When Ted Corrigan was named CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works in June, he stepped into familiar territory. Corrigan has been with the agency for 30 years and has served as staff engineer, director of water production, director of water distribution and chief operating officer. Even the position of CEO and GM wasn’t unfamiliar to Corrigan, who assumed the role on an interim basis after his predecessor, Bill Stowe, died in April 2019. Since then, Corrigan not only has led the agency that employs 210 people through a transition in leadership, but also has navigated the uncertain landscape of the coronavirus pandemic. 

How has Des Moines Water Works progressed in its management of the coronavirus pandemic in recent months?

It’s been an evolution. Water Works is obviously a critical infrastructure. Failure is not an option, as they say. We were concerned we would have our critical staff impacted. They are our most important resource. You have to have people to operate our facilities. The group who are trained and certified to treat them is very small, so one of our biggest focuses was how are we going to protect our people, specifically the people who operate and maintain the water plant? They are not people who can work remotely or even effectively be separated from each other because they all have to be at the plant to do what they do. We devised a plan to protect that group of folks. So short term we ended up having a number of campers we brought onto the facility. Initially, it was 23 people across the three treatment plants who lived on-site for two weeks at a time, in rotation 24/7. They lived here and did what needed to be done in the plant. After about four weeks we started backing down on the number of people, and in the last couple of weeks [in mid May] we just had about four people living here. We also had people taking a Water Works vehicle home and going to job sites and reporting to other areas instead of a central location. People who are required to work in operations and maintenance, they no longer share a lunch room or locker room. We’ve eliminated the big group and work meetings we used to have in the morning. We have reopened our main office to walk-in customers with floor markings for social distancing and we have mask requirements and plexiglass screens.

Were those measures successful?

They have been, and we have had employees test positive. But the measure of success for me is that although we had a small number of employees test positive, we haven’t had any transmission at work that we’re aware of, so we believe the provisions we’ve put in place are preventing the virus from spreading at work and resulting in a number of employees being sick at the same time. We have not seen that, so we feel it’s been very successful.

Did Des Moines Water Works have to furlough anyone because of the pandemic?

No, we never did. We did have a few people who were working on an emergency-basis-only status for the first couple of weeks, who were on call for emergency repairs, but we did transfer a number of people to other work areas. We take care of Water Works Park and Maffitt Reservoir Park, and we have a small staff of folks who take care of those parks. Usually in the summer, we hire a number of seasonal workers, but this summer we decided not to hire those people and we just reassigned a number of people whose workloads were diminished because of the pandemic. So we did a lot of shifting around and that kind of thing, but we did not have to furlough anyone.
You were working for Des Moines Water Works during the floods of 1993. Can you compare that event to what’s happening during the pandemic?

[The flood of ’93] was very catastrophic and very intense for a short period of time, but for everyone else, the rest of the country and the rest of the world wasn’t impacted, so when we needed something we called and we got it. We had people coming from everywhere to help us. There were no shortages of PPE or tools or equipment or chemicals. In this case [the pandemic], we were never down, we never had any catastrophic event, but everyone in the world was affected and we started having trouble getting things we needed. Treatment chemicals, PPE, fuels and tools we needed were getting hard to get. An unintended consequence was that as people quit flying and driving, gasoline sales dropped off, which impacted ethanol sales. Ethanol plants started shutting down, and one of the chemicals that is critical to our process is a byproduct of the ethanol industry, and our supplier said they wouldn’t be able to get us CO2. Thankfully we didn’t get to the point of running out of anything. 

Describe your management style and how it may differ from Bill Stowe’s.

I’m a person who likes to focus on relationship-building and consensus and moving forward together. That’s been my style ever since I started managing here 20 years ago. Bill was a strong leader. He was a brilliant guy and had a lot of great ideas. He was a person who forwarded his own ideas and did so effectively. He had the skill and charisma to bring those things along of his own will, while I have a tendency to be more of a consensus-builder and bring them along together.

What experiences have you had over the past 30 years that shaped your leadership style?

The flood of ’93, it was an opportunity for me to manage a crisis. I was a staff engineer, so I designed water mains and water towers. I typically spent my days at a desk and then when the flood happened, I spent the first week slogging through the mud in the basement of one of our buildings that had been flooded trying to figure out how to clean it out and get it back on its feet. I got dirtier than I’d ever been in my life and didn’t have a shower when I got home, so that was  kind of an ironic experience, but that was a real learning experience. I was also here when our bargaining unit folks became unionized in the 1990s, so that was a real learning experience for me. I got to participate in some of our initial negotiations as a manager, and that serves me well now in this role now. I also had the opportunity to design and construct some of the large public works projects for treatment plant transmission we’ve done, which helps me be familiar with the operation. I’ve also worked in four different departments here, and that work has really helped prepare me.

What is going on at Des Moines Water Works that you want people to know about?

We’re in the midst of discussing regional governance for water production in the metro. We need to manage the water resources in Central Iowa jointly and cooperatively, and we’re working hard on that with the other metro communities trying to get to the point where we can work together and build the strongest possible water system that we can. I think it’s an important thing that everyone should recognize. If you look at the river today, you can just about step across it, and the last thing we need is to start fighting over who’s going to use it and how.

Tell us something about yourself that people may not know.

One of the things I enjoy the most is beekeeping. We have a number of hives that we manage. We’ve been doing that for about 10 years, and that’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of a family affair. My daughter was just home helping us harvest our honey. I have a case of jars on my desk for anyone who happens in here to take some of the fruits of our labor. We pretty much just give it away.