Thursday, March 12, 2015

Park City Water Personalities

Whiskey is for drinking, Water is for fighting. That pithy maxim is still true throughout the west where our shrinking water supply easily outstrips our insatiable demand.  It is especially true in Park City where our individual perspectives and priorities are as different and diverse as our personalities.  The recent regionalization of the Snyderville Basin’s water by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District has brought cooperation and collaboration to the area but the future still remains challenging with our explosive growth, changing climate and increasing demands.
Luckily there are two dynamic and innovative Water Czars in Park City, Clint McAfee and Andy Armstrong, managing the local water for the City and the County respectively.  They deal with the day to day operation of our water systems but also with the planning for the forecasted future supply and demand.  We caught up with them the other day over a glass of cold, clear, clean water and here is some of what they had to say;

“We live in a desert, for hell’s sake” shouts Andy Armstrong, Manager of the Mountain Regional and colorful, self-proclaimed water curmudgeon. “Don’t let the snow packed ski resorts and Kentucky Blue Grass fool you, we get 22 inches of precipitation a year here in the Park – that’s less than half of what they get in Chicago, Seattle or New York.  We have a very limited natural resource and an almost unlimited market growth potential here.  Water is like petrol, water is gold.” 

Andy is a native Utahan from hardy Pioneer stock, and has lived and worked as an engineer in the Park City area for over 30 years.   As a modern day renaissance man, Andy is a skier, a hunter/gatherer, an artisan, a voracious reader and a river rat but his passion is with negotiation and the Art of the Deal.   Three weeks out of open heart surgery, Andy leans back, undaunted, in his comfortable windowless office, festooned with his impressionistic photographs of rivers and clouds, water and rock.  “Utah has some of the highest per capita water usage in the country, because of its climate and because it’s subsidized water is so darn cheap.  It is tough to build a modern day water company in this climate and culture.”
Starting in 2000, Andy helped Mountain Regional stitch together dozens of struggling private water companies over the past ten years, in a local regionalization and sometimes controversial effort to serve western Summit County.  Largely unsubsidized, they incurred a mountain of debt to do this and immediately instituted a punitive, conservation rate that puts Salt Lake, LA and Las Vegas to shame.  The tiered rate encourages wise use, where water wasters pay as much as 20 dollars per 1000 gallons.  Mountain Regional now has one of the lowest per capita usage rates in the state, using almost half of the average.  “The mostly affluent customers here were not immune to the costs and were immediately responsive.”  “People will still spend more on wine than on water in Park City”, Andy proudly laments.

In 2014 Mountain Regional signed an agreement with the Weber Basin WCD, Park City Municipal Company and privately owned Summit Water Distribution Company to globally regionalize water distribution in this area and increase the reliability, redundancy and efficiency of their systems.  Mountain Regional embraced this global regionalization and now markets its sizable surplus water stores and pumping capacity to the other companies when needed. Mountain Regional can now bring 8800 acre feet from the Weber River near Rockport Reservoir to this basin, enough to service 12,000 homes.  “By maximizing our existing water contracts” Andy says, “we can delay expensive new water projects and together we can qualify for cheap Federal funding for those future projects”. 

Realizing that water flows uphill with power, towards money, Andy and engineer Doug Evans oversaw an energy savings program designed to avoid peak power spiking and focus on off peak power usage.  Mountain Regional pumps much of its water from deep wells and from the Weber River, 1000 feet over the mountain at Promontory, to service its 3500 clients and to ‘wheel’ water to Park City and Summit Water Company.  Andy says, “We paid $300,000 less last year for power than we did 6 years ago, pumping twice as much water, as energy prices steadily climbed”.  Andy attributes this to the “advanced automatic SCADA operating system set up by Chris Braun that ties together communication and operation of all their sources, wells, tanks and pumps, which are coordinated with a real time computerized system model set up by engineer Scott Morrison.   Overall we have a small but efficient staff that is all on the same page, gets the company concept and can think on their feet.”

Andy admits that balancing water sales and conservation is like “wielding a schizophrenic, double edge sword”.  He welcomes conservation and the local and basin wide regionalization that makes us more resilient to growth, climate change and drought with a wider portfolio of sources and supply.   He looks forward to a future where there are even more incentives to use power and water wisely, on retail and wholesale basis, He looks for a “consistency of green, where people conserve on their energy and water usage and minimize their waste, to save money and the limited resources of this high desert”. 

Cool as a cucumber, Clint Mc Affee has a very full plate but is unflappable as the Director of Water and Streets for the Park City Municipal Corporation.  “ I have a lot of great people working with me that allow me to focus on the big picture and the future and make good decisions that allow me to sleep at night”  Clint is a next generation manager who relies on effective delegation, technology and communication to get him through his hectic days and nights.  A competitive biker and avid skier, Clint values his free time and peace of mind as much as the rest of us.

Clint was raised in the Cache Valley of Northern Utah but moved to Park City in 1997 with two friends and a dog.  They lived the ski bum dream in a frozen RV at the trailer park on Rasmussen road.  He landed his first job on the snowmaking crew at PCMR, which he maintained while studying civil engineering at the University of Utah.  “I loved the outdoor action and adventure of the job and relished studying for my hydraulics class next to a snowmaking pipe flowing 3000 gallons per minute at 600 psi.” 

He got his professional start when he was hired, fresh out of school, by Fred Duberow, the Godfather of Park City water.  Fred had authored the original Water Resource study for Park City in 1983 that madly suggested that the City look to the Weber River for new water.  Clint eventually became involved with water treatment design and became a project manager for the City when the Quinn’s Junction treatment plant was being built.  As cream rises to the top, Clint rapidly rose up through the ranks to become the New-Age Park City Director of Water.

“Regionalization occurred in a nick of time in 2013-2014” says Clint “when Park City was at their end of their water supply rope”.  Imported water from the Weber and Provo Rivers now accounts for 30% of the City’s water supply portfolio that also includes 2 mine sources, 3 wells and one spring”.  “Park City now has a 15 mile straw to Rockport reservoir and can import a reliable 2900 acre feet or almost a billion gallons per year to the City.” 

“The moral of the story is that Weber Basin WCD is now the Mother Ship that delivers more than 200,000 acre feet of water throughout Northern Utah so it is imperative that we guide the process here to fit the unique Park City community needs.”  Conventional water wisdom says that ‘being at the top of the drainage with a shovel is better than being at the bottom end with all the Water Rights in the world.’  Clint says that his “next challenge is to secure upstream water storage to assure a reliable, redundant and flexible yield to meet the highest predicted demands of the future and help control our own destiny.”

With a comfortable water quantity supply in place Clint has been able to tackle his highest priority – water quality.  “Although the water flowing from the Judge and Spiro mine tunnels meets EPA standards it does not meet Park City Standards.”  Concerns about tunnel levels of Antimony, Arsenic and heavy metals became a growing issue.   So in 2013 the untreated Judge Tunnel source, which flows from 600 - 2500 gpm, was turned back to the creek in Daly Canyon and water quality throughout Old Town was improved in less than one month.”  Plans for future treatment of the Judge and Spiro water, even if it is left in the creek, are planned for the future.  “This will not be cheap but when an Old Town waiter asks us if we want local tap or bottled water, I want to be sure we are all comfortable with the local tap water.”

Clint’s other passion and priority is “water conservation that can put off or even eliminate the need for expensive future expansion projects.”  Park City instituted a punitive, tiered conservation rate in 2004, similar to Mountain Regional, which increased the price of water and decreased consumption.  Clint also introduced a high tech Water Smart Customer Portal program that “allows for real time monitoring and reporting of individual water to promote awareness and water use knowledge that allows customers to make informed decisions.”  The system can actually send customers a warning email when the usage patterns reveal a small leak or excessive seasonal usage.  “Customers can now see their usage compared to their neighbors that in a competitive conservation minded town such as Park City can be highly motivating.”   Clint hopes to “balance wise use with the sustainability of the Park City look and lifestyle we all love.  We don’t want to look like Vegas”

Clint sees the changing climate as a big future challenge with “an increasing need for snowmaking water during more the frequent drought years (like 2012, 2013,2014, 2015…) and to combat the foretasted rising snow level.”  Snowmaking is where he started and he knows that “our snowmaking peak demands will rival out summertime irrigation demands.”  He has also “initiated a Long Range Finance Model to help plan for the infrastructure and technological innovation needed to keep water prices reasonable and reliable supplies flowing.” 

Clint also sees his continued role with the City as “helping them adjust to; the regionalization and the growing regulations, the exploding population and popularity of the City and the increase in sophistication and awareness of his constituents”.  Clint “welcomes the ambitious plans of Vail Associates, Mountain Accord and One Wasatch that will steer us into future.”  He is cool with these future challenges.  Cool as a cucumber. 

We are fortunate to have such professionals guiding the evolution and development of our water resources.  If there is power in personality, we are dealing with a powder keg with Andy and Clint.  They have brought us from the uncertain past to a reliable present, from a washed up mining town to a world class destination resort.  We will need them to help navigate the contentious and combative water landscape of the future, with foresight and wisdom, humor and tenacity, for sustainable solutions.

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