Cascade Water Alliance: Thriving Together
By K.C. Compton
The history of Cascade Water Alliance is in many ways the history of the last 40 years of water in Western Washington. Formed as a coalition of water utilities in the growing communities around Seattle, the Alliance evolved out of ongoing regional “water wars” and generated collaborative solutions ensuring both a long-term water supply and the recovery of critical resources — which meets PureBlue’s definition of Winning@Water.
Even a cursory glance at the condition of water resources worldwide leads to an inescapable realization: We have a lot of work to do. Big projects require big collaboration. A solid role model for how to bring about massive, sustained change involving multiple actors and diverse interested parties can be found close to home: the Pacific Northwest’s own Cascade Water Alliance.
Cascade Water Alliance is municipal corporation comprising five cities and two water and sewer districts that provides water to more than 350,000 residents and 20,000 businesses for members Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah, Kirkland, Tukwila, Sammamish Plateau Water and the Skyway Water and Sewer District. The corporation was formed in 1999 when water providers throughout the region became concerned that available water would not be sufficient for a region that was growing. Under the leadership of CEO Chuck Clarke, Cascade embarked on an extensive, inclusive process to determine the best way to deliver water not just in the immediate future, but for the next 50 years and beyond.
To that end, in 2009, the corporation purchased the last available major water source in the region, Lake Tapps, a reservoir southeast of Cascade’s service area, as its future water supply. The result was a triple win — for ratepayers who are assured of adequate water now and in the future; for the environment, including the salmon so essential to the region’s economy and native people; and for the people who live around Lake Tapps, a water resource both useful and beautiful.
Cascade is now a united entity, with an “all for one, one for all” ethos as the cornerstone of its effectiveness. For the separate organizations to reach this point, a great deal of nitty-gritty process had to take place. Looking at what worked then and now, Clarke offered a window into Cascade’s experience and best practices.
In addressing complex challenges and decision-making, Clarke stresses that it’s important to have a clear idea of what is being asked and to start out with buy-in at the highest level, which simplifies implementation and gives staff a clear idea of their direction.
“Often, staff drives a program or project,” Clarke says, “and we share it and work it through our member staffs, committee meetings and leadership long before it comes to the board for final decisions. We take their input, often improving our efforts from the feedback, and finalize proposals for our board, who then support and are much invested in these programs.
“But we don’t stop there,” he says. “We give progress reports, we start efforts in member-service areas and we include our board members and their staffs when we can. The result? Everyone feels ownership of the program and its success.”
One key to the success of Cascade itself, Clarke says, is that it operates with a small staff of about 10 people. This allows the corporation to go out and get whatever specific services it needs for projects, i.e. legal, construction, planning, engineering, outreach, governmental affairs, educational outreach and curriculum for conservation. When those projects or initiatives are completed, the outside service is also complete.
“Because of the changing nature of the agency’s needs,” he says, “this allows us to keep a small staff directing and managing efforts without large overhead. The governance structure allows quick and efficient decision-making processes — being able to quickly speak with our board (elected officials representing our members) to get responsive, timely decisions.
“In other organizations where I’ve worked, such decision-making took from five to ten times as long as it does here, adding time and cost to every project.”
Cascade streamlines its legal services as well, trimming the bottom line by using a legal firm rather than in-house attorneys to provide for the corporation’s needs in real estate, water law or for general counsel. “That way we get the right person for the task at hand,” Clarke says, “without relying on a generalist who may not be well-versed in exactly what we need at the time.”
The feature most essential to Cascade’s success, Clarke says, is that the corporation has involved the right people, who have a powerful commitment to do the planning and implementation necessary to accomplish the corporation’s vision, and a board with the political will and the ability to be effective and make timely decisions. A key part of this, and an aspect Clarke believes is missing in most of US politics and society at this time, is that both he and the organization foster and encourage feedback loops.
“We believe that the absence of feedback is critically damaging us in all aspects of society, as is a distrust of adaptive management,” he says. “It is not possible to grow as an organization — or a democracy — without the ability to question and consider the opinions and judgments of others. No one person or entity can see and know all there is to know about a specific issue or challenge. Therefore, to make progress, an inclusive process is the only approach that is sustainable and lively in the long run.”
In looking at planning for adequate water for the future, with sufficient resources for both population, environmental and commercial necessities, Cascade’s experience offers wise examples as well.
“You have to ensure that water is a key element of every planning process, and that it is a commitment of every person involved, from top officials to staff members. Saving water is in itself a portion of an agency’s water supply.”
That approach to saving water is not limited to Cascade’s member organizations but is a part of their collective outreach to their service area. In 1992, the Puget Sound area suffered a serious drought and the community was asked to follow conservation actions that were voluntary at first and then became mandatory. The community embraced the conservation ethic and water use never returned to previous levels. The water industry made improvements in its systems; technological innovation meant new appliances used less water; businesses got water-smart and implemented numerous conservation improvements. Even students in the area’s schools get involved in the water-saving curriculum and Cascade’s website offers a variety of videos and online classes in various approaches to conserving water.
“Water saved is water we don’t have to acquire in the future,” Clarke says.
Cascade’s newest initiative is to look out on the horizon and determine where problems might arise—particularly in potential damage from an earthquake, climate challenges or water-quality issues—and anticipate far in advance what solutions might be warranted.
“We want to know where vulnerable connections are,” he says, “and work with our partners to fix them now, or to know how to do so in an emergency. We want to build and stockpile supplies we might need and identify key skills and know how and where to apply them. Our studies show that service disruption in the event of a major earthquake, for example, could be up to 60 to 90 days and we are looking now at what our recovery time should be. Once we’ve done that, we will plan accordingly to reach that goal.
“We’re pleased with our emergency planning and resiliency efforts so far. We have to continue to meet and arrive at workable solutions to ensure our residents and businesses get water service as soon as possible after any disruption. It’s an ongoing effort and commitment.
“Our collaborative approach has been terrific, but it’s only a start.”
A detailed history of Cascade Water Alliance is available here.
Chuck Clarke’s Guide to Thriving While Getting Things Done
- Be small
- Be nimble
- Empower staff
- Celebrate successes
- Celebrate the attempts you made that didn't become a reality — and build on what you learned.
- Create a staff that likes each other and works well together.
- Everybody does their part.
- Be committed to having things work.
- Take care of elected officials and board members: Give them some wins to celebrate and take credit for.
- Show what you have done.
- Be thorough.
- Work in teams.
- Speak up.
- Every idea has some merit, so listen.
- Work hard.
Cascade’s How-To Videos
Did you enjoy this article? If so, sign-up for more water innovation updates via our bi-monthly newsletter Ripples.