Municipal Water Leader
Interview

How Desert Water Agency Is Keeping Its Employees and Customers Safe

Desert Water Agency (DWA) provides water services to about 90,000 people in Palm Springs, California. As an essential service provider, DWA has had to find creative ways to continue its services during the COVID19 pandemic. In this interview, DWA Manager Mark Krause tells Municipal Water Leader about the changes the agency has had to make to overcome the disruptions of the pandemic. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background. 

Mark Krause: I am the general manager for DWA. I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1986 with a bachelor’s in engineering and went to work for Krieger & Stewart in Riverside. I did lots of projects in the water world, including surveying and inspection. I became familiar with many agencies and the different ways they do things. DWA was one of the best of our clients. They did things right. About 9 years into my career at Krieger & Stewart, in 1995, DWA offered me a job, and I decided to make a change. That was 25 years ago. I established an engineering department and a planning department at DWA; we now do a lot of our own design. I worked my way up through operations to become the supervisor of engineering operations, then assistant general manager, and finally general manager. I’ve been DWA’s general manager for about 5 years now. 

Municipal Water Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations? 

Mark Krause: It came as a huge surprise, but we reacted quickly. We immediately started to socially distance by changing our work schedule. Almost everyone transferred to telecommuting, so we had to get a lot of electronics and laptops. 

Our field crews typically don’t work in the office, so telecommuting is not an easy fit for their jobs. We had them come in every other day and to do training on the days they stayed home. We also postponed a lot of work that is not essential to keeping the water system moving, especially tasks that required us to get closer than 6 feet together. We made some changes in the way our field crews work; they maintain social distance out in the field unless it’s absolutely necessary not to. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are there any other things that you’re doing to keep your customers and employees safe? 

Mark Krause: Right away, we tried to get as much hand sanitizer, wipes, and cleaning materials as we could get to keep the office clean. We had a hard time finding it. Our cleaning crew let us know that they could send in a special crew to sanitize everything, so we have them coming in every night in addition to the normal cleaning crew. They sanitize everything: all the desktops, computers, keyboards, and telephones; the coffee room; the copy machine; and anything else you might touch. We require our employees to wear face coverings in the office, and we staggered our start times. 

We also closed our lobby to outside visitors before the governor had even put any restrictions in place. To make things easier for our customers, we decided to expand their payment options and eliminated late fees. We also adopted a policy that no one would get shut off through at least July 15. We’ll probably extend that. We have our phones forwarded to us at home so that customers can reach the agency even if employees are working remotely. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is the most innovative thing that you’ve done to maintain your workflow? 

Mark Krause: I don’t know that we’re doing anything that other people aren’t doing. Our board of directors got out ahead of this problem and acted more quickly than a lot of organizations in the state. That made a really big difference. Social distancing and telecommuting were innovations for us because they were brand new. I don’t know a lot of organizations that are disinfecting the office every night, but I think that’s a huge thing because people are afraid to go to work when they don’t think the office is clean. 

Municipal Water Leader: Is that a huge expense? 

Mark Krause: It costs $300 a night. 

Municipal Water Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over? 

Mark Krause: Telecommuting is something we didn’t know we could do. We never thought about it; it wasn’t necessary. Now we know that a lot of our staff can work from home. That opens up some alternatives for us going forward. When people are feeling a little sick, they often would rather come to work than take a sick day, for instance. Maybe we’ll institute the option for employees who don’t feel 100 percent but can still get their work done to take a telecommuting day so that they don’t spread an illness. That could also be helpful for people who need to take care of other issues. We’re talking about opening that window of options. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would each individual have a bank of telecommuting days, or would they be allowed to take telecommuting days on a case-by-case basis? 

Mark Krause: We’re looking at both options. Nobody really knows how many telecommuting days they’re going to need. I would leave it up to the supervisor to assess the situation and approve the use of a telecommuting day. As long as the employee is working, that’s fine with me. 

Municipal Water Leader: Do you have any advice or suggestions for other agencies? 

Mark Krause: The thing that I struggled with when the pandemic began is that water agencies are conservative by nature and avoid making decisions without lots of deliberation. They think about their communities and the sorts of secondary effects their decisions can have. That’s why having a plan is a great thing. You don’t want to have to make a bunch of decisions really quickly—that’s not what water agencies do. In this case, there was no time to delay. We had to act quickly. We relied on collaboration and a common-sense approach. 

If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Talk to everybody, because that’s how you get the input you need and avoid unintended consequences. Overcommunicate with your staff. Supervisors often don’t want to mention things they’re not sure about. I encourage them not to be afraid. If you have an idea or a concern, put it out there and talk about it. It could be really important. You can’t do enough communicating. That one extra thing you do for safety might be the thing that keeps everybody safe, so don’t be afraid to do it. 

Now we’re dealing with the fatigue of this whole thing. The next challenge is to know if we have to continue to do this. How do we keep morale up? How do we keep the standard as high as it needs to be? It’s getting hard—the situation has been going on for a long time. 

Mark Krause is the general manager of the Desert Water Agency. He can be reached at (760) 323‑4971.