Thinking Regionally, Thinking Big: Ted Henifin, 2021 WF&M Award Winner

When you think about examples of great innovation, it’s easy to think about things like modern technology. The smart phone. Steve Jobs. A bold vision to change the status quo with a groundbreaking product or service. In the water/wastewater utility sector, that same kind of long-term, innovative vision for groundbreaking projects also occurs – only this time matters of public health, regional sustainability and the environment are all on the line.

Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has taken a proactive approach to several projects under the direction of General Manager Ted Henifin. Henifin’s career has spanned nearly 40 years and during that time he’s held roles in public works and utilities in federal and local government, and now regionally with HRSD since 2006.

HRSD provides wastewater collection and treatment services to a population of more than 1.7 million that includes 20 cities and counties in southeast Virgina and along the Eastern Shore. Hampton Roads is located where the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth rivers pour into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and meet the Atlantic Ocean to the region’s east. Hampton Roads is both a nautical term for the channel linking the rivers with the Chesapeake Bay, and in 1983, it became the official name of the region that comprises the Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News metro areas. With a local economy closely tied to water, the region is known for its heavy military presence including Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

At HRSD, Henifin’s work on initiatives ranging from sanitary sewer overflow reduction to financial planning, community development and wastewater treatment have led him to become a nationally recognized utility leader.

“I can’t think of a better or more exciting place to work. It’s a mission that’s almost a calling,” he says of HRSD and the water industry. “We’re here to protect the environment and public health and we really want future generations to have clean water. It’s easy to come to work every day when that’s what you’re doing.”

One of HRSD’s most high-profile projects has been its Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow program (SWIFT). It’s comprehensive water reuse project that will enhance the sustainability of the region’s long-term groundwater supply, as well as address saltwater intrusion and sea level rise. The program will cost-effectively address multiple, long-term environmental challenges for the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads region.

Henifin might tell you SWIFT is a team effort because of the multifaceted components and numerous localities that will be impacted. But it’s Henifin’s strategic direction that has been at the center of the effort that has received national attention in the sector. He’s described by one peer as a “wickedly smart visionary in the water utility field,” always pushing to set a new standard for what wastewater utilities can accomplish both inside and outside the fence.

“He is the Elon Musk of the water utility industry,” says Paul Calamita, chairman of AquaLaw which has served as outside counsel for environmental work for HRSD for 30 years. “Ted has transformed HRSD into a national leader in the financing and delivery of public utility services. His innovations are all the more impressive given his relatively small team of deputies and slender reliance on outside consultants.”

“Ted has been a real and professional public servant,” adds David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “HRSD has been committed to excellence and transparency under his direction. And his willingness to develop and commit to the SWIFT project has been an example of his looking to the greater good of the citizens of coastal Virginia.”

Henifin will retire from his role with HRSD in March 2022, ending a 15-plus-year run with the utility. He is being recognized this month as the recipient of the Water Finance & Management Award, honoring public water/wastewater utility leaders who have made a lasting and meaningful impact on their system while applying innovation and forward-thinking leadership.

Early Career

Growing up in Virginia, Henifin developed an interest in engineering because of the variety of career avenues it offered him. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in civil engineering and soon after went to work for the federal government as a civilian managing a U.S. Navy public works center. The position gave Henifin a taste for utility work as his role involved managing wastewater collection and pumping, as well as drinking water distribution. He would eventually go on to hold similar positions at other public works centers in the region.

Henifin later moved to the local level, taking the position of director of public works for the City of Hampton, serving a population of 145,000. The position gave Henifin even more insight into the full purview of public works, as his role involved overseeing trash collection, road maintenance, engineering, sewer collection system and pumping station maintenance, and much more.

Henifin recalls his introduction to the world of utility work early in his career and discovering the peculiar dynamic of managing unseen, underground infrastructure while noting the passion for utility professionals.

“My impression from the beginning was how much people take utility work for granted but how the people doing it really understood the impact of their work even though no one else paid attention to what they were doing,” he says. “It’s this weird dichotomy. But there’s an internal motivation that’s intrinsic that keeps you going. If you’re doing it for pats on the back or public recognition, it’s just not going to happen.”

Hampton Roads Sanitation District

HRSD provides regional wastewater treatment to all the localities in Hampton Roads, which includes the cities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Viginia Beach and Williamsburg.

The district is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia and is governed by an eight-member governor-appointed commission. Its infrastructure includes a collection system of more than 500 miles of pipes, ranging from 6 to 60 in. in diameter, more than 100 pump stations and 17 treatment plants in eastern Virginia and along the Eastern Shore. Its total combined treatment capacity is about 249 million gallons per day.

Despite Henifin’s background in civil engineering, his utility work at the federal and local levels leaned more toward the management side of things. When he threw his hat into the ring for HRSD’s general manager position in 2006, he intended to bring a new management-focused approach to the utility.

Prior to his arrival, HRSD invested minimally in capital improvement, as assets were not necessarily in critical condition and investments had been adequate to maintain needed upgrades and projects. Rates also remained relatively unchanged.

But in 2006 and the years following, Henifin would change that approach as the utility became faced with concurrent emerging challenges. New state regulations were calling for reduced nutrient discharges into the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries. At the same time, the U.S. EPA and the Department of Justice placed HRSD under a federal consent decree to reduce sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). Reducing the nutrient discharges would require treatment upgrades. The SSO work would turn into a $2 billion program that now extends out to 2040.

One of Henifin’s goals early in his tenure was to get HRSD’s governing commission focused on a long-term financial plan. This involved increasing the budget projection to 20 years and implementing a 10-year capital improvement program. HRSD’s governing commission, which has independent rate setting authority, also raised rates to support the new investments.

“I take a lot of pride that we became this forward thinking, investment-focused organization. Now when we do an annual budget, our commission spends more time looking 20 years out than at how the rate today is going to impact coverage 20 years from now,” Henifin explains.

“I think we’ve been very fortunate to have the unique government structure and the commission we have. Our commission serves at the pleasure of the governor and they’re operating the utility as if it were a business. We’re looking at how we deal with future needs while not kicking the can down the road and not bankrupting our current customers.”

SWIFT

By 2013, amid significant planning and analysis for its approach to reducing SSOs, HRSD started looking at long-range planning.

“We tried to understand what the utility should look like in 50 or 100 years,” Henifin explains. “If we had a clean piece of paper, how would we redesign the system?”

The main issue was the consistent permits that mandated upgrades to treatment and process equipment in order to meet environmental standards for discharging water into the Chesapeake Bay.

Henifin and his staff concluded that it may be more financially feasible to leapfrog past the incremental wastewater treatment upgrades and instead treat the wastewater all the way to potable standards. At the same time, the state was beginning to have challenges with its groundwater supply and was cutting groundwater permits in eastern Virginia. In fact, 14 of the largest users of groundwater in eastern Virginia were having their permits cut by 2016. In eastern Virginia, the Potomac Aquifer is the region’s primary source of groundwater.

HRSD then hired CH2M Hill (now Jacobs) to model the impact of discharging treated potable water back into the Potomac Aquifer, which showed that the aquifer could in fact be safely replenished. After the regulatory agencies in Virginia and the EPA were on board, SWIFT was officially born.

Taking water out of the ground at the current rate has led to sinking of land, or land subsidence, in some parts of eastern Virginia. This makes the area more vulnerable to rising sea levels and associated impacts. Replenishing the aquifer with HRSD’s SWIFT Water™ (water treated to meet drinking water standards) can help slow or even reverse the sinking of land due to withdrawal. Henifin says overuse of the aquifer can cause close to 50 percent of the sinking of land in parts of eastern Virginia.

At full capacity, SWIFT would take treated wastewater that would normally be discharged into the Elizabeth, James or York rivers and put it through additional rounds of advanced water treatment to meet drinking water quality standards before being added to the Potomac Aquifer.

The SWIFT Research Center, which opened in 2018, is a pilot facility and represents the first completed piece of the program. The center is both a treatment and public education facility. On the treatment side, the center replenishes the Potomac Aquifer with up to one million gallons per day of effluent from the nearby treatment plant. The facility will inform the permitting and design of the full-scale SWIFT implementation at five additional facilities throughout the Hampton Roads region. These reuse facilities will have a combined capacity of more than 100 million gallons per day by 2032.

The advanced treatment process uses ozone biofiltration with granular activated carbon adsorption, meeting potable water standards and far exceeding wastewater treatment requirements under the Clean Water Act.

At full-scale, SWIFT will reduce nutrient discharge by approximately 90 percent below current requirements of the applicable total maximum daily limit, the relevant pollution budget. That is nearly three million pounds of nitrogen and 300,000 pounds of phosphorus for the James River alone. The reductions have made HRSD a nutrient credit supplier in the trading market for 11 localities holding MS4 stormwater permits, supplying 95 percent of the reductions the municipalities together required.

HRSD also convinced EPA that under its Integrated Planning Framework, the utility could integrate both the SWIFT work and its wet weather work related to reducing SSOs. Under this plan, the SWIFT work will be completed first before prioritizing the remaining wet weather work.

In 2014, HRSD proposed taking responsibility for making system repairs and expansions in addressing SSOs even on parts of the system owned by HRSD satellite systems. By using regional money to tackle the work, the total price tag would be reduced, thus saving the satellite systems money. This approach was adopted in 2014 and saved a $1 billion on the total cost of the SSO consent decree.

“One of the things I really admire about Ted is his ability to really think regionally,” says Doug Powell, general manager of the James City County Service Authority, an HRSD locality. “I think he puts the region’s interest higher than he puts his organization’s interest sometimes. He will go above and beyond to help localities even if it’s to the detriment of HRSD.”

Powell adds that James City County Service Authority is also a major interested party to SWIFT. It is the largest public utility in Virginia that relies solely on groundwater. In recent years, the authority has been forced to reduce its reliance on the aquifer for source water. If the SWIFT program proves successful in replenishing the aquifer in the long term, it will prevent James City County from having to seek a costlier source water alternative.

Other Initiatives & Outlook for Water

Another initiative worth highlighting that is unique for HRSD is its efforts on applied research and innovation for wastewater treatment. Starting around 2009 when the utility was realizing the cost of removing nutrients would continue to increase, the utility looked for a way to enhance its process, so HRSD began an applied research partnership with the local academic community. Through the partnership, HRSD hires masters and Ph.D. students to conduct applied research at treatment plants.

It’s all geared toward removing nutrients for less money. One solution involves the use of annamox, a bacteria that reduces the cost of converting nitrate to nitrogen gas.

“It’s everything around ways to tweak the treatment process to make it less intensive, whether it needs fewer tanks, needs less energy, needs less chemical – it’s about reducing the cost to treat,” Henifin says. “We’re seeing huge returns on it,” adding that HRSD also works cooperatively within the industry to help others apply similar processes or to further develop the research. “It’s a quiet piece of our work that I’d say is maybe going to be the most meaningful.”

In addition to his work at HRSD, Henifin has served on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies (VAMWA) and Virginia Forever; serves on the US Water Alliance’s One Water Council and on the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Financial Advisory Board. Henifin is also active in various civic and community organizations in the Hampton Roads community.

While he isn’t actively pursuing opportunities beyond HRSD following his March 2022 retirement, Henifin says he hopes to remain involved in the water industry in some capacity.

“I’ve come to really appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to make a difference and work in water,” he says, adding that he would have been just fine with it if water was his career from the very start.

“Climate change is going to continue to be a huge issue for the utility industry,” he says. “We still use a lot of energy. Moving to fully renewable and low carbon solutions is going to be very important for utilities going forward.”

He adds that large, centralized treatment systems may not be sustainable for the next 100 years and that the industry might need to look to innovation.

“I have to believe there’s a better solution out there. I don’t know what it is – maybe more local, building-level solutions where we can clean and recycle water at the source and get away from large, centralized systems that depend on these large significant infrastructure investments,” he says.

“It’s a transformation of things that I don’t see on the horizon, but I hope that people are thinking about it.”


Andrew Farr is the managing editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media in the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area. He has covered the water sector in North America for nine years and also covers the North American trenchless construction industry for sister publication Trenchless Technology.

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