CEO of Central Arkansas Water, Tad Bohannon, discusses creativity and innovation in safeguarding the state’s most precious asset for future generations
The state of Arkansas is famed for its lakes, reservoirs and waterways. Known as ‘the natural state’, it is these scenic bodies of water to which the state owes its moniker; fed by the Arkansas River Valley and bordering the mighty Mississippi River.
As the largest water supplier in the state, Central Arkansas Water (CAW) provides either retail or wholesale potable water to approximately 500,000 people.
With one in six Arkansans being served with CAW’s water supply, the company’s mission is intrinsically bound to the welfare of the local community.
“The future of water for our children and grandchildren requires creative thinking and innovation today,” states CEO at CAW, Tad Bohannon.
Encapsulating just that, CAW is an organization firmly committed to both these concepts, with an emphasis on providing utilities for the future – both in terms of safeguarding the state’s water supply, and in its outlook as a progressive organization.
Indeed, in the past few years alone, CAW has been officially recognized as a ‘Utility of the Future’, one of the ‘Best Places to Work’, the second most trusted water utility in the country, and as a testament to its commitment to quality, has ranked amongst the top five recipients of the ‘Best Tasting Water’ nationally.
With its supply primarily sourced from two CAW-owned lakes, Lake Maumelle and Lake Winona, the company provides over 120 million gallons per day (MGD) from these two surface water deposits.
The water is then treated at the Jack H. Wilson, Ozark, and Paron Water Treatment Plants, with each serving varying capacities. CAW’s wide-reaching distribution system encompasses some 2,664 miles of pipe, spanning a service boundary of approximately 721 square miles across Arkansas communities, from Little Rock to Wye Mountain and many places in between.
Although authorized pursuant under state law to provide water, wastewater, and stormwater services, CAW presently offers water and wastewater services but seeks to expand into all three realms due to their intersectionality.
Bohannon himself entered his position at the company following a career focused on representing water and wastewater utilities, working with CAW’s predecessor Little Rock Municipal WaterWorks. After accepting the role of CEO in 2016, Bohannon was already familiar with the significance of the utility and the role that water supply plays in strengthening a community.
“Working for CAW allows me to fulfil my desire for public service while building something that will last for generations and impact every person living in central Arkansas,” he tells us.
Fast forward five years, and it remains a role that he finds endlessly stimulating and fulfilling.
“The supply and delivery of water is vital to every thriving community and it is absolutely fascinating. Ensuring the supply and delivery of water for future generations is not for the faint of heart – it is not for anyone satisfied with the status quo.”
In line with this sentiment, CAW embodies a spirit of doing things differently, channelling both creativity and innovation into improving and safeguarding Arkansas’ water supply for future generations.
“At CAW, we know that innovation includes taking an idea that’s implemented in one context and exploring if we can beneficially mold that for our context,” Bohannon comments.
There are numerous examples of how CAW is leveraging advanced technology to innovate its operations – from using world leading Geographic Information System mapping (GIS) and satellite imaging detection software to identify leaks in the system, to developing a customer text notification system – yet it is the ‘low-tech’ solutions that showcase true creativity. Nowhere is this more evident than with the recent enlistment of CAW’s latest employee – a four-legged friend named Vessel.
“If there are working dogs who can detect a number of things, why not water leaks?”
An industry-first, championed by the vision of Bohannon himself, CAW is officially the first water utility in North America to seek canine assistance in tackling the problem of non-revenue, unaccounted for water.
As North America’s first water leak detection dog, Vessel is trained to detect the chlorine in drinking water. Working in partnership with satellite imagery, and her ‘human’ – a trained CAW leak detection specialist, Vessel has a 97 percent positivity rate in detecting leaks by placing her paws on the area of the leak and alerting her master by barking.
“One benefit of Vessel compared to human boots-on-the-ground leak detection, is that she is not looking for surfacing water, rather she’s smelling for chlorine. A leak does not have to be surfacing for her to detect it – only the chlorine gasses have to surface.
“Also, she runs right past rain puddles because it is not treated water, whereas a human crew would have to stop and test the puddle of rainwater,” he explains.
A dog with relentless “ball-drive”, Vessel is the latest welcome addition to CAW’s toolbox, combining technology with sheer animal intelligence.
“Vessel was a rockstar since birth. She’s a rescue Lab mix who was found as a puppy in a corn field in Louisiana in a cardboard box with her siblings. Her rescue was filmed and aired on the TV show ‘Pit Bulls and Parolees’. She graduated training through Arkansas Paws in Prison before entering training as the continent’s first water leak detection dog for CAW,” Bohannon comments fondly.
UTILITIES FOR THE FUTURE
CAW is about to unveil a 2050 Strategic Plan that outlines its goals for the future, the five pillars of which are key indicators of the company’s multi-faceted priorities.
“CAW is focused on being prepared for the future, being pro-active in our efforts to make sure the utility is not just ready for tomorrow but to ensure CAW is prepared to deliver high-quality, affordable, abundant, and dependable water services for the next 50 years.”
In light of multiple challenges facing water utilities, from regulatory requirements to climate change and shifting populations to name just a few, CAW champions the holistic vision of ‘One Water’.
More than an exercise in utility consolidation, One Water seeks to dismantle the boundaries between water, wastewater, and stormwater to benefit both ratepayers and the communities served, whilst increasing both efficiency and efficacy.
“One Water builds on the interconnectedness of water, wastewater, and stormwater to realize efficiencies and maximize the investment return for ratepayers,” Bohannon explains.
Applied at either a municipal or regional level, it is an approach that can be implemented through shared services including purchasing, human resources, accounting and communications, and increased collaboration on policy planning and customer engagement.
“Regardless of how it is achieved, the fundamental purpose of the One Water approach is to enable utilities to have greater resilience, increase opportunities for optimization, encourage sustainable development, spur economic growth, and provide for increased coordination among agencies.
“Regional implementation of One Water also reduces expenses at a regulatory level, improves performance, provides opportunities for efficiencies of scale, and lowers the potential for over-allocation of resources for the benefit of all ratepayers.”
It is an approach that CAW is working to enforce. Although much work remains to be done, Bohannon is hopeful of the advantages that its implementation will reap.
“If CAW’s implementation of a One Water approach serves as a role model for the rest of the state, it can result in a reduction in the number of community water, wastewater, and stormwater providers to the benefit of all ratepayers and regulators.”
CAW’s emphasis on operating with the best interests of the community at heart extends beyond One Water.
“The utility plays an integral role in the quality of life for residents and the economic health of the communities it serves,” comments Bohannon.
The company was recently named the ‘Water Environment Federation Water Utility of the Future Today’ for the exemplary demonstration of partnering and engagement efforts as a forward-thinking utility. It is also recognition of CAW’s efforts in transforming operations through innovation and technology to achieve enhanced productivity and long-term sustainability.
“We take great pride in this prestigious distinction.”
Increasing community knowledge and satisfaction stands as a guiding tenet for CAW in the years ahead. This involves many different approaches, including CAW’s participation in the US Water Alliance’s Arts Accelerator Project. Here, CAW was one of the four water utilities challenged to work with local artists to creatively address growing water-related issues by raising awareness with public murals as part of a collaborative art project.
“Conversations lead to knowledge, understanding, inspiration and action to address water equality, water equity and environmental stewardship.”
Complementary to this, CAW’s status as an inaugural partner in the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas Tijuana Byrd Summer Internship Program reflects the company’s commitment to making the industry accessible and widening the scope of career opportunities for marginalized women in the area.
“By offering industry-specific opportunities earlier in the academic careers of young women of color, we enrich classroom learning and provide valuable work experiences. Our participation in the program is aligned with the utility’s efforts to build strong communities.”
Through this internship program, CAW increases representation in the industry for women of color throughout Arkansas by eliminating the traditional barriers of cost, social capital, and location.
“We truly believe this industry is the backbone of developing thriving communities,” he surmises.
A STEWARD OF THE ENVIRONMENT
This cognizance of the social role that the company plays in supporting the community is reflected in CAW’s status and commitments as an environmentally responsible corporate citizen. With water supply directly impacted by changing environmental impacts, including shifting rain patterns and increased evaporation from longer warm periods, CAW takes an active role in this area.
“CAW recognizes that the actions it takes today should not overburden future generations,” states Bohannon.
The company is currently pursuing a transition to renewable energy as part of the CAW Net Zero by 2050 plan.
At the crux of this transition stands the construction of a 4.8 megawatt (MW) solar field, representing the first net-metering facility to produce in excess of 1,000 kilowatts (KW) approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission.
“This solar facility is one part of CAW’s ongoing efforts to remain environmentally and economically sustainable for the benefit of customers we serve today and those we will serve in the future.”
The benefits of the solar field are threefold; not only does it help to protect the environment, but it saves money on behalf of current ratepayers while also protecting future ratepayers from electric price increases. In the first year of operation alone, the solar power plant will provide more than 8,240,000 kilowatt hours (kWh), and will provide enough electricity to power almost 1,000 homes annually.
“We know that increased use of solar power improves the environmental sustainability of the utility and the communities we serve, but utilizing solar power also reduces costs and improves the economic sustainability of the utility for the benefit of our ratepayers.”
Acknowledged by Bohannon as CAW’s “initial foray” into renewable energy, it is an area that the company will continue to explore by installing more solar plants.
In addition, every year for the past decade, CAW has purchased forested areas of land surrounding its two lakes. This is to effectively improve water quality and help the environment with carbon sequestration. In 2020, CAW issued the first ever certified ‘green bond’ in the world, to acquire forests for water quality protection. As a key pillar within the CAW strategic plan, this will continue to guide the company forwards.
Alongside this, CAW will safeguard and improve its services in the provision of potable water across Arkansas by consistently ameliorating the customer experience and consumer confidence in line with ensuring long-term source water sustainability as a utility fit for the future.