Key to launching massive public health initiative: Teamwork
Sometimes, you need a village.
And that’s exactly what Denver Water built to successfully launch the Lead Reduction Program — a massive public health initiative the likes of which has never been done before — to reduce the risk of lead in drinking water.
“Elements of the Lead Reduction Program are being done elsewhere, such as replacing lead service lines or providing pitchers and water filters certified to remove lead, but they’ve never been done all at once, in a compressed timeframe and at the scale that Denver Water is doing,” said Alexis Woodrow, manager of the Lead Reduction Program.
And that’s in addition to the massive, behind-the-scenes undertaking by Denver Water’s water quality experts and engineers to increase the pH of the water to better protect customers who have service lines, faucets or fixtures that contain lead in their homes.
“We’ve been able to draw on the expertise of many companies and people to launch and manage the program — in the middle of a pandemic,” Woodrow said.
The program not only protects public health, it also puts people to work.
In 2020 the program supported nearly 300 jobs, including 140 contractors and subcontractors working on lead service line replacements with just over 60% of the staff identifying with one or more minority groups. An additional 150 people supported the program through a wide variety of roles including project and construction management, field supervision, support for the other program elements as well as communications, outreach and education efforts.
Some members of the Lead Reduction Program team — on the Denver Water side as well as among the contracted team members — have worked remotely through the pandemic, managing elements of the program from their basements and spare bedrooms. Others worked in a warehouse, or a print shop — or carried their part of the program right into customers’ homes.
“Our people out in the field receive direct feedback each day from customers saying, ‘Thanks for replacing our service line.’ Everyone who has touched any part of this program is excited to be a part of it,” said Steve Ravel, the program manager for the team of contractors and consultants, led by UK-based engineering consultant Mott MacDonald, which oversees much of the nuts and bolts of the Lead Reduction Program.
“Working on the Lead Reduction Program for Denver Water, you’re working on an innovative, first-of-its-kind program that is a great thing for the community,” Ravel said.
Here are just some of the people and companies involved in program.
When you start a groundbreaking program, you have to explain it to people — a lot of people — quickly.
“We helped communicate with customers, printing and mailing letters and booklets with information about the program, and subsequent mailings with more detailed information, including consent forms, COVID-19 notices and other pieces,” said David Biondi, an account executive with OneTouchPoint’s Mountain States Division.
The division has operated in Denver for 25 years under OneTouchPoint and predecessor companies.
Employees of the company, considered essential workers from the early days of the pandemic, were charged with printing information, from booklets to detailed informative letters in a variety of sizes and languages, some pieces often requiring stapling together by form and version, and stuffing envelopes for delivery by the U.S. Postal Service.
Overall, the company has printed and mailed about 600,000 pieces for the program.
The lead program also presented an added challenge to ensure the right person, or people, associated with each location were contacted.
One homeowner might get a single notification or mailer for his or her house (known as single-premise address letters), and a landlord might need a single mailer to cover a handful of properties (known as multipremise address letters).
But a larger property manager might oversee dozens, even more than 100 properties throughout the metro area, and need know which locations, and which tenants, are enrolled in the program.
“You have to print the information for one address location, the single homeowner, then do the same notification for someone who has 50 or 150 locations. The question is how do you lay out all those addresses on a sheet of paper, make it fit, and get all of the pages through the press and the following production steps efficiently and properly?
“From a production standpoint adding an extra sheet of paper — or two or three — it’s harder than it sounds to do it all accurately, consistently, quickly and with quality,” Biondi said.
Sometimes, Biondi recalled, there were times when he wondered how OneTouchPoint’s Denver printing team would pull off a knotty printing problem.
“Then our talented production team would figure it out. We had to be flexible and learn, and I’m so proud of all the work that we’ve done for Denver Water and for the program,” he said.
In early 2020, just weeks after the first notifications and information booklets landed in people’s mailboxes, boxes with light blue wavy lines and the words “Help get the lead out” started arriving on front porches all over Denver.
In all, from March through fall, more than 100,000 boxes containing water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead were shipped to Denver-area customers enrolled in the Lead Reduction Program.
Behind the boxes was 120Water, an Indiana company that manages the delivery of the pitchers and filters as well as water quality test kits sent to customers enrolled in the Lead Reduction Program.
“We’re the Amazon of the water quality side of Denver Water’s program. They order a pitcher and filter, or a water sampling kit, for a customer in the program and we automatically manage all associated logistics, including shipment,” said 120Water’s co-founder and CEO Megan Glover.
Replacement water filters are shipped to customers every six months, and 120Water also handles the logistics of shipping water samples provided by customers in the program to Colorado Analytical Laboratories Inc. for analysis. 120Water receives the test results from the lab and shares them with Denver Water and the customer.
120Water’s oversight of the water sampling and testing for customers in the Lead Reduction Program is separate from the process that occurs when a customer asks Denver Water for a water sampling kit.
“This is the largest public health Lead Reduction Program in the country, and this has been a massive logistical feat that we have had to do with excellence,” Glover said.
120Water is managing the fulfillment aspects of the pitcher, filter and water quality testing program for the Lead Reduction Program. The company also offers a suite of other services for utilities, such as building an inventory of lead service lines in a community, managing sampling programs at schools and child care facilities, and communicating with utility customers.
Just as the first shipments of pitchers and water filters were heading for Denver, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down wide swaths of commerce and business in March and April.
Glover remembers her team — declared essential workers because the test kits and filters are needed to comply with public health regulations — working with their own vendors to make sure they had enough pitchers, filters and test kits to keep the shipments going.
“We’ve worked with state agencies and water utilities across the country, doing water quality testing and helping with different lead programs, and this one is the biggest thing we’ve ever done.
“I’m proud of what our team has achieved while meeting the need of the program and Denver Water’s requirements,” she said.
The replacement crew
AGL Construction in Commerce City has worked for Denver Water for years to repair residential meters and replacing lead service lines as they were found during meter work.
So when Denver Water put out a request for proposals for construction crews to help replace thousands of customer-owned lead service lines a year, “that was right in our wheelhouse,” recalled AGL owner Kate Davis.
AGL was one of a handful of contractors brought onboard to be the boots-on-the-ground side of the Lead Reduction Program: replacing old, customer-owned lead service lines, the primary source of lead in drinking water. Along with AGL, K.R. Swerdfeger Construction Inc. and Global Underground Corp. also are replacing lead service lines in 2021.
The contractors replace lead service lines through the program. Denver Water crews replace lead service lines when they’re found during the utility’s regular maintenance and infrastructure work.
The crews dig through pavement to find the customers’ old lead service line where it connects to Denver Water’s main water pipe under the street. And they go into people’s homes and basements to sever the old service line, bring in a new, lead-free copper line, and connect the new line to the home’s internal plumbing.
“We started right around the time that COVID-19 started happening, and it was difficult, challenging. We had to protect the customers, protect our own staff, and there was a lot of fear on all sides,” Davis recalled.
Protocols were swiftly developed, including limiting interaction with customers, requiring customers and crews to socially distance where possible, and mandating masks be worn by crews and customers alike while the work was underway.
“It was a couple of strange months, but by the time we hit last summer, having put in all our effort, we really hit our stride, completing 1,500 replacements for the program in 2020,” Davis said.
“Our crews, they are so good. They enjoyed the work and working with the customers. Everyone was — and is — so proud of what we’re doing. It’s a public health service for our community.”
Overall, including work done by contractors in the lead program and Denver Water crews doing regular infrastructure upgrades, 5,287 customer-owned lead service lines were replaced in 2020.
The outreach ambassador
Offering most information about the Lead Reduction Program in English and Spanish allows Denver Water to reach about 95% of the households enrolled in the Lead Reduction Program.
“The Ambassador Program is a commendable program. Not all water districts try to reach broadly throughout their community, but Denver Water really tries hard to do that. It’s a demonstration of their commitment to the entire community that they serve,” said Paul Stein, the founder of iNOW, which works with refugee and immigrant communities across the metro area.
INOW’s Ambassadors work in five languages: Arabic, French, Nepali, Somali and Amharic (spoken in the Ethiopian community). Information about Denver Water’s lead program not only provides information about their drinking water, but it also helps build engagement and awareness on the part of the immigrants and refugees, Stein said.
“You’re teaching people that they can take charge of their own health, that they have the power – a ‘Sí se puede’ attitude that ‘Yes, I can do something to improve my health and the health of my family,’” he said.
“That can translate into other things. Understanding the Lead Reduction Program and pitchers and water filters means when someone reaches out about a COVID-19 vaccine or healthy eating, they already understand that they have the power, that they can take steps to protect their families,” Stein said.
Haregewoin Weledmariam, an accountant who’s lived in America for 20 years, was excited to help bridge the gap between the program and Denver Water customers who speak Amharic. She created a video in Amharic that discusses water filters to share with iNOW followers via Facebook.
Weldemariam said some people she’s talked to told her they received the boxes of water pitchers and filters but didn’t open them because they didn’t understand why they were delivered to their homes.
“I was so excited to be a part of this because it’s focused on health. And whenever I’m in the community telling people they also are excited to learn more,” Weledmariam said.
For Ravel, leading the Mott MacDonald team of contractors to help manage the program means working closely with Denver Water staff every day.
“Every project, especially one as complex and big as the Lead Reduction Program, has a thousand people who impact it somewhere along the line. From Denver Water to the construction team and to the customers, it’s a huge collaborative effort to deliver it,” he said.
Ravel has worked on several Denver Water projects over the years. Other members of the Mott MacDonald-led team come from the U.S. engineering firm AECOM, Denver communications firm GBSM, and Corona Environmental Consulting, which is based in Massachusetts and has an office in Louisville. Team members have worked on lead-related efforts for other water utilities around the country, including Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.
“Mott MacDonald is based in the United Kingdom and has 16,000 employees, but here in Lakewood our office has 20 people focused on water and wastewater projects. We’re local and we want to help our community, and we brought in the right people to make the team successful, make the program successful and make Denver Water successful,” Ravel said.
In early 2020, after the program launched, Ravel and the team knew it would take some effort to achieve the first year’s goals on customer-owned lead service line replacements and pitcher filter deliveries.
“But we were optimistic that the team could make it happen,” he said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, stay-home orders initially slowed work among the replacement crews. But when that work restarted, the pandemic made things a bit easier because many people were home and available for on-site meetings and the actual replacement work, Ravel said.
“Once we developed the protocols for keeping everyone, our people and the customers, safe, we were able to gear up and work through blocks of homes,” he said.
Said Ravel, “It’s satisfying to know that all these people have come together to work on it and make it happen.”
While there is no lead in the water Denver Water delivers to customers, lead can get into drinking water as it passes through customer-owned service lines and internal plumbing and fixtures that contain lead.
Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program, which launched in January 2020, will replace an estimated 64,000 to 84,000 customer-owned lead service lines between 2020 and the end of 2035 — about 4,500 per year — at no direct charge to the customer. In addition, the program in 2020 raised the pH of the water delivered to customers to reduce the risk of lead in drinking water and distributed to customers enrolled in the program more than 100,000 water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead.
Customers in the program will receive replacement filters every six months so customers can filter water for drinking, cooking and preparing infant formula until six months after their lead service lines are replaced.
For more information about Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program, visit denverwater.org/Lead.