March 28, 2019

A conversation with Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, CEO, Clean Water Services, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you?

Diane: I am a community water artisan and innovator looking to make a difference on this earth.

Radhika: Congratulations on your recent appointment to CEO! You have a long track record with Clean Water Services, a well-known, innovative One Water utility. What makes your organization so effective?

Diane: It starts with the Clean Water Services Board of Directors. They have great trust in staff that has been well-earned over the years. Their active engagement with the CEO and staff, as a partnership, to deliver value to our region and ratepayers as we conduct our business to clean water for public health and the environment, is unique. They give us the freedom to incubate innovation and to create a transformative water organization.

We’re well-rounded as the builders and operators of the public gray and green infrastructure, and now we’re doing the same with natural systems! We have expanded our work to the watershed scale to meet the regional values of the economy, environment, and nature. We’re actively expanding our circular economy perspective and working to bring usable resources to market.

We don’t just manage the wastewater and stormwater services for the region—we are also in the resource recovery and ecological restoration business. At Clean Water Services, we leverage science and technology to create solutions for the region and share our innovations with the world.

Left: Diane (kneeling right) with mentors from CH2M Hill who inspired her to choose a career path in wastewater services. Right: Diane (left) on her first day in the wastewater industry as a college intern for CH2M Hill on Maui.

Radhika: What’s surprised you most about being part of executive staff and then moving to CEO?

Diane: I came in as Deputy General Manager, so I had the privilege of working closely with Bill Gaffi, our former General Manager. The day-to-day business is not a surprise, but I’m surprised by the profound hope staff have for the future—to transform this organization into a place that brings the best out of each person and where we co-create solutions together. We are experts at working in our technical silos, but we know that complex problems require multidisciplinary solutions. So, we are now working in integrated hubs to catalyze our work together.

Radhika: Clean Water Services is on the leading edge in a lot of ways. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the farmers you work with upstream, and you were one of the first utilities in the country to make beer with the water you’re treating. Where does the courage to try new things come from?

Diane: I think the courage comes from the deep curiosity to explore new ways of doing things. At times, our own fear is what pulls us back. Certainly, the fear of going out too far on the innovation curve has kept us pragmatic and kept us from doing something audaciously unwise. But, one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt says: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Radhika: What have you done today that scares you?

Diane: Today, I chose to have a courageous conversation. And, I’m having the courage to encourage more courageous conversations about what and why we do what we do. Here’s the story:

There was some confusion and conflict that erupted at a public meeting, with directed criticism toward the Clean Water Institute, the nonprofit entity incubated by Clean Water Services. The CEO of the partner agency and I convened a meeting with their board member to have a courageous and mindful conversation about their concerns voiced at the public meeting. In conflict, defensiveness rises, and once angst is triggered, then no one is thinking about the best outcome. There was deep angst that was the root for the public criticism. This angst was fueled by the lack of clear context and information. I acknowledged their angst and apologized for this burden because it generated a deep sense of distrust. While I have no control over the past, I can focus on making a difference today with my commitment to provide context that is open and transparent. It’s about a deeper listening, understanding, and meeting people where they are that can lead to a different outcome. Our partnership is now stronger because of this conversation.

Radhika: I’m halfway through “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown about the power of vulnerability. What you’re saying reminds me of what she talks about! What book have you read that’s influenced your leadership style?

Diane: The book I go to a lot when I seek to answer a wicked problem is one by Margaret Wheatley called “Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity.”  I really like the restoring sanity piece in this turbulent world. There’s lots of wisdom in it.

The book challenges every leader to think about three profound questions. First, who do you choose to be for this time? This accentuates the imperative of choice. Second, are you willing to use your power and influence to create islands of sanity that help us relate, create, and persevere? Look at where people are at odds, where they can’t relate, and ask so how do you persevere and have conversations and get to a better place? Third, will you bravely choose to reclaim leadership as a noble profession in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil? We must have the courage to be a leader with the clear voice of reason toward a pathway forward.

Radhika: That is poetic, Diane. Thank you for sharing. So, it’s been 50 years since the Clean Water Act. If you could rewrite the Act to meet the needs for the next 50 years what would you emphasize? 

Diane: The Clean Water Act has helped us make significant progress over the last 50 years. It’s been focused on controlling pollution from outfalls that created untenable situations in our rivers. The issue of today is that our rivers are dying a death of a thousand cuts. We need to ask: is it really the current regulatory framework that will drive us toward needed solutions? Or are we just creating suboptimal solutions to check the regulatory box. Or, should it enable us to work differently, at the watershed scale, for the long-term? Solutions at the watershed scale, is the catalyst, to actually restore our precious waters.

The Clean Water Act needs to expand its tools, but there’s fear that with more flexible tools, folks with less than altruistic intent could take advantage and get away with more pollution. Maybe you should have to master Clean Water Act 1.0, and then once you have, work at 2.0. There does need to be checks and balances. That would be my hope—to allow clean water utilities to be the catalysts of change to restore our waters and work at the landscape scale.

Radhika: If you were on your soapbox, what would you say?

Diane: I talk a lot about the challenges of too much and too little water, the bioaccumulation of our waste products in the food chain, the changes in our biome, and the collapse of fundamental species like pollinators, all which pose a dire challenge for humanity. We cannot use the same thinking or tools of the past. We need to invest in solutions now that’ll get us towards the water sensible society of the future.

Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you?

Diane: I look at water as a precious gift we need to hold lightly. There’s water to meet our needs but maybe not all our wants. Its mother nature teaching us to borrow water and release it as a gift in a never-ending cycle. The idea that water is a gift will help us manage this gift wisely when it’s in our possession.