Working with varied stakeholders on complicated issues to produce innovative, effective solutions is a considerable challenge, particularly for water-related issues. But John Verduin has made a career of doing exactly that, particularly in his current role as managing partner of Anchor QEA, a company that uses innovation and collaboration to solve complex environmental and water issues ranging from irrigation and municipal water supply to storm water, wastewater, and green infrastructure. In this article, Mr. Verduin tells Municipal Water Leader about Anchor QEA’s origins, the company’s approach to the challenging projects it undertakes, and how it has created a culture of innovation and collaboration both internally and externally.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell our readers about your background.
John Verduin: I’m a geotechnical engineer by trade and am entering my 34th year in engineering practice. Most of my geotechnical engineering experiences have focused on unique design settings, not the standard foundation or shoring geotechnical-type design, which was what I did early in my career. I eventually moved toward more out-of-the-box geotechnical problems. For example, how do you build a restoration site in a coastal environment in weak soils and make sure it’s going to be there over time? Situations like that required me to apply my geotechnical skills in a nontraditional way.
I grew up in southern Illinois. I have an undergraduate degree in geological engineering from the University of Missouri–Rolla, now known as Missouri University of Science and Technology. I then acquired a master’s degree at Purdue University in engineering with a focus on geotechnical engineering. I moved out to Seattle about 35 years ago. My wife is from Seattle, and we have made it our home.
Municipal Water Leader: How long have you been associated with Anchor QEA? What are your responsibilities?
John Verduin: I came to Anchor Environmental, one of Anchor QEA’s predecessors, in early 1998, shortly after the company formed, after spending 10 years at a local geotechnical company in Seattle. I think I was employee number 5 at Anchor Environmental. I was our first engineer and led many of our early design projects around the country. Because of that, I think I am a registered professional engineer in roughly 20 different states. I’ve worn many hats since coming to the company, and I dabbled in management from the beginning. I have been more involved in management for the last 10–15 years. I have been the managing partner for the last 3½ years.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the history of the company?
John Verduin: Anchor Environmental was established in late 1997 in Washington State, and QEA was founded in the New York–New Jersey area in early 1998. Our founders were really focused on providing quality scientific and engineering work. We were fortunate enough to be involved in some of the country’s toughest environmental challenges. We really thrived in innovation, expertise, and collaboration. Anchor Environmental quickly dominated the aquatic environmental engineering services industry, working on some really large projects for big clients around the country. QEA became a national leader in water quality, water resources, chemical fate, and transport modeling within a few years.
In 2006, Anchor Environmental took a big step into the water resources market when it acquired a company called Montgomery Water Group. Bob Montgomery and his staff gave Anchor the engineering skill set to step into complex water resources projects. Subsequently, Anchor added other key leaders in the field, including Tracy Drury, PE, an applied geomorphologist specializing in river restoration; Greg Summers, a national and local regulatory professional focused on large-scale water resources projects; and Michael MacWilliams, PhD, PE, a nationally recognized hydrodynamic and morphologic modeler in river and estuarine systems. All these additions greatly strengthened Anchor’s water resources capabilities.
In 2009, Anchor Environmental and QEA merged to create Anchor QEA. QEA had a strong East Coast presence, and Anchor had a strong presence on the West Coast and around the country. Anchor was more engineering heavy, and QEA was a little bit more science heavy, so the merger made a lot of sense. We continue to expand and specialize in a variety of services in environmental science, engineering, planning, and restoration. I think one thing that’s really helped us since our beginning is that we’ve grown without losing the entrepreneurial drive of a small startup. We think differently and challenge the status quo with our solutions. Today, we have over 350 employees and 25 offices around the country.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us some examples of the different kinds of work that your company does?
John Verduin: We are attracted to the more challenging projects around the nation. We try to assist our clients with water resources; surface and groundwater quality; coastal flood resiliency, which is a big topic now; contaminated sediment management; and habitat restoration projects. We provide a full range of science and engineering services for both the public and private sectors. We work with our clients from the initial planning, site investigation, and feasibility evaluation stages through design; plans and specifications; construction management; permit compliances; and environmental monitoring, if required. We’ve been fortunate to have some of the more successful projects in the industry, including some of the bigger, high-visibility projects, from small municipal projects to large Superfund sites. We work in five market sectors, serving state and local, industrial, energy, federal, and port and harbor clients across the nation.
Municipal Water Leader: Is it possible to develop win-win water solutions that address needed supplies and environmental concerns?
John Verduin: Yes. One type of project we often evaluate here in the Northwest is optimizing the use of reservoirs to provide water for multiple uses, including irrigation and municipal uses and instream flows for fish. We combine that with work to reduce demands through water conservation to increase supplies for fish. We also prepare fisheries studies to evaluate the best use of water for fish and water quality studies to help manage temperature in the water released from reservoirs. Bringing the water users, reservoir operators, and biologists together can result in creative solutions to water supply and environmental issues. This has become increasingly important as climate change is changing water supplies, demands, and environmental conditions.
Municipal Water Leader: What are some recent examples of your projects?
John Verduin: The Meydenbauer Park project in Bellevue, Washington, is a high-visibility project on an important linkage from downtown Bellevue to the Lake Washington waterfront. We designed the park and the storm water facilities, including a media filtration system, bioretention area, and infiltration facility and daylighted a storm drainpipe to create a natural stream channel down the middle of the park. It’s an award-winning project that showcases our storm water engineering and landscape architecture skills. Another typical water resources project for us is one called the Icicle Creek strategy. We are currently working with multiple stakeholders to evaluate different projects and actions intended to improve the management and use of water resources in the Icicle Creek watershed in eastern Washington. The overarching goal of the strategy is to improve water supply reliability within the watershed for both agricultural and municipal users but also increase instream flows for fish. We recently completed a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate multiple alternatives, including assessments of optimizing and automating releases from lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, the restoration of a dam on Eight Mile Lake, the evaluation of pump-back projects for multiple stakeholders, and the replacement of an old gravity-irrigation system with a pressurized system to reduce diversions from Icicle Creek. We are now developing designs for several of the alternatives evaluated in the EIS. It is a multidisciplinary project that we can get a lot of our different technical groups involved in.
Municipal Water Leader: Have you worked specifically on municipal water supply and wastewater projects?
John Verduin: Yes. We typically work on projects that have multiple components, as opposed to strictly municipal or strictly wastewater projects. For example, a lot of our water resource projects have irrigation, municipal, or natural resources components, and the supply must be balanced to meet the demands of multiple users. Similarly, most of our storm water projects also include natural retention or green infrastructure, not just pipes. Again, there are multiple components in these challenging projects.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you expand on your storm water projects, specifically on how they reduce urban water runoff?
John Verduin: Anytime you do not have to handle or treat water, you can save money. The trend to using green infrastructure and low-impact development such as bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavement is something we’ve been incorporating into our waterfront development and landscape architecture projects for decades. We have a landscape architecture group led by Peter Hummel, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects who has been one of the leaders in applying these solutions. Our designs have been employing these techniques for a long time. Allowing water to infiltrate in the ground eliminates the need to treat the water before reentering it in the natural systems. They also provide green space that can easily be incorporated into city parks and recreation areas.
A developing area in storm water that we are involved with is the capture and recharge of storm water to aquifers through larger infiltration projects. The goal is to increase groundwater discharge to streams to increase low flows and reduce stream temperatures. The recharge will also offset demand from wells that serve water systems and private homeowners.
Municipal Water Leader: How can utilities save money by using natural water systems instead of having to treat the water?
John Verduin: It is done by trying to minimize the handling of the water in complex built systems and instead using what Mother Nature has given us: using the ground and natural contours to handle and treat the water and using those opportunities to restore habitat and mitigate habitat losses. These projects can provide occasions to address multiple stakeholders’ wants and needs in a cost-effective manner.
Municipal Water Leader: What trends do you see in environmental restoration work?
John Verduin: It is an exciting area that we have been involved in for a while. We have been involved in several of what are called floodplain by design projects. Washington has been one of the states at the forefront of this strategy. Floodplain by design integrates flood damage reduction, habitat restoration, and agricultural viability. We see this concept taking off around the country, and we have a lot of experience in this type of river and watershed restoration project.
One of our largest watershed restoration projects, the Chehalis basin strategy, is looking at a comprehensive, long-term set of actions to reduce flood damage and restore aquatic species habitats in a 2,400‑square-mile watershed in western Washington. It is an exciting project that allows us to draw on in-house expertise in several technical disciplines as well as to work with outside consultants. It is being funded by the State of Washington. This is a good example of providing a multibenefit strategy for floods and fish. More and more cities and counties are looking at reducing flooding effects while also restoring floodplains to benefit fish and people.
Another large restoration project that we have worked on is the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, which is funded by the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation. It was one of the first plans of its kind in Washington State and led the way for evaluating and implementing multiple benefit water resource projects. Anchor QEA worked with federal, state, and local agencies; the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation; and stakeholders to develop alternatives and projects that benefit the environment while improving water supply reliability for agricultural and municipal users. This project also draws on multiple disciplines within our company.
Municipal Water Leader: What should everyone know about Anchor QEA?
John Verduin: Our company’s mission is to improve the environment and our communities by solving challenging problems together, with integrity and vibe. We want to tackle the most pressing and challenging projects affecting us. We understand the value of enduring relationships, and we prioritize them in our work. We want to work together with the involved stakeholders and help forge the best solution, doing the right thing and enjoying our work. Our large water resource projects draw on that mission. Our vision is to be a growing company that is our clients’ first choice for solving the most challenging problems and our employees’ first choice for where they want to work. We believe that accomplishing this starts with having engaged employees who want to be challenged and to do meaningful work, which leads to better client service. Our size allows us to be nimbler and to foster closer client relationships than the larger firms while also allowing us to be proactive in solving these large, challenging problems. We enjoy projects that draw on our multidisciplinary teams. It is rewarding when we have a project that involves water resources, civil, geotechnical, and coastal engineers; landscape architects; biologists; and planners and permitters. Since we provide a full range of science and engineering services to both the public and the private sectors, our teams really understand the importance of stakeholder relationships, how to foster partnership strategies, and how to align project goals and community initiatives early on. Lastly, our team really prides itself on knowing that our clients can depend on us to deliver innovative results that will build resilient ecosystems, restore local habitat, and protect the land and waters that our communities depend on in more ways than one. When we can truly grasp what stakeholders need to be successful, we can help develop good solutions.