Michael Mucha, the Chief Engineer and Director for the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD), has bi-coastal experience as both an educator and administrator. Prior to his current role in Wisconson, he's worked in both Olympia, Washington, and Reading, Pennslyvania. This structural engineer by degree explains how a job as a civil engineer completely changed his career trajectory.
Michael discusses the challenges faced by MMSD, including maintaining public confidence, an affordability dichotomy, and decarbonization. He also identifies efficiency opportunities for MMSD, including adaptive strategies, sustainable infrastructure, consolidation, and automation. Mucha emphasizes the importance of focusing on public health as a solution to water quality issues, rather than just building bigger treatment plants. He also discusses the proactive approach MMSD is taking to manage their infrastructure and collection systems, including the use of real-time data and technology. According to our guest, 70% of reductions in greenhouse gases come from day-to-day operational decisions.
Michael's answer to Mahesh's question about the talent gap differs from previous guests. He actually talks about successes they've had in recruiting.
Finally, Mucha emphasizes the importance of building public trust through sustainability and leaving a legacy of a trustworthy and effective government. His personal mission statement is "building public trust through sustainability." He explains what goes into that.
Michael Mucha's Bio on the MMSD Website: https://www.madsewer.org/who-we-are/district-leadership/
Aquasight Website: https://aquasight.io/
Mahesh: Well, good morning, good afternoon, good evening. I'm with Michael Mucha, Chief Engineer and Director for the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District. MMSD, as it's called, is a regional utility that shares 25 owner communities serving over 400,000 connections throughout Dane County, Wisconsin. Michael is also into teaching and is an instructor at Edgewood College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to that, he was a director of public works in the city of Olympia, Washington, and city of Reading, Pennsylvania. Well, Michael has East Coast, West Coast, Midwest experience and is both an administrator and educator. It's a rare combination. I'm really looking forward to this discussion. Welcome, Michael.
Michael: It's great to be here, Mahesh.
Mahesh: I want to get right into it. How did your career evolve into where you are today?
Michael: Well, I think your careers always take turns and things go to where you don't think you're going to go. I went to engineering school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and got a good degree in structural engineering. As I graduated and got out of school, I envisioned myself building big bridges and designing them, but there weren't any jobs available. I took a job with a local community city of Mequon and became a civil engineer. I was immediately thrown into problems. One of the most memorable one was the entire community was on groundwater wells and subdivisions had their own wells. Each subdivision and one subdivision ran out of water.
I had to find a solution to that problem and worked with a neighboring subdivision that had their own well and developed a system to pipe water from one subdivision and transfuse water into the other. Dealing with that problem really, I was hooked on two things from that experience. One, how precious water is and how we take it for granted. Two, the power of working in public service and really making a difference. I never got that job being a structural engineer. I've been in local government and in regional government ever since and it's been in the '80s.
Mahesh: It's fascinating because you plan to be an engineer, but you became a problem solver, which is exciting because that's essentially what leadership is. To solve problems.
Michael: It is, and you come out and almost always you don't win the hearts and minds of people through the best technical solution. You have to connect with people and learn and be able to advocate for something and communicate what you're doing. All those skills about collaboration and working with people were not part of the engineering curriculum. It was the technical elements. Those are the things that I've still been learning over the last 35 years and still trying to refine and hone my skills.
Mahesh: Fascinating. Madison, Madison is a beautiful city. I partly know it because my oldest son graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison but with regards to MMSD, can you provide a fact sheet on the district that you lead and what is your biggest challenge?
Michael: We serve, as you said, 25 owner communities, and we're just a wastewater utility. We're interestingly in an area that's very water-rich versus other communities I've worked for around the country. Folks don't think of water as necessarily a precious resource in terms of conservation because we have the Madison lakes around us but people love water because water and lakes are very important to water. It's this really interesting awareness, not awareness about the importance of water. That's part of who we are.
If you ask the question, what are our biggest challenges? I think that the biggest one is maintaining public confidence and trust in the face of three big issues that we're really dealing with now. One is this affordability dichotomy, as I call it. We have the issue of aging infrastructure and having to refurbish our infrastructure without federal funds, which the whole system was based on. That requires us to increase our service charges and rates. We need more money to afford what we're doing but the other side of affordability is the equity piece.
There are sectors of our population that are already making decisions every day, whether they spend money on food or pay their utility bill. How do you do that and satisfy both those affordabilities in the work we're doing? The second piece of this to enhance public trust, or the challenge we have is this issue of non-stationarity. When I went to engineering school, all of our standards and principles of engineering are based that future operating conditions will be the same as today.
When you design for a 100-year storm, a 100-year storm, 20 years from now will be the same as today but we all know with climate change that we're living in a world where we cannot assume future operating conditions. So we're in a nonstationary situation where our codes, our engineering standards, our practices that are based on assumptions of what the world is like will not be relevant 20 years from now. We have to bring that and incorporate that in how we design infrastructure and move forward.
Then finally, the third is decarbonization. Wastewater treatment operations, unfortunately, are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Madison, for example, our sewage treatment plant. We're the 18th largest consumer of electrical energy in the Madison gas and electric service area. Also, we have process gases that emit or that discharge through just our treatment process that are potent greenhouse gases. One could say that we're one of the largest polluters in terms of carbon and other gases. These are the things that, to maintain public confidence and trust, we have to be able to address affordability, non-stationarity, and decarbonization.
Mahesh: Fascinating three points. It's amazing the environment in which you have to design in the future is constantly changing, and you have to evolve your standards. I want to talk about you have about $80 million of expenses. 40% goes to capital, 40% to O&M 20% for debt service. Based on the research, hopefully, I got the numbers right. Where do you see the efficiency opportunities for your organization?
Michael: There are five areas where I see efficiency opportunities and I'm going to hierarchy these in order of the ones that I think that have the biggest impact. First is, adaptive strategies versus hard infrastructure. That is working outside our fence line to reduce pollution before it comes to us because once our water is polluted, it's very expensive and energy-intensive to clean it. Through our efforts such as chloride minimization, working upstream on water softeners and other programs, and a program called Watershed Adaptive Management, where instead of removing phosphorus at the treatment plant at super low levels, we are working with farm producers on reducing phosphorus runoff into streams.
The Chloride program and our Watershed Adaptive Management programs alone have saved our ratepayers and will save our ratepayers $500 million just on using behavioral practices and changing practices upstream and that is just hugely important. We have more things coming. Pharmaceuticals. We're not regulated for pharmaceuticals yet we have tested our wastewater for pharmaceuticals. The highest concentrations of pharmaceuticals are those related to high blood pressure, stress, and anxiety. I ask you, is a bigger treatment plant the solution to that problem? Or should we be focusing on things such as public health as a solution to water quality? Those are the things we're starting to think about.
Adaptive strategies are key to keeping our rates stable and finding efficiencies. The other thing is in operations we have a program called Reliability Centered Maintenance. This is really focusing on scheduled work versus non-scheduled work. When things break and we have to drop everything we're doing to fix things, that is extremely inefficient versus trying to schedule our work and replace infrastructure and equipment before it breaks but that's a whole program and a culture change for us in terms of how we look at our work, how we schedule our work, and how we prioritize work.
Reliability center maintenance is a really second biggest impact on our efficiency. The third is sustainable infrastructure. Sustainable infrastructure is more about doing the right project instead of doing the project right. Mahesh, are you at all familiar with the Envision Rating System from ISI?
Michael: For those listening on this podcast, Envision is very similar to the lead rating system. Some of you may be familiar with it, except Envision is for horizontal non-habitable infrastructure, such as public works projects. It takes a triple-bottom-line approach where lead is more focused on the environment. Envision focuses on the economics, resiliency, and performance delivery. Using that rating platform has really helped us to look differently at infrastructure and incorporate improvements in projects that are good for the surrounding area, that have a lower energy footprint, and deliver better results for the community.
Sustainable infrastructure is a big piece. One that is really top of mind for now, which is number 4, and that is consolidation. I just returned. I spent some time in Denmark last fall, and I visited four of the largest wastewater treatment plants in Denmark. One of the things that they're doing in Denmark is in order for resiliency and cost-effectiveness, they're taking multiple discharges and multiple treatment plants and consolidating into larger facilities because they can best control their permit compliance and pollutions in the most cost-effective manner.
My commission is going to be confronted with that decision next Thursday. After five years of research, we're recommending that we consolidate our two discharge points to one, and there are some significant cost savings and environmental improvements to doing so. Then finally, of my top five is automation. Automation is really having equipment to do the dirty and dangerous jobs so that staff can focus more on value-added responsibilities, such as making decisions around process control and reliability-centered maintenance.
What you want to do is have, I guess, employees who are in less contact with wastewater and chemicals and gases. If you look at your thought process of what is most important is how do we keep employees safe now? While automation, why it's just on my list is because there might not be as much cost-effectiveness there. In terms of quality and safety, it would probably go to the top of the list for that reason.
Mahesh: It is fascinating, the five efficiency plays that you are undertaking, adaptive strategy, which is basically source pollution control, RCM, sustainable infrastructure, consolidation, and automation. It's very big-picture thinking. I commend you, I'm sure Dean County is blessed to have this leadership there. Now that you identified these big place and efficiency opportunities, where are you investing in the next five years?
Michael: This is a great next question because this is really where the rubber hits the road. This is where the public's rate money gets put to use and where the public sees benefit. There are a couple of key areas where we're really focusing on making improvements. One very exciting one is moving towards low dissolved oxygen aeration system for biological nutrient removal. Producing air in our treatment process uses a lot of energy and has a lot of climate impacts. We're investing $22 million in moving towards low dissolved oxygen after we do up the scale pilot this first phase and then full phase.
We've been in bench scale for about five years testing it, so we're ready to take testing to the next level and do that. The other major priority is heat and power improvements, and that's about $60 million. Our entire network at the plant is we capture methane gas, we convert it to electricity, and then we use that electricity to run our treatment plant. Then all the waste heat from the generators, when we cool the generators, we have all this waste heat is used to heat and cool our campus.
It's this integrated system, and it's all at age and we have to replace all of it. With the Energy Master Plan, we're recommending considering moving towards selling the gas, renewable natural gas to the grid and looking at the feasibility of that, and then converting all of our internal infrastructure. There are some big costs in whatever we decide with heat and power. We're also with our blowers and switch gear, old blowers and converting to turbo compressors and other things, that's $20 million.
Then just adding capacity and rehabilitating our collection system infrastructure, that's $100 million over the next five years. We're investing in infrastructure. Our trajectory, our service charge increases of around 9% a year for the next five to six years to try to build up capacity in our budgeting so we can replace infrastructure.
Mahesh: You're cutting a lot of checks, Michael, that's for sure. With no DOBNR, CHP, what you're doing in the collection, compressors, and clearly you got the mandate from the rate increases so you can build a future infrastructure for the county. We talked about already energy master plan and what you're trying to do there on the climate mitigation. I want to switch to the collection side of your system.
Now, many systems in Midwest are hit with combined systems that hit with big I&I. You're getting these flows from communities that you don't directly manage their collection system, hookups. How do you work with them to give them visibility on what they're putting into your system so they can self-regulate because you can't keep expanding the size of your pipe and the size of your tree for plant? What's your approach to that?
Michael: The approach is collaborative. I know in 2018, we had a major storm event in the isthmus, major flooding in Madison. It was a wake-up call to not only the city of Madison but all of our other communities about how flooding can impact communities. It impacted our sewer system. Now, we are not a combined system, but that does not mean that we have no inflow and infiltration problem. We've been studying I&I. We have a committee of owner communities because as you said, we don't control what the collection systems do or what each city has their own sanitary sewer collection system.
That's where the inflow comes from and the infiltration. Our approach was, let's get together and figure out a program to do that. Now, one thing we have going in our favor is our owner communities, they are billed quarterly based on their flows and loadings. When their I&I is high, their bill goes way up. There is that trigger, there's that incentive to say, hey, we need to do something about our flows. Because if we have a rainy spring and we get that bill and it's twice as much as our normal bill, that gets everyone's attention.
That's why our owners have really come together to help work on I&I. Our general I&I, they're not that bad, really. From about 2.5 to 2.9 is our ratio of base flow, normal flow to what I call peak flow in an event. Why we're paying attention to it is that at our treatment plant, we can only handle a peak of about 1.9. Anything above 1.9 puts us at risk. If we're in the 2.5, 2.9 range, that puts us in trouble.
We're working on developing programs. First, I would call voluntary compliance to work on these things because there's the cost trigger and incentive. Over time, over the next 5 to 8 years, we'll use our sewer use ordinance to start putting peak flow regulations in place that will trigger communities having to have reduction plans if they have a peak factor over a certain level.
Mahesh: Got it. Excellent. You have a very strategic approach to how you're pursuing this force collaboration, and then maybe self-regulation based on flows and loads. Then perhaps at some point in the future, look at the sewer peak flow to drive behavior changes, so to speak. Sounds like a very methodical process here. I want to go to the next part. I've said this in previous episodes as well with your peers.
In many respects, you are an asset manager that is managing billions of dollars worth of assets. That's a significant response, 30% for sure. If this was anybody in Wall Street, they would be a big shock managing billions of dollars of assets for other people's money. How are you moving from reactive to proactive in four dimensions process, tools, people and organization?
Michael: Well, I think you touched very accurately on it. Wastewater utilities. It is infrastructure that drives our budget. It's 80%, 90% of our budget is about the design, construction operation, and maintenance of physical infrastructure. That is what we focus on and what we're doing. The process, the tools, the people, there's a lot of pieces to this. I think people are the most important part because if you have the people, then they are the ones that are able to innovate on the processes, identify the tools, and everything.
One of my focuses is really is nurturing a leadership culture. I have 120 employees at the sewage district. If all 120 of them see themselves as leading the future, then we're going to be making big progress because leadership is an activity. It's not a position, it's a verb, it's not a noun. It doesn't matter where you are in the org chart. I've been in organizations where everyone waits for the boss to have the ideas or tell people what to do.
Where I think the solutions are going to be is in how do we nurture a culture that allows for risk-taking and it's okay to fail and to be agile in trying new things. Typically for organizations like wastewater treatments plants, where we're all scientists. Most of us are scientists, we're engineers and so you see things in a very linear manner. What we really have to focus on are more adaptive skills, more about adaptive and moving forward with uncertainty, and less about the technical. This requires new soft skills that are set on top of the required hard skills, the technical skills that we need.
Those are the things I really am focusing on and how we create that leadership culture because then we're able to look at our processes and tools to get things done.
Mahesh: Right. Now you have to motivate people and it comes with people-first business to move forward. I 100% agree with you. I want to switch briefly to collection systems. You have over 65 pump stations and often we let these pump stations some dumb facility that just keeps working. If one of them fails, then all hell breaks loose because it can back up basements or it can spill things and it's humanly impossible to make rounds at every one of these pump stations. Every day or every week the milk run would take too much time. How do you manage your collection system so you are more proactive than reactive?
Michael: There's a couple ways to do that, first we do a good job. We have real-time data on how our pump stations are performing. We know when our wet wells are high and we get alarms and we know when there's equipment failure. We're able to respond very well to problems in the system. When you look at an entire collection system where you have your vulnerabilities are in pumping stations, gravity works itself wonderfully. If we let our wastewater alone and let gravity do the work, we would have very few problems. When wastewater has to stop and be pumped and you need mechanical systems for it to continue to the next step, that's where we're most vulnerable. We're also most vulnerable when we lose power.
I developed the policy a couple years ago, an operational continuity policy. The policy is basically that we were able to continue operating at peak design capacity for at least 72 hours to prevent the sanitary sewer overflow or basement backup. The 72 hours is a high bar. When I was in Olympia Public Works director, the state required that utilities have 24 hours of backup power. We have a 72-hour standard and I call the 72-hour standard a reasonableness standard because I think it is reasonable for the public to expect that the district will maintain operations for up to three days during a loss of power.
Three days was selected because generally after three days of power loss, other physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter would take precedence. We're designing capacity with every pump station upgrade is putting some form of onsite alternative energy source to handle it or a diversion of some form of a gravity flow to another area.
Mahesh: Right. Fascinating resiliency guideline. That would avoid some catastrophic event within your own community. I want to switch to the technology. There's obviously a lot happening. We are in the sixth wave of innovation where smart process, sensors, smart technology is in play, where do you see the role of technology in the wastewater and what are you most excited about?
Michael: I think technology plays a big role. When I was in Denmark, again, they focus a lot on technology. Matter of fact, if you walked around a treatment plant, you would see very few people because they've automated so much at all of their people are in parts of the plant where they can be very proactive. 70% of reductions of greenhouse gases comes from day-to-day operational decisions. Those types of decisions require real-time information about consumption, gases, plant performance. As we continue to upgrade our plant, incorporating technology that gives us information to make good day-to-day decisions, I think is really critical.
Mahesh: No, it is. That's a fascinating statistics. It's the first time I'm hearing it, that 70% of greenhouse gas comes from day-to-day operational decisions. Something I might dwell more deeper into post this podcast. Talent is critical and we heard this across on board, you heard it you live it. I heard it that the talent gap at every eternity and I assume MMSD might not be an exception, insignificant, in fact, let me ask, do you have a gap? If so, how are you filling the gap?
Michael: I think we've been extremely lucky. I know a lot of my colleagues are experiencing a lot of challenges with finding talent and we've been doing a really good job and it's been challenging over the last couple years. I think a lot with the bilateral infrastructure law and much more work and there's much more opportunity, there's a lot of opportunity for people to do different things.
We've really focused on creating a really good work environment, challenging work, and giving employees autonomy. For example, right out of college, if you're a degreed engineer and you come and work to the district, you'll be handed a project and you'll be the project manager from conception to final completion. You will not be put into one section of a project. You'll be put in charge and learn through that experience.
I think that has allowed us to be an attractive employer and we're viewed as such out on the street as an attractive employer because it's a really good work environment and real team culture. I don't know if that's really tackling the question you have but I think we're still continuing to find ways to attract people and different types of people because we want to be a work environment where different types of ideas, cultures, values are brought to our team to strengthen our team. We're spending time and how do we best do that?
Mahesh: Well, sounds like this is not as much of an issue as other peers but maybe you have a secret source worth sharing to the broader audience. I started with a personal question and as we come a wrap towards this podcast, I want to end with a personal question. If there is one thing, what do you want your legacy to be, Michael?
Michael: Yes, the legacy is, it's-- I don't know if Mahesh you have a personal mission statement, and one of the things when I teach adaptive leadership in other courses, one of the deliverables is for every one of the participants is to come up with their six words. Their six words reflect why they were put on this earth and what difference they want to make. This isn't about your family, which of course is at the top tier of everything, but what you want to do with your career and just your life because implicitly in day-to-day decisions you make, you have your six words in your mind.
You make choices every day about what you're going to do and not going to do based on those six words. If you can bring those out into the open and be more conscious about them, it's very empowering. For me, my words are building public trust through sustainability. I really believe that our challenges are always changing and we'll find a way to tackle them if we have the public behind us. The challenges of our time will always be changing, but we will tackle them if we have the public behind us and we have public trust and so focusing on the relationships is a really important legacy. The sustainability part is also really important because if you think of sustainability, it's looking things through a lot of different lenses. The economic lens, the environmental lens, and the people lens. If you pay attention to all three of those lenses, every decision you make, you pretty much remove conflict because it's conflict around values, around people and dollars, and in the environment that always get built into every decision-making process.
If you take that balanced lens and collaborate with the public, you'll be able to tackle just about any problem. I'm hoping if I have a legacy, it's that the public would see government as trustworthy. Like other countries, the government is held in high regard. Denmark, 80% of the public trust their government, and that's why Denmark is able to do a lot of very creative and risky things because the public has their back. I feel very strongly in the power of government for good and that building public trust through sustainability is something that we should focus on.
Mahesh: It is fascinating and there is no doubt, Michael, through this podcast, you've proven, not only are you an administrator, but real educator. I learned a lot. Not only you are a problem solver, the fact that you heavily emphasis on gaining public confidence, how you articulated your five efficiency challenges, especially saving $500 million through source pollution management and driving consolidation automation.
Your emphasis on capital spending, specifically the low DOBNR, combined heat and power, and how you're collaborating to drive I&I reductions, setting new standards whether it's pump stations or other aspects. I want to thank you for being part of this podcast. I wish you all the best in terms of achieving this legacy vision you created. Thanks, Michael.
Michael: Well, thank you very much. I'm going to continue to follow your podcast because I'm learning through my colleagues that you're working with, and this is a great platform. Thank you for doing it.