For Bill Gaffi, it's been a water world
Bill Gaffi has spent a lifetime thinking about water, doing something to improve it, and enjoying it as an avid canoeist, sea kayaker and whitewater rafter.
"I love to spend time on the rivers," he says. "I spend much of my time off floating on rivers."
On Aug. 31, after a half century of making cleaner water his profession — first at the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, then at Clean Water Services, 24 years as its fourth general manager — Gaffi will retire at age 70.
Even as Washington County's population doubled to almost 600,000 since Gaffi joined the agency in 1990, Clean Water Services has reduced pollution in the Tualatin River basin, once considered Oregon's dirtiest with thousands of violations of pollution standards. The agency has done so despite having fewer employees per 10,000 population than when Gaffi became its general manager in late 1994.
Janet Gillaspie, who retired in 2016 as executive director of the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies, has known Gaffi since she was at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and he was with the city of Portland.
"Bill has a unique combination of skills to be a top-notch water utility manager. One of them is his personal connection to water quality," she said. "You can see that when you are out on the water with him and can tell how much he puts protecting Oregon's water quality first."
Gaffi owns five canoes and three sea kayaks.
"Also, he is a top-flight water utility manager," Gillaspie said. "He has done so many creative out-of-the-box things that have returned dollars and investments to ratepayers. He's one of the best in the nation."
Gaffi has done more than upgrading the agency's wastewater treatment plants and operating them without violations during his tenure.
He instituted an extensive restoration of streamside habitat — a 2006 goal of 2 million trees within 20 years, and 2 million native trees, shrubs and grasses were planted in 2015 alone — and development of more than 700 acres of the Fernhill wetlands near Forest Grove, which act as a natural filter for treated wastewater.
The Durham and Rock Creek treatment plants also remove excess nutrients such as phosphorus, which is detrimental when there is too much of it, and recover it for a slow-release commercial fertilizer marketed as "Clean Water Grow."
Kris Balliet is executive director of Tualatin Riverkeepers, founded in 1986 when citizens sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and resulted in 1988 in the first pollution limits imposed by Oregon's DEQ on daily discharges into the Tualatin.
Balliet has been in her job eight months and described today's relationship as "a somewhat progressive partnership."
"I consider Clean Water Services a partner in our work to protect and restore the Tualatin River and the watershed," she said. "It takes all of us working together to keep this river clean, now that we have restored it back to something that we do not mind putting our children on a boat or letting them swim in it.
"Clean Water Services has definitely been innovative and creative under Bill's leadership. His being at the helm of the organization has led it to where it is today."
After earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington, Gaffi in 1971 joined the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, which treats wastewater and stormwater. He rose to chief of its environmental branch by 1990, when he became director of planning and engineering at Clean Water Services.
"I had accomplished a lot of what I wanted to accomplish in Portland," he said, particularly after the city council adopted a clean rivers plan. "Then the opportunity arose out here."
His career coincided with the Clean Water Act, which Congress passed in 1972 with the goals of making the nation's waters "fishable and swimmable" by 1983 and zero net pollution discharges by 1985. EPA set standards and delegated authority to the states.
"Even the major municipalities were not employing advanced technology. That really led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972," Gaffi said. "A lot of them were operating little treatment plants. It was not a good situation, and it was not feasible to do that."
In Portland, failing septic systems and resulting cesspools in mid-Multnomah County led to forced annexations into the city. Between 1984 and 1994, Portland installed sewer lines topping $250 million — but Gaffi said property owners resented it, and many still do.
"People were extremely upset," he recalled. "They were not interested in paying for sewers."
In Washington County, inadequate treatment plants led in 1969 to a building moratorium, which the state lifted in 1970 after voters approved the Unified Sewerage Agency and a $36 million bond to pay for new plants with greater capacity and upgraded technology. Durham opened in 1976 and Rock Creek in 1978. The others are in Hillsboro and Forest Grove.
County commissioners double as the governing board of the agency, which became Clean Water Services in 2001. The agency is separate from county government.
The agency's plants treat wastewater in three stages — not quite to drinking-water standards, but good enough for sensitive ecosystems — before it is discharged back into the Tualatin. That's about 60 million gallons every day.
"Still, when you look at the river basin as a whole, there are more than just the treatment plants," said Tony Weller, who leads the agency's budget committee, is a former Tualatin city councilor, and has known Gaffi since Gaffi's tenure in Portland.
Needs spur change
Gaffi said many of the innovations credited to him and the agency were practical solutions to difficult problems.
"Those actions resulted in savings to the ratepayers, and have a huge benefit for wildlife," Weller said. "It's cheaper than what the typical approach might have been had you just sought compliance with the permit."
• The planting of trees, shrubs and grasses helped restore streamside habitat and had the effect of lowering water temperatures throughout the basin. Even a few degrees are critical to fish and other aquatic life. "It will have effects on miles and miles of downstream river habitat, not just a tiny speck," Gaffi said.
• The development of Fernhill wetlands enabled the agency to filter treated wastewater naturally — Gaffi said wetlands are a feasible alternative for smaller communities with available land — and cool it without resorting to energy-guzzling chillers.
"Had we refrigerated the effluent, Mother Nature would have given us a dope slap," Gaffi said. "We would have had a huge carbon footprint. And we would not have solved the problem."
• The recovery of phosphorus for use as fertilizer enabled the agency to comply with stricter limits that otherwise were infeasible. "It was not for us to make a profit," Gaffi said, when the agency joined with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, based in Vancouver, Canada, for the initial test at the Durham plant in 2009. It was expanded to the Rock Creek plant in 2012. The technology is patented, but similar projects are underway elsewhere.
The agency also has responsibility for dealing with stormwater. Congress added that requirement in a 1987 change to the Clean Water Act. Most Washington County cities have chosen to delegate that task to the agency.
"Some people call it a rain tax," Gaffi said. "We are still wrestling with the problem, and there is no easy solution in sight."
One solution that is in sight, although still years away, is how to put more water into the Tualatin River.
On display in Gaffi's office — the agency is about two miles south of Hillsboro — is a photo of the Tualatin River at Farmington Road before the completion of Scoggins Dam and Hagg Lake in the mid-1970s. Gaffi said that after cities and farms drew their shares, "any other water left was poorly treated wastewater, so it was a mess."
A study is underway by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation about whether the earthfill dam should be rebuilt at its current site, or a new roller-compacted concrete dam should be built at a narrower point downstream where Stimson Lumber has a mill. The dam is among those considered vulnerable if a severe earthquake occurs off the Oregon coast.
Gaffi said the first alternative would double the amount of water in Hagg Lake; the second, triple it. Some extra water would be available to cities and farms during a drought.
Gaffi said there is much left to be done with the Tualatin and other watersheds.
He once described the problem this way when John Kitzhaber was governor in a third term.
"Our watersheds are like an emergency-room patient whose vital signs are failing, and the patient is being cared for by 25 specialists with little communication and no generalized plan of care," Gaffi said. "Then we wonder why the patient is not recovering."
When Gaffi became general manager in 1994, the agency faced rising costs, though it was on its way toward meeting pollution standards. He embarked on what he called "process re-engineering," which resulted in a reduced staff — about 20 percent fewer employees five years after he took over — and millions cut from the budget.
"Today we are providing a lot more services, and more frequent services, than we did 20 years ago — and we are providing them to 200,000 more people," he said. "We are doing it with fewer employees than we had 20 years ago."
The 2018-19 combined budget spends $197 million, $124 million of it for capital projects — compared with Gaffi's first budget of $57 million back in 1995 — and authorizes 355 positions, up from 335. When county growth is accounted for, the number of employees per 10,000 population has dropped from 8.7 to 5.9.
As a newly elected county commissioner, Andy Duyck had not yet taken office when Gaffi became general manager. Duyck, who is retiring from the county board after 24 years — the past eight as its chairman elected countywide — said Gaffi achieved something few public agencies ever do.
"Bill took a lot of hits to have a public agency do something where you basically strip it down to its core, ask what the key functions you are providing and how you can better provide them," Duyck said.
"He had a lot of backbone to do it, but it worked. The morale of employees went up, their production went up, and our (sewage) overflows and (pollution) noncompliance went down."
Potential contractors saw an opportunity back in the late 1990s to pitch county commissioners to take over the agency's functions — but after the agency completed the process, an analysis by an out-of-state firm concluded that a contractor could do no better.
"If they can run it better than we can, we ought to turn over the keys to them," Gaffi said.
"The mistake I made was that people would take seriously the fear of a private takeover. I came to the conclusion that what drove them was pride. They knew they were one of the best utilities in the country. So we rode that horse and recognized people for the quality of the work they have done and challenged them to do better."
Between that process and policy changes, Clean Water Services has acquired a national reputation. EPA has given it two national awards for its pretreatment programs. In 2016, the Water Environment Federation listed the agency among 61 in the United States, Canada and Denmark as a "utility of the future."
"It has allowed us to steal a lot of good people around the country," Gaffi said with a laugh.
When the chief executive of another utility urged Gaffi not to hire away staffers, Gaffi replied: "Don't expect an apology."
"You want to be the place where excellent people in your field want to work," said Gillaspie of the state association.
Gaffi also is a past board member of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. His deputy and successor effective Sept. 1, Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, is a current board member.
Bobby Cochran worked at the agency for five years before he became executive director of the Willamette Partnership, whose board Gaffi once led. The nonprofit has projects across Oregon and the West that Cochran said apply what the agency has done.
"He's been super-influential, but in a quiet way," he said. "Clean Water Services in Washington County does not get all the national attention that Seattle and Portland get. But they deserve it."
In retirement, Gaffi said he and his wife, Linda, plan to travel — they have acquired an Airstream trailer — and do more with their seven acres.
"We want to put in a little vineyard" and make some wine, he said. "That's a good way to lose money."
Brewing beer from treated wastewater
Bill Gaffi says he was taken aback when Clean Water Services embarked in 2014 on its first brewing competition using treated wastewater.
Agency spokesman Mark Jockers fielded questions called in from around the world about the competition, which has become an annual event — and copied elsewhere.
"The most remarkable thing about it is that it was totally unremarkable, because reuse is happening all over the world," Gaffi said. "But people do not know it. Most everybody is downstream from somebody else."
Or even above. Astronauts aboard spacecraft or the International Space Station rely on treating their own wastewater for drinking.
"A lot of communities are running out of water. They will get past this reticence due to need," Gaffi said. "Ultimately some jurisdictions are going to connect the pipes to the existing (water) distribution system."
That prospect is unlikely in the near future for the Tualatin River and its tributaries, Gaffi said, because the basin needs more water returned to it.
"Now I think people are becoming more comfortable with reusing effluent. It's a slow process to get people acclimated to doing it," he said. "But we wanted to help stimulate that conversation, so we started making beer from our highly treated wastewater.
"We applied even more technology to it — ridiculous, and frankly unnecessary, levels of technology," he said, to assure the public that the water is safe for human consumption.
— Peter Wong