Located on the Tualatin River Basin, Clean Water Services in Oregon serves a population of over 600,000 residents in urban Washington County and businesses including Nike and Intel. A fitting name, Clean Water Services is internationally recognized as a leader for holistic watershed management, and a One Water approach that integrates wastewater and stormwater collection and treatment.
But it wasn’t always this way. This is the story of how a polluted river, reduced to just a stream, spawned what today has become one of the most innovative water systems in America.
In this article, we’ll dive into key lessons from CWS’ digital transformation, and how it flows from a commitment to watershed restoration.
Necessity breeds innovation
In the late 1960s, Washington County’s water was in crisis. The Tualatin River, the area’s only river, was choked with pollution. Twenty-six treatment plants were discharging contaminated wastewater into area streams, provoking a moratorium on any new development in the region. The viability of the entire region was in question.
In the summer, the river was so small in some places, you could stand across it.
By 1970, the people of Washington County voted two-to-one in favor of creating a regional sewer utility—one of the first in the state. The vote signaled the community’s early commitment to protecting public health and the local environment through clean water.
Fast forward to today, and Clean Water Services’ CEO Diane Taniguchi-Dennis will tell you that everything the organization does aims to protect public health while enhancing the natural environment of Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed.
That means that CWS’ job doesn’t stop at the treatment plant: it includes building salmon habitat, planting a canopy that mitigates evaporation, and offering conservation education.
As organic as it all might sound, these initiatives aren’t driven by intuition. They’re backed by cold, hard data, and a commitment to innovation.
For Washington Country, there’s no other way: this is about securing a safe water supply for generations to come.
Digital transformation requires culture change
In an industry historically focused on pipes and pumps, CWS has learned to stop viewing itself as a team of engineers, and instead as 400 water entrepreneurs working together to leverage science and technology through the power of Mother Nature.
“In my experience, significant sustainable advances in smart water are only possible through culture change,” says Taniguchi-Dennis. “It’s really about a mindset focused on learning, thriving, and growing that drives digital transformation.”
The defining features of CWS’ culture of innovation include:
Practicing agility and change readiness.
Becoming less hierarchical and more networked.
Bridging gaps between different subject matter expertise via multidisciplinary project teams.
It’s a commitment that cascades across every level of the organization, but is perhaps best illustrated by the tech team.
Transform IT into a Digital Solutions team
Innovating at the watershed-scale depends on having the right leaders around the table. That’s why CWS has transformed its IT department from a service center into a strategic business partner.
The Digital Solutions team, led by Dr. Ting Lu, is a confluence of Information Technology (IT), Operations Technology (OT), and Engineering Technology (ET) that supports the organization on everything from permit compliance to optimizing water for the region.
This team’s impact has been transformative, having introduced:
Dashboards to support transparency & decision making throughout the district
Real-time controls to optimize storm runoff capacity
Automated vehicle-locator technology, sewer sensors and GIS data integration for data driven operations
Technology to optimize basin planning and risk management
Virtual collaboration and learning platforms
Open-source, low cost IoT sensor solutions
And they’re not stopping there.
Dr. Lu shared her vision for the next decade: “We would like to be using smart water and digital twin systems to provide insights and operational and planning decision support to not only our gray infrastructure, but also integrating our green infrastructure, natural systems and the watershed together at scale.”
Start with the basics
Like any good digital strategy, CWS started with the basics: compliance.
In 1991, the organization was targeting an aggressive Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) target of 0.1 milligrams of phosphorus per liter, which meant they needed to be operating some of the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities of the time.
The effort was so paramount, it provoked its own sing-song slogan: “Point one in ninety one!”
So, when CWS later ran into a thermal compliance issue based on excess ammonia in the water from fisheries, they saw the opportunity to rise above their regulatory duty and take control of their own destiny.
“We realized that just focusing on the water chemistry or water quality wasn’t going to be enough to really meet the promise that the Clean Water Act brings to us, which is fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters,” says Taniguchi-Dennis.
Instead of putting chillers at the treatment facility outfalls—where the benefit would have washed away just a few miles downstream—CWS decided to look at the problem holistically across the watershed. The solution? Planting trees and shrubs along the river and its tributaries.
And thanks to innovation at every level—from financing and revegetation to partnerships that tap into new revenue sources—CWS has the resources to do so quickly. Where CWS could previously plant 2 million trees and shrubs in a decade, they can now reach that target in a single year.
“You have to get to a point where regulatory compliance is just one part of an output of what your utility does, but really your purpose, or the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, are so much greater than that,” says Taniguchi-Dennis.
“And that’s really what smart technology is starting to allow us to do. It’s allowing us to really hear what’s going on in the environment.”