Fontus Blue: How long have you been in the industry?
Gnagy: I have been in the water industry for more than 45 years, since September 1977. I became semi-retired in July 2022 and began working for Fontus Blue, Inc. in July right after retirement. I also remain the owner of PMG Consulting, Inc. providing engineering and consulting services for water utilities since 2010. My focus in coming to Fontus Blue was to share my experience with the Fontus staff, to help improve and increase our offering of services, and to add a higher level of technical expertise to our projects and clients. The team is already seeing the benefit of having a long-time water optimization experience available to assist with more complex workloads. I am trying to build my legacy with the Fontus Blue team.
Fontus Blue: What is the size of the community you serve?
Gnagy: I do not currently run a utility, but I have served communities ranging from 120 people to nearly four million people. My career has been a fortunate one having helped utilities improve their process operations and treatment performance. I have conducted assessments in more than 300 water treatment systems over that time and many of those implemented process solutions that I developed specific to their needs.
Fontus Blue: What challenges are utility companies facing this year? What do you expect to be an upcoming challenge in 2023? What about the next 5 years?
Gnagy: Challenges in the industry this year still revolve around staffing issues post-COVID and more frequent retirements, price increases for almost all goods and services (including energy and chemicals), and maintaining a competitive advantage in the industry. Optimization of utility operations can help reduce the burden from constant cost increases, but the staffing issues likely will remain for some time. Many of today’s workers do not see the allure of working in the water industry that was prevalent in the 1940s (post WWII), 1970s (after that group retired), and in the 2010s (after that group retired). In 2023, many of these challenges will remain along with maintaining compliance with drinking water standards. We are tasked with operating our water utilities to a higher degree of water quality due to public concerns over water contaminants and access to drinking water information that is unprecedented in the industry. Compliance with regulatory limits is becoming more rigorous and takes much more diligent operations than it did even five years ago because the limits are consistently being lowered to provide a higher level of water quality. The proposed Lead and Copper Rule requirements are a great example, and they are still being altered as people read this. Utilities will spend much more time collecting samples, analyzing their data, and reporting results to EPA and to the public than previous versions of the Rules. Over the next five years, obviously, PFAS issues will become evident for many utilities along with a number of other contaminants as rules are developed for those contaminants. PFAS compounds do not degrade in the environment and many utilities will spend significant capital to remove these chemicals to very low concentrations (parts per trillion). Most people may not realize that we (as an industry) have identified more than 700 disinfection byproducts in water. The problem is we still are not sure what that means and what the health effects are for most of those byproducts. Although Ohio has had regulations concerning microcystins in water, many other states and USEPA is still grappling with regulatory framework for cyanotoxins in drinking water. Cyanotoxins come from harmful algal blooms (HABs) and treatment strategies need to be developed to process the toxins for removal if they are detected in source waters. Other contaminants also are on USEPA’s radar for drinking water standards that are too numerous to mention in this short chat.
Fontus Blue: How do water utility companies that work with Fontus Blue change/improve operations?
Gnagy: Fontus Blue provides a team approach to utilities operations services using the Decision Blue platform to help them track water quality, forecast water quality and operating costs of their process operations, and to help utilities transform good water quality into excellent water quality. We work closely with utilities to provide more operational diligence and process control than they traditionally have expended and serve as technical expertise to assist them in making process adjustments to improve water quality. Often our assistance leads to cost savings even though our focus is related to improving water quality. We had great success in reducing annual chemical expenditures, improving mixing techniques to gain more from the chemicals that are used, and helping produce a more consistent operation where troublesome process control becomes manageable. Digitalization of the operating data and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions often speed up the ability of our utilities to gain better control of unit processes for the water quality they seek. Getting the operators involved in treatment adjustments, meeting actionable target goals, and observing the improved operation often produce better staff members who are more resilient to source water quality challenges, who can use science-based solutions to control process treatment, who make educated decisions in their daily operating adjustments, and who understand their very important role in protecting public health through drinking water.
Fontus Blue: If you could share one piece of advice with other utility personnel and leaders in the space, what would it be?
Gnagy: Increase training in your staff, consistently push them to improve themselves, and guide them along their journey to the most efficient position they can attain. I have a lot of reference books that I use quite often, I read everything I can find related to work I do, and I attend conferences and seminars as often as I can. Every little fact or piece of information I learn builds on existing knowledge and makes me better than I was yesterday. People generally have a desire to learn and a duty to themselves and the public to more fully understand treatment operations. Improving your knowledge base allows for movement upward in the organization and helps mold the next teachers and leaders.
Fontus Blue: What are some relevant newsletters, blogs, or industry leaders you follow for insights and inspiration?
Gnagy: AWWA is considered the authoritative resource for water and water quality information. Other trade organizations (Rural Water Associations, Water Environment Federation, and numerous equipment and analytical manufacturers ) also provide training and knowledge transfer for attendees to better themselves. Research teams all over the world are attempting to develop solutions for PFAS treatment that do not create hazardous waste that needs to be carefully managed. The Ohio Section AWWA has a pretty good newsletter as well that consistently features some of the great work being done in Ohio and around the country in drinking water and solving complex water quality issues. Over my career, I followed some great leaders in the industry. To mention a few doesn’t do justice to all the great water industry leaders out there but I will give a few names that I admired over the years: Galen Gault, Doug Brookhart, Richard Miller, Darrel Blanchard, Ken Kerri, George Hawkins, Nilkash Kothari, Andy Richardson, Marley Price, Glenda Dunn, Stu Bruny, Mike Baker, Radhika Fox.