Along the Delaware Day 4: An interview with Andy Kricun, U.S. Water Alliance, the Water Center and Moonshot Missions in Camden, NJ

Faces of Rivers: A profile series from American Rivers

This interview is part of the American Rivers’ Along the Delaware tour. Day four of the tour was in Camden, NJ.

American Rivers: Integrating green infrastructure practices into water infrastructure management is becoming the norm thanks in part to the innovative approaches of the Delaware River’s cities. How important do you think green infrastructure is to the successful sustainability of urban water management in these cities?

Andy Kricun: First of all, our focus on equity including water equity needs to be sharper. Between Covid and George Floyd, equity needs to be at the forefront of everything including water.

As for green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), I think it’s necessary and essential but not sufficient. That’s especially true for CSO communities like Philadelphia, Camden and Chester. When you have combined sewer it’s critical to minimize the stormwater going into these grossly undersized, anachronistic pipes. In Camden on a dry day there are 10M gallons in sewage, a good hard rainstorm generates 100M gallons a day and that means backups into basements and streets and rivers.

Stormwater management in Camden, NJ

So GSI was a critical part of our plan to reduce those overflows, and in PHL is the main component of their green city clean rivers plan. But in most cases you need green and gray infrastructure combined. It’s hard to accomplish with green only. But if you’re doing gray only, you’re making a mistake because you lose the triple bottom line benefits for communities, like green spaces and green jobs, as in the PHL and Camden PowerCorps programs where we leverage Americorps funding to hire at risk youth to maintain GSI.

AR: When we talk about sustainable water management today, we aren’t just talking about successful water treatment and delivery, we are including financial stability, affordability, equitable service and resiliency in the face of changing climatic conditions. How important have these factors been in cities like Camden where you led the city’s clean water programming?

AK: Given what’s going on with Covid-19 and the significant economic backlash that’s coming where utilities are already projecting 25–30% losses in revenue, and unemployment is higher than in 80 years, the idea of water affordability and equity is more important than it ever was. And given what’s going on with Mr Floyd and the national protests, the idea of equity is more important than ever.

During my time in Camden I learned that clean water utilities should be both clean water champions and anchor institutions in their communities. That’s my guiding principle, and it’s especially true in economically stressed communities. There’s a big difference between meeting your permit, and seeing meeting the permit as the floor and optimizing effluent quality, and doing as much good as you can in the community as you do so.

If you’re a public agency, public service is key. You have to stay within your legal lanes, but I believe you can intentionally widen that lane to accomplish your mission.

So for example, the City of Camden sewer system is owned by the city, not by the utility. So technically we had no obligation to maintain the sewers. But my view was if our aim is to maximize environmental and public benefits, we should take steps to minimize sewage overflows.

How can we say we’re a successful utility with regular sewage overflows? How can we say we’re a successful country with this kind of poverty and injustice? So in Camden, there’s a nexus. The sewer system is connected to the treatment plant, so anything we did to reduce flows also reduced the burden on the treatment plant. So we had a legal nexus to build GSI and green spaces, and for maintaining them, and for creating a program where youth from the community are hired to maintain them. It all starts with the intention: to accomplish a mission of being an environmental champion and and a community anchor institution.

So all that is important, but affordability is just as important. If you can do public good without raising rates, the barriers are much lower. Everyone loves to come to a ribbon cutting if there’s no rate increase. So I adopted the strategy of maximizing operational cost efficiency, accomplishing these things without raising rates. Over my time at the utility, we actually reduced rates 40% when adjusted for inflation. That can be done by becoming more efficient. We did that by using federal loan programs and improving our internal performance. We also lowered rates for the community that hosts the treatment plant. That’s about equity: if they are hosting the plant, they should pay a lower rate.

Solar panels along the Delaware River

On climate change, we know our water infrastructure is not up to managing the big storms we get now. So even if you don’t believe in climate change, we have to improve our infrastructure, and if the climate gets worse, even more so. It’s only responsible to prepare for that. In a CSO community we have to plan for more sewage overflows and more flooding and address that with GSI and improving our gray infrastructure.

The other thing that’s important is to make sure the treatment plant is more resilient against power outages. That’s a good idea from an energy efficiency perspective, from an emissions reduction perspective, and from a resilience perspective. Now, the treatment plant is off the grid and runs entirely on solar and biogas generated from the solid waste it treats. During Hurricane Sandy, when some plants were out for weeks, we were online, which is just another way to protect the Delaware River and our communities.

AR: Implementing green infrastructure programs requires integrated planning and community engagement. In Camden, who (what departments, organizations or leading individuals) have been critical to successful water infrastructure management?

AK: The most important thing is for water utility leaders is to believe they’re public servants, and to understand that their utility has a great power to affect the community for ill or for good. When I first started at the utility, the treatment plant was 100 yards away from residences and had no odor control. So that was indifference. We put in odor control and went from indifference to doing no harm. So that’s the first step. But that didn’t do good. So we worked to be a good neighbor by implementing local projects, and leveraging our power to bring good to the community. All the intentionality needs to go toward community and environmental benefit, and you have to be efficient along the way. And of course that’s a learning curve.

Phoenix park along the Delaware in Camden, NJ

The second thing that’s so important is sincerity and transparency. Once you decide you want to be an anchor institution, you need to be out in the community to hear the problems and address them. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit, like offering to be an outpost of government in the community.

In any community, even an affluent one, it’s not easy to get through to the roads department or the power company. But as the leader of utility, I can pick up the phone and reach someone immediately about a power outage or a road issue. We can be an advocate for the community getting its needs met. That’s how we go from hosting the wastewater treatment plant being a hardship to being a benefit. In Camden I gave out my cell phone number, and no one ever abused it. All that was our sweat equity and no cost, but really important. Once you decide your mission is to be an anchor institution, good things will come from it.

Another example is with poverty and unemployment. With boomers retiring, 30–50% of utility workers are eligible to retire. So we worked to create an employment pipeline from the community to the utility. The growing edge there is doing more training so community members can come in at a higher level than through our Americorps program. That will take more doing. But utilities across the country are doing it, from Buffalo to Seattle to Cleveland and many more. My new work at US Water Alliance is focused on making that approach the rule rather than the exception.

AR: What are the best take-a-ways and model programs that have evolved from your work in Camden and the programming in other key Delaware River cities that can serve as valuable lessons learned for cities across the nation?

AK: My first takeaway is based on a quote from George Eliot: “the greater good of the world is largely due to unhistoric acts of dedicated men and women.” I love that quote now, especially now as history is being made. It’s the common courtesies and people going the extra mile for their communities. If you are doing that, your work matters more than you will ever know. That’s an article of faith of mine.

Second, clean water utilities can and should be environmental champions and anchor institutions, that’s what we were created to do and should do.

Third, partnerships are so important. We have natural partnerships in the environmental and community service worlds, we should look to them to work with us, so they can see us as natural partners too. In Camden we created the Camden Collaborative Initiative of 60 environmental and community non-profits, from national to local. We all worked together to make up for Camden’s lack of institutional capacity, so with grantwriting, getting playground equipment, addressing illegal dumping, and working together on GSI and park projects. You can do so much more together than separately.

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