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What sustainability looks like, up close and personal

Denver Water employees are finding solutions in the workplace that reduce environmental impact — and lower costs.


It’s one of those buzzwords that makes your eyes glaze over. But it’s also a way of doing business for successful, modern organizations, with benefits spreading worldwide.

Take Starbucks, which recently allocated $500 million from its first-ever U.S. corporate sustainability bond to drive improvements in its supply chain. In fact, the sale of green bonds continues to increase globally, with more than $95.6 billion of these climate-aligned bonds issued toward environmental infrastructure investments.

If that’s still a little too abstract, take a look at sustainability in action, right here at Denver Water.

At one of our four treatment plants, crews are putting the final touches on a project that will save an average of a 730,000 gallons of water per day through reuse. Here’s how it works:

Cary Kern, water treatment technician at Foothills Water Treatment Plant, opens a valve to send water from the drying beds back to the treatment plant for reuse.

During the treatment process, sediments like dirt and sand (what we affectionately call sludge) are removed from the water and pumped out of the plant into outdoor drying beds (where it, well, dries up). Here, water percolates down through French drains (like your coffee maker) and is sent to be dechlorinated before being released into a tributary of Willow Creek.

Beginning in 2017, a new system will use gravity to pull the water from the drying beds and cycle it back to the water treatment plant for reuse instead of releasing it all into the creek. This saves water and requires fewer treatment products, which is better for the environment, and comes with a $5,000 to $6,000 annual savings in treatment product purchases alone.

Sustainability focuses not just on a company’s bottom line, it also values environmental and social responsibility as equally important measures of organizational health. Denver Water has a long history of doing just that.

Early conservation messages could be seen on this streetcar in 1934, telling people not to waste water.

Environmental stewardship is at the core of Denver Water’s values, from early conservation messages in the 1930s asking people to help save water, to our recent Silver Partner recognition by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Environmental Leadership Program.

Today, it’s Denver Water employees who are leading the charge, using their skills and expertise in unconventional problem-solving.

“This year, Denver Water began implementing an environmental management system, which challenges employees to examine the environmental impacts of a process and suggest more sustainable alternatives,” said Bill Peck, of Denver Water’s Environmental Compliance office.

Peck helps employees evaluate proposed solutions by calculating the return on investment and analyzing the environmental impacts of each idea. “Our employees are so knowledgeable in what they do and all of the intricacies of the water treatment processes, engaging them to develop ideas and find solutions to help improve our sustainability is a perfect fit,” he said.

New LED light bulbs installed in the Foothills Water Treatment Plant’s filter gallery provide better lighting for employees while also eliminating mercury and sodium vapors previously found in high-voltage lights. The lights have a longer bulb life and pay for themselves in less than six months.

It’s already having an impact.

Cary Kern, water treatment technician at Foothills Water Treatment Plant, began looking for a way to improve the process of deliveries of treatment products to the plant. These are important in disinfecting water to ensure it’s safe for drinking.

For the deliveries, which happen multiple times a day, semi-trucks run at high-idle for up to three hours using a diesel-powered motor to run an air compressor that transfers the treatment products to the plant.

Kern, who has a passion for sustainability, has been investigating the possibility of using an electric-powered air compressor at the plant to complete the transfer instead of requiring the trucks to run at high-idle most of the day.

Prior to working at Denver Water, Kern worked for Belfor Environmental in the hazardous materials division and helped with large hazmat clean-ups across the U.S. and in China.

“I have a passion for sustainability and particularly an interest in responsible disposal of hazardous materials, so I’m always on the lookout for sustainable solutions at the treatment plant,” Kern said.

When implemented in 2018, the new transfer process suggested by Kern will save one to three hours of idle time per delivery, eliminating 12,497 to 51,361 pounds of carbon dioxide from our air each year and reducing noise pollution. This is the equivalent of taking two to five passenger vehicles off the road for an entire year (each driving 11,346 miles and averaging 21.6 mpg). According to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, it would take 9 to 22 acres of forest to sequester the amount of carbon dioxide we would save.

An added bonus: The cost of the energy to run the air-compressor would be offset by the hydroelectric power generated at the plant.

“We are always preparing to adapt to unforeseen futures. Meeting these challenges requires a broadened view beyond the scope of traditional water utility planning,” said Kate Taft, sustainability program manager. “Sustainable operations provide more than just financial return to the organization; sustainability aligns with Denver Water’s values, environmental responsibility and stewardship of our natural resources.”