. She encourages productive relationships among her management team and with everyone at every level in the utility.

“The team is everybody doing the work, delivering service 24/7,” she says. “It’s the operators, the mechanics, the electricians, the laboratory, the engineering and capital projects team, the business services team and all our staff working in the field to address the needs of our customers and restoring the watershed.”

She might add it’s also the community organizations and interest groups her organization collaborates with to protect the public health and the environment in the Tualatin River Watershed. For her leadership, she recently received the 2021 President’s Award from the WateReuse Association.

“Under her leadership, Clean Water Services has been a leader in water recycling for environmental restoration,” the association said. And while the award may have put her at the top of the list, she sees herself at the bottom of a pyramid that includes nearly team 400 members employees and serves more than 620,000 customers.

Fostering creativity

Taniguchi-Dennis says her role is fostering and supporting creativity and innovation among the utility’s employees. “Being CEO is all about people — incubating their talents and gifts and unleashing them. We really have a lean organization for all the customers we serve. And we have talented, well-trained senior team members who are great at their jobs. We have terrific people here.”

But it’s really the future she’s focusing on. “We’re doing a lot of work in performance excellence­,” she notes, referencing the Baldrige Excellence Framework for achieving great results. The key, she says, is to get everyone to buy in and embrace “a blueprint for innovation.”

She adds, “It’s all about where you want to be in 10-20 years, but to get there you have to backcast your steps. If you don’t know what future you want, you’re destined to stay where you are.”

Taniguchi-Dennis relies on something she learned as a young parent. Small children, she says, have an ability to think and tell you what they think: “They know how to add and subtract ideas between two people, how to combine. As adults we seem to have lost that joyful ability.

“Everyone has the gift of something to contribute. Our organization should be the place we come to learn and play with our ideas. The potential is unlimited. That’s the secret sauce I bring. It’s the hope and vision for the future of water and getting the team to understand it and make things happen.”

She calls it “I to Us to All”: developing creative and resilient people, who can create and solve problems on integrated teams, and who deliver as an organization what customers expect and need.

Meaningful alliances

Beyond the office, Taniguchi-Dennis believes it is critical to cultivate alliances with stakeholders: “We want to get our customers involved in our programs. We reach out to the public, to people who are passionate about our region. It’s the best way for them to learn about the importance of the Tualatin River and a healthy watershed.

We consult with our board-appointed Clean Water Services Advisory Committee. We work directly with our county and our 12 cities and integrate with their community development plans. We have worked to build relationships with our agricultural partners and with our soil and water conservation district. We need to know what farmers need to do well and how our work for the river can support their success.”

Because the Tualatin River is a salmon stream, state regulations call for a temperature of no more than 77 degrees F for effluent from resource recovery facilities. Through a partnership known as Tree for All, CWS works closely with landowners to bring shade to the riverbanks and cool the water. The program has seen over 14 million trees and shrubs planted so far, and it is widely supported by the public.

Taniguchi-Dennis says trees along the riverbanks are a better solution than expensive water chillers for the effluent: “Plus, what do chillers do to improve habitat and water quality, and help stabilize soil and prevent runoff and erosion?”

Another collaboration led to the cleanup of a several thousand acres of farmland contaminated by nutrient pollution after pumps failed and dikes were over-topped by impounded water. The site is now part of Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

A unique public-private partnership was involved, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, local and regional industry, public utilities and environmental organizations. The area is being restored as a wetland and contains a peat bog that Taniguchi-Dennis suggests might be restored to sequester carbon emissions in the future.

“It’s going to take all of us working on behalf of our watershed,” she says. “But we can do a lot when we work together. It’s the way we think.”

Cooperation like this goes back to the beginnings of CWS. The utility was formed in 1970, before the Clean Water Act, because pollution in the area was so significant. The state put a moratorium on development.

“There were 26 small treatment plants in the area, but they were not effective at controlling pollution,” Taniguchi-Dennis says. “By a 2-1 margin, the public voted to form a unified sewerage agency. The people created us. We were already working as a watershed protection agency when the federal regs arrived.”

The team, the future

Taniguchi-Dennis is proud of each of her team members. Key people include Nate Cullen, chief operating officer; Kathy Leader, chief financial officer; Mark Jockers, chief of staff: Jerry Linder, general counsel; Joe Gall, chief utility relations officer; and Jack Liang, chief strategy officer.

Early in the pandemic, Taniguchi-Dennis texted Dr. Ken Williamson, director of the research and innovation program, wondering if CWS could test for potential COVID in the community by sampling wastewater.

“Within a day he had figured out what we could do. He started working with Oregon State University and made it happen. Now we have a geneticist on staff. We have a genetics lab. We’re using sewage as an indicator of public health within our service area.”

Taniguchi-Dennis deeply appreciates her staff and recognizes that many will retire in the near future; there is a need for new blood. “It’s a significant challenge,” she says. “The baton needs to be passed to the next generation. It’s a changing of the water guardians.”

CWS has been able to attract young people: “We need them. They need to be grounded and know what they want to contribute to the public and the environment. They need to have gumption, not be afraid to share ideas and be part of the organization.”

Her swan song will be to create roadmaps based on all the scenarios her agency might encounter in the future: “My focus will be on developing a strong sense of purpose, a yes-we-can attitude not only in managing our assets but in creating transformative partnerships.” 

That will fulfill her hopes for the future of water and the environment.   


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