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Last updated: Mon. Dec. 02, 2013 - 04:14 pm EDT

Utilities director leads the way for future of water

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FORT WAYNE — Kumar Menon still remembers the water trucks.

Twice a day they would roll in to Menon’s neighborhood in India, and everyone in town would line up with buckets.

“Everybody, rich or poor, we all had the same problem,” Menon says.

The problem was one that marks a key difference between the developed world and the yet-to-be developed world: A lack of clean water.

The heavy buckets filled from the truck would be trudged up stairs and poured into a tank on the roof, where gravity would carry it to the fixtures below.

“And we still had to boil it!” Menon says. “And we had to pay a ton to have those water trucks come!”

Menon was hardly alone: Hundreds of millions of people around the world do not have access to clean water, leading to 3.4 million people a year dying from water-related disease.

Now, Menon is director of Fort Wayne City Utilities, making up to 72 million gallons of drinking water a day, in a country where clean water is so taken for granted that the water lost nationwide to leaks and water main breaks could provide most of the water for those without it in Africa, Menon said. City officials estimated that in 2011 they lost 15 percent of the water they made to leaky pipes: 1.6 billion gallons wasted.

The journey he’s made is not lost on Menon, who took over the City Utilities post in 2008 when Mayor Tom Henry took office. Before that, Menon was director of public works in Indianapolis.

In the water utilities industry, Menon said, it’s known as the water-diamond paradox. Diamonds generally have only two uses: as jewelry and in industrial saws and drills. Water, meanwhile, not only has thousands of uses, but is essential for the existence of life on the planet.

Guess which one is more valuable?

“How do we not value water more?” Menon asks. “Because it’s seen as plentiful, when in fact it isn’t.”

A sense of awe

Menon, 47, has headed up City Utilities for nearly six years, but until now has never agreed to be interviewed about himself. He has always suggested spotlighting one of his employees instead.

“Write about one of our engineers, or this new project we’re working on,” he has said more than once. “That’s much more interesting than me.”

But as the head of a department with a $110 million annual budget, and as the person on the forefront of the city’s 18-year, $240 million agreement consent decree with the federal government to stop the city’s sewage overflows into the rivers, surely …

“I’ve been lucky in finding people I like to work with,” Menon says. “I’m amazed by them.”

And he is amazed: His corner office is bare except for a dry-erase board and prints made from the decorative stonework that graces the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant. Leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung, are large black-and-white photos taken inside the finished water storage tank at the plant, which was recently emptied and cleaned – the first time anyone has been inside it since it was built in the 1930s.

Menon holds one of the framed photos in awe.

“The concrete was impeccable – there was not a crack in it, not a flaw,” Menon says. “It looked like it was done with laser levels – the lines were perfect. And they did this marvel of engineering 80 years ago.”

That appreciation has led to decisions that may cost more financially in the short run, but that officials say mean more to the community than a few dollars, such as the expansions made to the Three Rivers Filtration Plant that blend in with the classic architecture. The same was done at the St. Joseph Dam project and even to parts of the sewage plant visible from the street.

Menon said the cost difference in keeping the classic look instead of going with the municipal cinder-block look was only about 2 percent – a small price for a community asset that will be seen for decades.

“Look at the MLK Bridge – now it’s a landmark,” Menon says. “Otherwise (without the design elements), it would have been just a means of transportation.”

Leading the way

Menon’s father served in the Indian air force, and when he retired he became an engineer. But that meant travel – a lot of travel.

“I would see my dad once a year when he’d show up for two months,” Menon said. “The rest of the time he was traveling.”

It would be easy to be bitter about the situation – especially when his father asked him how high school was going, just after Menon finished his master’s degree – but he saw it as a man willing to do whatever it took to provide for his family.

After studying at the University of Madras and Indiana University, Menon now holds master’s degrees in economics and business. He and some friends started a business, Symbiosis Consulting, but once again, travel would take a toll on his personal life.

“It was a lot of time spent in airports and hotels,” he said – so much time that it led to a divorce. “We mutually agreed we’d be better off as friends and said, ‘Let’s not get to the point where we can’t stand each other.’ ”

Now he’s been happily remarried for four years.

Mayor Tom Henry said that almost every time he talks to another mayor from Indiana, he is asked about Menon.

“Almost every single one says, ‘What does Kumar think of this?’ Their utility people call him for advice,” Henry said. “His expertise is asked for quite often.”

Henry said the key to Menon’s success has been his business expertise: City Utilities is essentially a separate, $110 million nonprofit owned by the city. It has its own budget, is entirely self-supporting and has hundreds of thousands of customers.

“If someone in that position was an engineer-only, it would be much more difficult,” Henry said.

What’s in the future? If Menon has his way, it will be more growth. City Utilities has already grown dramatically with the addition of the Aqua Indiana north system and its coming acquisition of Aqua’s southwest system, but Menon said City Utilities is poised to be a regional provider, and in fact, already is through its contract customers in New Haven, Huntertown and regional sewer districts.

If City Utilities can provide the better service at a lower cost, it should, he said.

“We’re the largest municipally owned utility in the state,” Menon said. “We have to lead the way.”

dstockman@jg.net


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