Water Wisdoms | August 2023 Newsletter
Summer of Giveaways Concluding with Willamette River Fest!
The MWMC's annual Summer of Giveaways is concluding with Willamette River Fest! We are giving away entries to the PaddleCross Challenge, with an included rental of a paddle board courtesy of Willamalane Park and Recreation District. You can enter by following the MWMC on social media and liking one of the contest posts. Willamette River Fest will be on August 27 at Alton Baker Park. Be sure to come see us there at the MWMC table!
Facility Resilience Inspection
The MWMC's regional wastewater treatment plant is approaching 40 years of operation! It's a huge anniversary, but it's also time for a check-up on some of our hard-to-access infrastructure. We began this process in the last week of July, and it will continue through this autumn. Treatment plant staff worked with engineering consultants last month to stop all flow into the plant for a few brief periods in the early morning, allowing us to pump all the water out of hard-to-access places for inspection. This included our primary effluent channel, our plant effluent channel, and the outfall structure.

Our consulting team brought in trained divers who suited up in protective gear to be able to access the bowels of the plant. We brought all hands on deck to monitor the water levels while the plant was offline and make sure that we had sufficient time to perform the inspection, and the divers were able to complete their walk through safely before we resumed normal plant operations.
Wally the Waterdrop: MWMC's New Mascot
If you follow the MWMC on social media, you've probably seen our recurring segment #WednesdaysWithWally the past few months! Our communications team developed a concept for an MWMC mascot last winter, and in the spring they began introducing him on social media!
(Concept art from Wally's development.)
Wally is a Waterdrop whose home is the Willamette River, and he goes on adventures in Eugene and Springfield, learning about the natural and urban water cycles along the way. He is intended to be an educational tool for the MWMC, especially to help connect with children. Expect to see lots more of our mascot: Wally the Waterdrop!
Meet Todd Miller: Environmental Services Supervisor
How long have you been working for the City of Springfield/MWMC?
I’ve been working for the Environmental Services Division for – it’ll be 16 years this fall. I started out as an Assistant Project Manager. I work on MWMC projects under the Capital Improvements Program, leading up the policy, support, and planning end of things. When I first started at the City of Springfield in 2007, I was mainly doing City of Springfield projects. The first project I did, which was really fun, was the Mill Race Restoration. Then because I had a background in working in some forestry and watershed issues and similar types of larger scale water quality viewpoints, I was tapped to help MWMC with sustainable harvest of the poplar farm, which is basically still a full-time job for me. And then leading up recycled water development and looking into whether we could launch the riparian shade program. So those projects were all handed off to me when I got here, and they’re all still here 15 years [later].

Over the years you’ve gotten to see the results of your work on the Mill Race restoration and planting. What’s that been like to see the gradual process of improvement there? Is it rewarding?
Definitely. More than rewarding, I think it’s a necessary boost, because these projects are on such long timelines, and they take all these partnerships and working through the bureaucracy and the permitting and everything else to actually see a project get launched on the ground and then get established long enough to make a meaningful difference. So it’s huge for me. I love going out there and taking a walk or a bike ride on the Mill Race path and just seeing that. Or going out to Clearwater Park and going, “Alright, this is cool. This was really hard work when we were doing it.” And you can see the changes. You can see where beaver have moved in and there are fish swimming around now and the community out there enjoying it.
These projects sound like they can take a real toll on you when you’re in the middle of them. So what’s the typical work day like for you?
I’d say even when I’m working from home, about 50 percent of the time I’m on the phone or in a meeting with someone. It’s just a ton of email, way too much contracting, talking with lawyers, going through all the regulatory requirements between the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and our procurement rules, so there’s a lot of navigation of the bureaucratic end behind the scenes. Then there’s the fun part for me, which is talking with the partners. I’m kind of a data geek. I love a good problem, I love kind of looking at the data and trying to find the patterns, trying to find the solutions and then mixing and matching. How about this alternative? Will this work well for people? Can we bring in this new concept or this new idea? So it’s maybe a mix of 50 percent tedium and 50 percent super enjoyable innovation.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Ultimately, it’s the creativity. I love problem solving, I love throwing new ideas out there: innovating. I feel blessed that I’ve got a job where I’m able to do that, to think outside the box a little bit. And I really enjoy working with other people who are super energized and passionate about their work. That’s just as tremendous.

When did you first realize you were interested in data analysis, and what do you like about it?
I think that’s always been in my nature, just this real combination of science/tech nerd, and visionary outdoor-loving, wanna-get-out-there-and-make-a-better-world type of thing. I started my career 35 years ago working with my local county health department doing environmental inspections and water quality. So that was super bureaucratic: basically just going and checking the boxes, looking for sewer leaks, making sure that the tap water was safe, and that type of stuff. After my undergraduate degree, I started working in California doing soil and groundwater cleanup work. That was way different in many ways, but similar in that I got into computer modeling of aquifers. I had to do assessments of soil cores and then piece together what the three-dimensional landscape in the subsurface looked like. So that’s out there getting your hands dirty and then crunching the numbers and figuring out the puzzle, and both of those appeal to me. It’s a good mix.
I’ve also seen you engage community partners at every turn. Have you always been a people person?
I would’ve never guessed 30 years ago that I love doing what I do in terms of the relationships and the relationship building. When I went to grad school at the U of O, I went specifically [because] I really liked what I was doing for the environment, but I didn’t like that a lot of the work I was doing was very litigious in nature. There were a lot of meetings with sides of deniability, lawyers involved, client versus regulator, butting heads, and I was like, “There’s gotta be a better way to do this. I’m seeing a lot of money wasted on inaction rather than collaboration.” So in my graduate program I continued to focus on water and resource science coupled with public policy, planning, and communications. From that I launched off and became Executive Director of the Siuslaw Watershed Council, and that job requires that you are engaged with the stakeholders, from environmental activist groups to timber companies to local ranchers to fishers to just the local residents in any particular area.

Have you seen a shift away from the adversarial nature of environmental regulation over your career?
Yes and no, and it’s a weird kind of world where we [MWMC] are a regulated entity. The Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies (ACWA) 30 years ago was really visionary and smart, because we’re basically now a state-leading organization collaborating with DEQ. Right now we have a good relationship, to the fact that we [ACWA and DEQ] collaborated on passing legislation this last year for rulemaking that’s going to work best for the communities. I am going to say that I’m aware, because I came from the environmental movement fabric myself, anytime a regulated entity is working hand-in-hand with the regulator, it smells fishy. But in this case we are part of the clean water solution.

It’s not wastewater 50 years ago, where raw wastewater is getting discharged to the river. Communities now are fully engaged and part of protecting the water. We can’t allow the community’s waste impact the environment, so we’re going to capture it, treat it, and what’s exciting now is not doing it all through all that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mechanical treatment, but integrating all of those watershed processes right into the fabric of the community. I think that’s super important. So there is a lot of collaboration. So DEQ, a lot of times staff says, “We really want to work with you guys. We want these best outcomes, but our hand is forced. We have to do X, Y, or Z.” And that’s why the project work I’m doing with ACWA is so important. It’s how we help DEQ help us better. It is pretty collaborative.

And in this case it’s explicitly about doing something that’s better for the environment. You won the ACWA 2023 Outstanding Individual Award. My understanding is you won because you helped develop a model that allows utilities to demonstrate that replanting trees to shade rivers does a better job lowering river temperatures than building industrial cooling structures?
Yeah that’s a fair assessment, and it’s a combination of all the work I do, helping with the Water Quality Committee, and developing some of those, you know. I got pulled pretty strongly as the technical lead on the ACWA project, because I was already doing a lot of similar or complementary work for the MWMC’s upcoming temperature issue.

We’ve been waiting for the permit renewal basically for my entire career here, which just came out in 2022. Through that work that we did in advance, we had done all the looking at the riparian shade and water quality trading to have it in our permit. The riparian shade program that we have came out of a broad array of potential options or alternatives that we could’ve implemented. We’re still looking at recycled water, which can have thermal load benefits, but also has all these other community and water resource benefits, particularly with the longer, hotter, drier summers that we’re seeing.

Then to be fair, we look at alternatives analysis. What if we do standard technological treatment? Which would be a cooling tower. We did want to calculate what would a cooling tower do, would it actually cool the water, would it be effective, would it work year-round, how much would it cost, etc. I still need to put all that information together just for the record, but we had enough information to know that it wouldn’t be something that we want to build, and if temperatures get too warm it’s not going to be effective anyways; it’s going to be a piece of obsolete infrastructure.

The big thing for us comes in October when the cold-water criterion for salmon spawning hits, and so the salmon need really cold water. The regulation’s written to protect that really cold-water environment, but if you’re having summer-like weather rolling into that October period, you’re gonna have temperature problems, no matter how good your treatment plant is. So do you cool it, or do you restore the watersheds that are allowing those waters to heat up rather than cool down? That’s kind of how we did that.
I was already developing the spreadsheet, number-crunching for the MWMC, so I’d already done a lot of cost estimating on riparian shade projects, and really understood what it took to do riparian shade projects because we’d already launched several pilot projects. Carbon footprint alone is a humongous difference, and the riparian shade just keeps paying dividends. Every year, it just keeps getting better and better, and a cooling tower just uses more and more energy and concrete and steel.
Can you explain what riparian restoration and riparian shade are?
“Riparian” just means “streamside”, so streamside trees. And if you stand under a tree on a hot day, you know that’s a really good place to be. The tree’s blocking that solar heat from entering the water body when it’s shading the stream. Fish will gather in the shade, but it also helps the water not heat up moving downstream. So if you can restore lengths of streamside trees and keep that heat from entering the river, you’ve created really good habitat there, and you’re also keeping the river cooler as it goes downstream. And by DEQ’s own assessments, 90 percent of the Willamette’s heating is from the loss of natural riparian shade that we used to have pre-settlement.

Can you describe a little bit of the history of how settlement affected Oregon’s rivers?
If you’ve ever bushwhacked your way through a fairly wild stream or river system, you know it’s difficult. It’s hard. You want to be able to navigate or paddle your canoe without a bunch of trees or stuff through there. You want to be able to get your livestock up to water. You might want to farm closer to the edge, where the water is. So we were immensely successful at destroying the river’s natural system in order to shape it for our own needs. The Willamette, like a lot of river systems in Oregon, didn’t have one single channel. It had multiple channels. There was no one, single, definable Willamette: it was just a big kind of braided river system across a large part of the valley bottom with flood plains, probably a lot of beaver dams, and trees. That created these pockets of cold water and just kept the system cool and full of great habitat features throughout.

So when we started altering that system, water started moving faster, it started scouring channels, it started to lose floodplain connection, you started to lose your shading. Wood was removed so you could navigate ferry boats up and down the river, which was great for commerce, but turns out not so great for fish in the long run. All of those things contributed over time to not having that cold water reservoir that slowly releases cold water in the summer. Now you just have an open channel that heats up in the summertime.

Outside of work, what do you like to do?
Well, I’m also a big change-agent at home. I love doing home remodeling. I’ve got a property that I’ve been remodeling in some way or another for 20 years, much to my wife’s chagrin. I always see that opportunity of, “Ooh, what if we did this?” We’ve done cool things like put in gray water lawn irrigation, a living roof over our barbecue patio, and a rain garden for our gutter water. I also love the community and communal living. I’ve got a rental situation where we’ve got one communal area for three families that all share a garden space and a recreation space, and our dogs run together. So that’s a really good lifestyle. And I just love being out on the trails and the paths, particularly on my bike.

You can learn more about Todd's work on the MWMC's website!
Pollution Solutions
They might make it down the drain of your toilet, but wipes can cause huge problems for wastewater systems. Wipes don't dissolve in water the same way toilet paper does and can break wastewater pumps, potentially causing backups and costly repairs. That's why it's important to only flush the Three P's: pee, poop, and toilet paper! Always put wipes where they belong: in the trash.
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