Tackling PFAS Is Just One of the High Priorities Faced Daily by This New Hampshire Operator

Brian Goetz counts dealing with a newly emerged pollutant as just one of the challenges he has faced in a successful 35-year water career.

Tackling PFAS Is Just One of the High Priorities Faced Daily by This New Hampshire Operator

From left, Mark Young, chief operator; Al Pratt, water resource manager; and Brian Goetz, deputy director of Public Works, adjusting the filter valve (Henry Pratt) operated by the AUMA actuator at the Portsmouth water treatment plant.

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Rising costs. Tightening regulations. New contaminants. Increased public scrutiny.

The water-wastewater profession faces significant challenges, notes Brian Goetz, deputy director of public works in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

He should know. His utility has been addressing PFAS contamination in a part of the city’s water supply since May 2014. Parts of the city’s water system are 200 years old. The high cost of housing and growing complexity of the jobs make it difficult to attract new qualified treatment operators.

And Goetz doesn’t sugarcoat his opinions: “I can’t think of any working profession that’s less understood today than water and wastewater treatment. I love my job, but there’s enough work here for two or three people.”


Goetz is from Ohio and earned his bachelor’s degree in technology from Bowling Green State University. Later, he obtained a master’s in environmental policy from Indiana University. All told, he has 35 years of experience in the water professions.

His first position was with Indiana American Water. Then, after several years in consulting, he took a position managing American Water operations at Hampton, New Hampshire. After that he worked as an engineering consultant around New England for eight years until Portsmouth hired him for his current role nine years ago.

Today, he is responsible for the city’s water, wastewater, and stormwater systems. His divisions consist of about 70 full-time equivalent staff members and combined budgets of over $35 million.


The Portsmouth wastewater system operates two plants. The smaller is at what was once the Pease Air Force Base, now home to businesses, the New Hampshire Air National Guard and two community colleges. Called the Tradeport, it employs more than 10,000 people.

The larger plant is on Peirce Island and was recently upgraded to 6.1 mgd, with biological air filtration and denitrification in a $100 million project. Considerable money has been spent separating storm and sanitary sewers, and effort that has reduced combined sewer overflows significantly.

The drinking water system draws about 65% of its supply from a reservoir and dissolved air floatation facility designed by Hazen and Sawyer  in Madbury; the rest comes from nine wells. Water for the Tradeport is treated in a plant on site.

The water system has about 8,500 residential customers and a number of large commercial and industrial users, including two electric power plants, two gypsum manufacturers and a large pharmaceutical company that now produces the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Residential consumption is only about 35% of demand.


In 2014, the city discovered that three of its wells were contaminated with PFAS and that one well exceeded the government’s health advisory for the compounds. That well was shut down. The likely source was fire fighting foam that had been used for years at the air base, not far from the water treatment plant.

As expected, the discovery created a media uproar. “We were on the forefront of the issue,” says Goetz. “We made the news on local and national TV networks.” While the Portsmouth utility was the first in its state with PFAS affecting wells, “we’re not alone now,” Goetz says.

Others can learn from the Portsmouth experience. The utility responded with what Goetz calls “aggressive forensics,” meaning the situation was thoroughly investigated and analyzed.

The effort involved a large team of people, including federal and state regulators, the U.S. Air Force’s civil engineering center, and various engineering consultants, who worked together to identify the fire retardants as the root cause of the contamination.

Then the team agreed upon a testing and treatment protocol that involved piloting granular activated carbon and ion exchange. In the interim, beginning in 2016, two of the contaminated wells were treated with GAC.

Ultimately, a $12 million GAC (Calgon Carbon) and ion exchange (ECT2) treatment facility was designed and constructed over two years and started up in April 2021. Over a four-week testing period, samples were collected weekly and analyzed for PFAS from each ion-exchange resin filter and from the GAC filters.

The well that had been shut down was reactivated later in 2021 after tests showed the new plant successfully removed PFAS. Today, using the EPA-approved Method 533, all the city’s water sources show PFAS levels well below the state maximum contaminant levels. Supply wells are sampled quarterly.

The Pease wells are sampled monthly, and sentry monitoring wells are tested quarterly to determine if any PFAS are moving toward the supply wells.

The PFAS treatment facility was designed in a partnership with Weston & Sampson, the city’s engineering consultant, through an agreement with the Air Force. Extensive piloting and analysis assured that the facility would treat for PFAS and be there in case other contaminants from the former air base should affect the wells.

So far, says Goetz, no other water-quality parameters appear to be affected by this change in the supply to Tradeport customers. The facility recently received an Engineering Excellence Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies of New Hampshire.

Goetz emphasizes that water utilities need to move quickly and not wait for the regulators: “Sample now. Years later, you don’t want to have something show up that you didn’t sample for, just because it wasn’t yet required.”


The PFAS contamination and subsequent treatment plan required a major communication effort with the public and the news media. The utility developed practices that continue today across all water related-issues and have helped the utility win awards for public involvement and outreach from the New England Water Works Association.

Goetz has spoken “more times now than I can count,” to the news media, at conferences, and at public meetings about PFAS and the Pease solution. The city recently created a Safe Water Advisory Group co-chaired by Goetz to make sure citizens have input and access to information about the city’s water supply.

A citizen advisory panel works on potential health effects of PFAS, including health studies and blood testing. The Air Force has reactivated its Restoration Advisory Board, which meets quarterly to review cleanup efforts at the former air base.

All test results are posted on the city’s website and are included in regular, updated water quality reports, also circulated publicly. Goetz prefers to communicate on the website as opposed to social media, which he considers to be more “of the moment.” However, the utility has developed an Instagram presence, @ThinkBluePortsmouthNH, which includes instructive videos about water quality and efficiency, and highlights the city’s stormwater program.

Goetz is proud that all data and information transmitted to the public comes from the utility itself: “We haven’t used any outside PR firm. We’ve done it all ourselves, and most every photo or written document is from us. It’s been a team effort. We are fortunate to have a great support staff willing to step up and do things beyond their day-to-day job descriptions.”


That includes media relations. Goetz says the key is honesty, but it’s not always easy. For media inquiries, “If you’re on the phone, at your desk, you can pull up information on your computer. Out in the field, it’s more difficult.” When questions from a reporter are emailed, he can better answer them and make sure he quotes the information correctly: “This is especially important when you are working in the parts per trillion.”

Portsmouth also relies on press releases, which are effective although old school.

Information gaps present difficulties, Goetz notes. Early in the PFAS experience, utility representatives could only talk about what they knew.

“Not much was known or available about PFAS eight years ago,” he says, and the sample methods were less advanced than today. Past sampling for PFAS might have registered nondetect, but samples now show detection due to improved laboratory methods. And sometimes utilities are at the mercy of regulations.

“The public may think that suddenly we’re out of compliance on some parameter, when what’s actually happened is that authorities have lowered the standards. The amount of contaminant hasn’t changed, just the acceptable level.”


The Portsmouth water utility engages with the public in other ways. Customers like its Water Efficiency conservation effort. “We’re really proud of what we’re doing, and we get good feedback from our customers,” Goetz says.

 “A gallon of water saved is a gallon that the city doesn’t have to find, produce, treat and test,” says the utility’s website. It also doesn’t require maintenance. The program, in place for over 10 years, has included water conservation kits, rain barrels, leak detection, automatic meter reading, the U.S. EPA WaterSense program, and water efficiency rebates. Tiered water rates charge large volume users more than those who use less.

 The program has delivered results: Residential water usage has dropped 21% since the program started. “We’re the first and still the only water system in New Hampshire doing this,” Goetz says. “There’s no better way to be conservative than to preserve our water and natural resources. Why use six gallons to flush a toilet when you could use only 1.6 gallons?”


 In reflecting on his career, Goetz can look upon 35 years of management and consulting experience in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah and Indiana. His recent work has encompassed long-range planning, water demand analysis, supply and source management, financial capacity and regulatory compliance issues.

 He is a past president of the New Hampshire Water Works Association, a member of the state’s Seacoast Drinking Water Commission and the state’s Drought Management Team, and a member of the New England Water Works Association Water Resources Committee.

 As much success as Goetz and Portsmouth have had, he has concerns about the future of water and wastewater management and is not shy about voicing them. “The industry is getting increasingly complex,” he says. “It’s not one size fits all and it certainly isn’t what it was when I started 35 years ago.”

Maintaining infrastructure can be expensive: 72% of the utility budget goes to capital investment and operating expenses, while 28% goes to personnel. “Everything we do now has to be better than what we’re replacing,” says Goetz. “We may have pipes that were originally in the middle of nowhere. Now they’re surrounded by buildings, roads and other utilities.” Replacing them is costly.

 As illustrated by the PFAS issues, regulatory requirements are tightening and will continue to do so, Goetz believes. Additional testing adds cost. After decades of indifference, the public is paying more attention to water and wastewater utilities.

 Finding qualified operators able to deal with such complexity is not easy. The work also requires constant attention: “If you have an emergency on a Friday night you can’t wait until Monday to fix it.”

 Having faced down many of these challenges, Goetz is proud of years in the profession and the strides his utility has made, but he warns, “I don’t see the situation changing in the future.”  


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