June 2008

Politics and Water: An Interview with Dean Moss

Author: Larry Hughes

It’s become politically fashionable in these parts for politicians to intone the mantra of “The River, The River, and The River” when talking of priorities. As the struggle to balance smart growth with slow growth or even no growth intensifies, the fervency of that impassioned chant must be weighed against action. Who decides what is the greater good? And why? How?

Dean Moss, head of the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority (BJWSA), is a powerful person. When it comes to setting a pecking order in politics and water, Mr. Moss would definitely have one of the biggest bills.

BJWSA is a company with $36 million annual operating revenues. Its net asset value of $245 million makes it one of the larger companies in the Lowcountry. With a 2006-2008 capital improvement budget of $80 million and ten year projected capital expenditures in excess of $200 million, BJWSA can afford to walk softly and carry a big stick, as the saying goes.

So it’s a bit of a surprise when William Dean Moss, Jr. strolls into the foyer in casual attire with no entourage. Of modest build and height and with a ruddy complexion that suggests lots of time spent outdoors, Moss looks like your friendly CPA or maybe a high school biology teacher. In short, he looks user-friendly—non-threatening.

We settled in to his modest office which presently looks out on construction signifying an impressive expansion site. “We’re trying to build for the next twenty years of service and support for our customers,” he said with a slight smile. “That’s what we try to do with our service business model, so we’re just applying it to our own company.”

Q. Some people I’ve talked with think of BJWSA as some shadowy organization like Opus Dei or something in a Robert Ludlum novel. Just what are you?
A. There are some interesting descriptions floating around of who and what we are. First of all, we’re a homegrown company. We began water services to military installations, Beaufort, and Port Royal in 1965. The what is easy, too. We’re a public, non-profit, non-taxing public service district established in 1954. Today, we serve seven wholesale customers and 43,000 retail customers.

Q. Not too many homegrown businesses have 160 employees, fully certified water and wastewater laboratory, and a AA rating by Standard and Poors.
A. True. We’ve got three water systems and seven sewer systems in two counties. That’s $255 million in assets to make clean drinking water and take care of waste. But that doesn’t change the fact that we started small and have grown with the times, like lots of businesses.

Q. Who runs all this?
A. Well, we’ve got 50 great employees here at headquarters and 110 out in the field with 101 state licenses. Then there’s me, general manager of the Authority, and I report to a nine-member board of directors.

Q. How does one get on the board?
A. Get nominated by our legislative delegation and then appointed by the governor.

Q. Would the average John Q. Public know any of these directors?
A. Charlie Peyton, former chairman of Exxon, retired to this area, is one. He’s married to Peggy Sanford, the governor’s mother. Tom Davis, chief of staff for the governor, was on our board, and a great asset. He’s still a good friend of mine. We have a former general on the board and others with great business careers and service on many other boards on their résumés.

Q. That doesn’t sound like a short list of folks I might run into at the Okatie Ale House.
A. Probably not. But I will assure you that the culture of this board is to be regional in thought and action and service. Parochial interests are not encouraged. All of us, from the top down, are about demonstrating technical proficiency. We want to help make smart growth happen. And we all have an abiding love of this area.

Q. How did you get this job?
A. Old story. Right place at the right time. My wife and I both went to Chapel Hill, UNC for masters degrees in regional planning. We met there. I’d gone to the University of Denver for a bachelor’s degree in geography. I grew up in a rural corner of Connecticut and loved the outdoors.

Q. Do you still?
A. Oh, sure. I have a 15-foot Boston Whaler I love to run around in, and I like shrimping and crabbing. Love swimming around in the Beaufort River in the summertime.

Q. So how did you end up here?
A. We got our degrees and headed down to Florida for a brief stint—from there out west to Arizona for eight years, where I learned a lot about water resources and environmental management and land use. Then we made a family decision to move back east with our young family and put down deep roots. I had been stationed in Charleston in the Navy, so I knew the Beaufort area from traveling around. I got a call about the opening for a general manager, interviewed, and have been here since 1986.

Q. Do you like what you do?
A. Love it. I get to work with a lot of dedicated people. Every day is different. And I’m constantly learning in this job. It was a pretty steep learning curve. I had only been here a short time and a senior staff person took me aside and said one of the old-timers had mentioned to him in the lunchroom that it looked like to him “this was the first real job that young man has had.” There are still plenty of days it’s a handful.

Q. Okay. Let’s get into some nitty-gritty. What was it like when you first got here and what’s the biggest change?
A. I refer to the economic development model then for the very first Comprehensive Plan as “Develop property, put in golf courses, and sell land to Yankees.” There was a county Economic Development Board back then that was fairly parochial in viewpoint. It’s a whole different ball game now. Everything moves at a faster pace now, costs more to do, and requires a regional approach. This is still very much the Land of Opportunity, and our job here is to keep supporting that opportunity; but we’re not fronts for the developers, as some would have you believe.

Q. So what’s the mission?
A. We’re a public health agency and an environmental agency. Our standards are far stricter than those of the federal EPA, and there is a significant cost to that. For starters, our strategic planning process is working fifty years out. We want to control and manage all phases of our process smarter and better. We’ve got three standing committees on the board. Capital Projects/Operations, Finance, and Personnel. We’ve got $255 million in capital assets now. But as we look to the future we know that it costs about $2 per gallon to build a water plant. That jumps to $7 per gallon for a waste treatment plant. Right now, district usage is 16-20 million gallons per day in the off-season. From May to October, that figure is 35-40 million gallons of water demand every day. We’re figuring on spending $20-40 million a year on capital projects just to keep up and a little ahead!

Q. Bottom line it for me. These telephone-size numbers can get pretty daunting.
A. You’re right. We’re used to working with them, but for the average reader here’s the deal. People are going to keep flushing and drinking. And there are a lot more people coming here to do more of just that. Our mission is to make sure they have safe, high-quality drinking water. When that young mother has to get up in the middle of the night to make a bottle of formula, we don’t want her to have to think for one second, “Is this water okay?” So that water is as safe and as pure as we can make it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. That’s job one.

Q. What about the other nastier side of your business?
A. Well, we need to stay ahead of the curve in managing waste. We actually produce an effluent, that’s the stuff that’s left after we treat the waste, which you could drink if you had to.

Q. No thanks!
A. But the point is you could do it. That’s why we’ve gotten out of the chlorine treatment business. It’s neither safe nor cost effective. We’ve gone to UV treatment for safety. And let me throw in a non-sequiter other business managers might appreciate. We have the top safety rating of any utility in South Carolina. We’ve gone more than one million hours without lost time injury… knock on wood!

Q. Let’s wrap this up with John and Mary Public in mind. Why should they believe you care about a lonely oyster in the May River?
A. Simple. I swim in and boat on that water. My family does. That oyster will be safer and able to grow because the effluent we produce all goes back onto the many golf courses in this area, with the exception of the amount we recycle from our Cherry Point facility into the Great Swamp. Maintaining the quality of our environment for generations to come is a big deal to all of us here at BJWSA. I want that oyster and John and Mary Public to know we’re looking out for them.

Q. Unless, of course, you happen to consume that lovely oyster at a friendly oyster roast.
A. You got it. All part of the price of living in paradise, I guess.

Did you Know?

• Our population is expected to double in this area by 2020.
• Water demand has doubled in the last 10 years.
• We use 16-20 million gallons of water per day during the off season.
• We use 35-40 million gallons of water per day from May to October.
• A water plant costs $2/gallon to build and a water treatment plant costs $7/gallon to build.
• Water drawn from the Savannah River costs $1.40/gallon to treat, while water from the Florida aquifer costs just 35-40 cents to make drinkable. But from Hilton Head Island up to Moss Creek, there has already been some saltwater intrusion in the aquifer.

Salt Water Issues: Consider the Mighty Mollusk

Consider the mighty eastern oyster (or Crassosstrea virginica for those of you who aced Biology). Its range extends from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to Brazil. In many East Coast states, oyster populations are at one percent or less of their historic highs.

With their filtering capabilities, oysters can actually improve water quality. Oyster reefs protect marsh-lined tidal creeks. These reefs are important habitat for many organisms, including numerous mobile (e.g. finfish, crabs, and shrimp) and sedentary (mussels) species.

Oysters have been called our Defense for Early Warning system—our very own DEW line for paradise. The mighty mollusk is our report card on how well we’re doing as stewards of our waterways.

Did you Know?

• An oyster may change sex during the course of its life. Yearlings are primarily males and in later years females dominate the population.
• Oysters have “bills.” That’s the part opposite the hinge. You can see growth here. It’s the thinnest part, pale with a sharp edge.
• Oysters eat algae as well as detritus and occasional bacteria. Dry years or droughts can affect their feeding as there is little or no wash down of nutrients from high ground.
• The oyster has been utilized by man for at least 4,000 years in our state. Whether as food or tools or trade, oysters are a valuable commodity.
• From the time it’s a larva, to becoming a spat, and then a full-fledged oyster (if it survives numerous predators), an oysters growth may reach two inches in a year. The oyster can be harvested after several years.
• Present day Charleston was once known as Oyster Point. In the late 1800s, the popular bivalve appealed to all classes of folks. They were cheaper than chicken, fish or beef. It was said the rich ate oysters with champagne and the less rich consumed oysters with beer.
• A shell pile found near Awendaw was as large as three football fields. Scientists, archeologists, and amateur historians alike are still stumped as to the significance of these “shell rings.” There’s one down on Hilton Head Island. Maybe they had a religious purpose, maybe for tribal meetings, maybe a trade site…
• Oyster roasts have been around since before the War Between the States. The See Wee Indians might have held the first such roasts.
• Early colonists discovered that by burning oyster shells they could get lime. When mixed with sand and water an excellent building material called “tabby” or tapia was formed. Lots of tabby structures still exist around the county.
• Huge banks of oysters impressed many an early explorer.
• The oyster industry was the most valuable SC fishery from the late 1880s to shortly after World War II ended. At the turn of the century (1902) they represented 45 percent of the state’s fisheries.

If you want to see the last of the oyster shucking companies in the Southeast, come to Bluffton and visit the Oyster Company on Wharf Street. It’s probably occupied the same site longer than any other shucking house in South Carolina. Bet you didn’t know it started out as a meetinghouse for a gentlemen’s club in the late 1890s. In the early 1900s, it was outfitted as an oyster house by Clarence “Buster” Martin.

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