AlexRenew CEO Karen Pallansch: WF&M’s 2018 Award Winner

Karen Pallansch, CEO of Alexandria Renew Enterprises, is the 2018 Water Finance & Management Award Winner

By Andrew Farr

It doesn’t take long to conclude that Karen Pallansch is passionate about water. What she’s even more passionate about is working alongside operators, engineers, plant managers and countless others who she considers the unsung heroes of public service.

“I don’t think people understand how anchored water professionals and water utilities are in their communities and how much they keep those communities healthy and thriving,” she says. “Water people are problem solvers.”

At Alexandria Renew Enterprises in Alexandria, Va., Pallansch leads a team of nearly 100 problem solvers. Together, they operate and manage one of the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities in the United States. Commonly known as AlexRenew, the publicly-owned utility treats wastewater, produces reclaimed water to run plant equipment, generate biosolids and produces renewable energy from the treatment process. For the past 13 years, Pallansch has served as chief executive officer and oversees all departments across the utility including plant operations and maintenance, regulatory compliance, IT, engineering and construction, communications, human resources and finance.

It wasn’t a job she just happened to land. Pallansch started at AlexRenew as a staff engineer in 1994 when the utility was known as the Alexandria Sanitation Authority (ASA). She proceeded to work her way up the ranks and has now logged close to 25 years with the utility.

“There is no typical day,” she says of her time as the boss. “There’s always something going on out there that you want to make sure you’re on top of. You also want to engage with the operators and mechanics and celebrate their successes and make sure their process is working.”

Pallansch notes that the culture of AlexRenew reflects that of the “big city, small town feel” of Alexandria and she takes pride in maintaining close ties to the community through her role as CEO. In fact, it’s not unusual for her to personally respond to questions from the public via email.

In addition to being CEO, Pallansch has also been involved in the municipal clean water sector on a national level, where she’s been an integral voice with organizations such as the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), WateReuse and the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation.

For her continued leadership, Pallansch has been named this year’s Water Finance & Management Award winner – the first woman to be recognized with this honor since Water Finance & Management launched the annual recognition in 2012.

Early Career

Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pallansch recalls being intrigued by environmental issues, mostly due to pollution in the area caused by a mill in the town she grew up in. She attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning her bachelor’s in chemical engineering. She later added a master’s in business management from Texas A&M University, Texarkana. Before officially making her move to the water sector, Pallansch was keen on making an impact with her career. She had an interest in fixing things and solving problems. Her ambition took her to China in the late 1980s when she worked as a project manager for the Department of the Army on research, design and construction projects for government-owned munitions facilities. She says she recalls the lack of pollution control in China, which further informed her view on the importance of environmental improvement.

At AlexRenew, Pallansch is hands-on with almost every facet of the operation. Outside of Alexandria, she’s also heavily involved in volunteer and advocacy organizations across the water sector.

Later, she moved to Virginia and joined the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), where she worked as a senior environmental engineer. Her work included implementing the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and the State Water Control Law, and construction inspection and funding management. She also managed the regional Revolving Loan program. This was the job that fully engaged her in the water industry.

“It’s one of those things. Once you’re in it, you never want to leave,” she says. “Water is so connected to everything and it connects our world. You can actually see the difference that you make.”

Pallansch says the position at DEQ involved coordination with county administrators in Northern Virginia. The experience framed her understanding of the financial challenges faced by smaller municipalities. Specifically, she noted the difficultly of balancing decisions about infrastructure funds with decisions about funding police, schools and other publicly-funded initiatives that would often trump what was being allocated to water or sewer.

“You really have to balance the needs and the wants [of communities] and understand that finance is the underlying resource,” she says. “You have to consider how you can get a better solution for your dollar, or find a solution that provides multiple benefits.”

After the DEQ, Pallansch joined AlexRenew (Alexandria Sanitation Authority at the time) in 1994 as a staff engineer soon after earning her professional engineering license.

What is AlexRenew?

The Alexandria Sanitation Authority was created in the early 1950s and operated for many years as a wastewater treatment facility. In 2012, the facility rebranded and became Alexandria Renew Enterprises to better reflect its evolving business of water reclamation and resource recovery.

Today, AlexRenew is a single-purpose entity – an advanced water resource recovery facility and political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It operates and maintains the sewage treatment system in a service area comprised mostly of the City of Alexandria and a large portion of Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, serving a population of about 320,000. Its mission is protecting public health while helping to restore the Potomac River, its tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annually, AlexRenew’s state-of-the-art facilities treat about 13 billion gallons of wastewater. The facility sits on just under 35 acres and is designed to treat an average daily flow of 54 million gallons per day (MGD).

In addition, the facility reuses 1.4 billion gallons of water on-site to run its equipment. It also reuses most of the 157 million cubic ft of the methane gas it produces. As part of the treatment process, AlexRenew’s facilities remove 4.3 million pounds of nitrogen and 32.3 million pounds of sediment.


“It’s one of those things. Once you’re in it, you never want to leave”

–Karen Pallansch on her introduction to the water industry.


Since her first role as a staff engineer, Pallansch has held seemingly every key management position, beginning with director of engineering and technical services when she was responsible for compliance oversight, laboratory and pretreatment programs. Next, as director of treatment she became responsible for daily plant operations, maintenance, fleet maintenance and warehousing for AlexRenew’s facility. As director of environmental services, she was responsible for the utility’s overall regulatory compliance implementation, tracking and reporting, internal and external customer outreach, water quality and pretreatment functions. As CEO, where she’s served since 2005, Pallansch oversees the overall operations, maintenance, fiscal, regulatory and human resources functions of the utility. AlexRenew now maintains an average $50 million annual operating budget and a $220 million capital improvement program. The utility also implemented an organizational change including the rebranding to AlexRenew in 2012 under Pallansch’s leadership.

RiverRenew

The RiverRenew program’s new network of tunnels will prevent millions of gallons of sewage and rainwater from reaching Alexandria’s waterways.

This past June, a joint plan prepared by AlexRenew and the City of Alexandria outlining an approach to remediate a portion of Alexandria’s sewer system built in the late 1800s was accepted by the DEQ. The plan outlines the construction of infrastructure improvements to remediate four outfalls in Alexandria that currently discharge rainwater and sewage into Alexandria’s rivers and streams during rain events. The Virginia General Assembly has mandated by law that discharges from the four outfalls be remediated by July 1, 2025.

The plan includes construction of a deep tunnel system approximately two miles long, along with new sewer infrastructure to connect the tunnels to the existing sewer system and plant. It also calls for upgrades to AlexRenew’s water resource recovery facility to pump and treat wastewater collected in the tunnels. Once completed, the new tunnel system will connect to the existing outfalls to prevent millions of gallons of stormwater and sewage from reaching local water bodies.

AlexRenew, which received ownership of the combined sewer outfall infrastructure from the City of Alexandria in July 2018, will plan, design and implement the plan to remediate the outfalls. In July, the program was branded as RiverRenew: Investing in Healthier Waterways for Alexandria.

Emily Baker, deputy city manager for the City of Alexandria, oversees the city’s role regarding utilities and its sewer collection system. She frequently corresponds and collaborates with Pallansch on issues and projects including the development of RiverRenew.

“Karen is very passionate about AlexRenew,” says Baker. “She tries to put the interest of the utility above everything else. They have a very urban site with a lot of challenges and she really looks to cutting-edge technology to help ensure the utility can continue meeting regulatory needs and the needs of the community. She’s very passionate about the environment and always wants to do the right thing.”

Technologies & Other Initiatives

In the past decade, AlexRenew has focused on significant enhancements to its treatment process through its State-of-the-Art Nitrogen Upgrade Program (SANUP). This upgrade helped AlexRenew meet the requirements to remove nitrogen from the Chesapeake Bay, improving its overall water quality.

AlexRenew developed SANUP through a combination of strategies including the design and construction of a centrate pre-treatment facility that utilizes Anammox bacteria, also known as red bugs, to reduce ammonia nitrogen. According to AlexRenew, there are only a handful of full-scale mainstream deammonification facilities that utilize Anammox bacteria currently in operation, mainly in Europe. The upgrades will reduce the total nitrogen AlexRenew discharges to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay by an additional 20 percent annually.

On the financing side of things, AlexRenew has partnered with United Way to launch its WATER Fund (Water Assistance That Empowers Residents), a payment assistance program available to residents temporarily struggling to pay their bills.

Affiliations and Recognitions

At AlexRenew, Pallansch is hands-on with almost every facet of the operation. Outside of Alexandria, she’s also heavily involved in volunteer and advocacy organizations across the water sector, as well as locally in Virginia. She is a diplomate with the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, and was named a 2017 Northern Virginian of the Year by Northern Virginia Magazine. She is a longtime member of the Water Environment Federation and is a WEF Fellow. She is a current board member for WateReuse and the Virginia Municipal League Insurance Pool and serves on the boards of First Night Alexandria and the City of Alexandria Eisenhower Partnership.

Pallansch was previously chair of the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation’s (now the Water Research Foundation) Research Advisory Council in addition to serving as an ex-officio member of the WERF Board. She is also a past president of NACWA, where she also continues to serve as a board member.


“Water people are problem solvers,” says Pallansch. “I don’t think people understand how anchored water professionals and water utilities are in their communities and how much they keep those communities healthy and thriving.”


Julius Ciaccia, former CEO of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, now with Roetzel Consulting Solutions, worked closely with Pallansch during their time as officers on the board of directors at NACWA.

Ciaccia describes how NACWA was at a crossroads as the organization sought new staff leadership in 2015. He says Pallansch was integral in leading the effort while maintaining NACWA’s focus on a myriad of other issues.

“We were at the final stages of [former executive director] Ken Kirk’s leadership and there were a lot of moving parts,” he says. “Karen is just one of those people who knows the right answer to things and knows how to get there, and is going to be very steady in how she gets there. She was the right person at the right time for that whole effort. Our approaches to things kind of complemented each other during a challenging time for the organization.”

Perspective & Outlook

Pallansch says one of the biggest challenges across the industry is developing water professionals with the right skills to fill needed positions. She notes the current smart water and Internet of Things era that has resulted in increased automation and digital technologies to help water utilities operate more efficiently. She also believes the United States is far behind other countries, such as some in Europe, in applying the latest and greatest in controls and instrumentation to utility operations.

“It’s still hard for people to see our employees as being those professionals,” she says. “We just got Amazon in the Arlington/Alexandria area. People still don’t see careers in water as being as good as careers at Amazon, and yet that’s what they are. Our whole plant is computer-controlled. We need people with cybersecurity and instrumentation and control skills.”

Another challenge she notes is a commonly cited one industrywide. She says the public’s lack of understanding about who clean water professionals really are and how important the work they do is detrimental. She acknowledges that while the industry at the municipal level has made strides in this area, a lot of work still remains to educate communities on the importance of water in everyday life.

“If people understood its importance, they would definitely invest in it,” she continues. “I think one of our biggest challenges is getting the message out so we can get that respect.”

As evidence of the tide turning, she notes AlexRenew’s Water Discovery Days, an annual open house held by the facility that invites the public to visit for plant tours and fun workshops. Pallansch notes the events have grown to attract more than 500 people regularly.

“It just goes to show that slowly overtime, we can get people to see the heroes that we have as water professionals who work at our facility 24/7. Whether it’s freezing cold or stifling hot, they’re out there making sure the water gets clean,” she says. “If you don’t have water and sewer, you don’t have a community.”

As for her own experience, Pallansch takes great pride in her position at AlexRenew and the relationships she’s been able to cultivate throughout her career. The job now, she says, is making sure others who are entering the industry can realize the same potential.

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from across the country and across the world who are smart and talented and have that great opportunity to exchange ideas with them,” she says. “On a personal level, that’s been really satisfying and something I never thought I’d be able to do.”


About the WF&M Award

The Water Finance & Management Award was created in 2012 to recognize leaders in the water/wastewater/stormwater utility sector who are at the forefront of driving innovation and who have had a lasting and meaningful impact within their utility/field. Nominations are submitted and voted on by WF&M’s editorial advisory board. The winner is chosen by vote, based on innovation, as well as the economic, social and environmental benefits that have occurred as a result of the individual’s leadership, contributions and lasting impact. For more information or to submit a nomination for 2019, please email Andrew Farr, associate editor, at afarr@benjaminmedia.com.

 Water Finance & Management Award Recipients

2018 – Karen Pallansch, CEO, Alexandria Renew Enterprises
2017 – George Hawkins, CEO, Moonshot LLC (fmr. CEO & GM, DC Water)
2016 – Kim Colson, Director, North Carolina Division of Water Infrastructure
2015 – Julius Ciaccia, Roetzel Consulting Solutions (fmr. CEO, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District)
2014 – Ben Grumbles, Secretary of the Environment, State of Maryland
2013 – Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
2012 – Steve Allbee, Office of Water, U.S. EPA (retired)


Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media. He has covered the water sector in North America for seven years and also covers the North American trenchless construction industry for sister publications Trenchless Technology and NASTT’s Trenchless Today.

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