Sept. 8 2021 10:25 AM

Smart water management solutions and education have been the hallmarks of Kevin McCaleb’s career as a water conservation specialist.

Water is an integral part of every individual’s life. We can’t survive without it. And there’s one man who wants to make sure that people understand that the precious, life-giving resource is not something we should take for granted. Whether he’s giving a talk or developing a program, Kevin McCaleb’s goal is to help people understand why conserving water is important and how to do it.

“Wherever I can effect change, I am going to,” says McCaleb. “I am your biggest water advocate. It is what I am. My field of expertise is irrigation and water management applications, but my love and interest for water goes much beyond that.”

For the last 14 years he’s been sharing his love of water with the residents, business owners and city officials in Lake Oswego, Oregon, as the city’s water conservation specialist. But his experience with water conservation and irrigation dates back much further.

Growing up on a farm in eastern Washington exposed McCaleb to the attitudes farmers at the time had about water. There was a sense that if the farmers didn’t use all the water that was allotted to them, then they would lose it.

“My father raised alfalfa and beef cattle, and toward the end of the season it was ‘water, water, water’ whether we needed it or not, because we didn’t know if it was going to be taken away and we’d get less the next year.”

Making things right

In the 1980s when he began working construction jobs, his knowledge of irrigation helped him extend his time on the jobs to install landscape and irrigation. A career path started to take shape. He had his own business for a while and then went to work for a larger company while taking classes from the Irrigation Association earning various certifications along the way.

“I might have intrinsically known how to do things, but I didn’t know why,” he says. “My fundamental education from the IA was learning how to name things and instead of flying by the seat of my pants, actually figuring out how to solve problems.”

The bigger commercial projects he worked on earned him exposure with municipalities and colleges. Many of the municipalities would have summer programs to help provide jobs to recent high school grads who were still trying to figure out a career path. “My job was to teach them and give them work for the summer, and I really got into that and enjoyed that,” he says.

McCaleb took a job with the nearby University of Idaho installing irrigation systems. While there, he also earned his bachelor’s degree in U.S. history.

A grrreat opportunity

In 1999, the opportunity came along for McCaleb to be the lead irrigation technician for the Denver Zoo.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “I loved that job. I got to make life better for the critters. I got support from the staff to do things that weren’t necessarily right in line with my job description.”

His experience at the Denver Zoo is what he says drove him to learn about water management. “There are two sides to water. One is about ambience — we want everything to look a certain way. The other is ‘How do we keep using something that we know is a limited resource?’” When he started his job at the zoo, the bird habitats were kept clean using a method referred to as “fill and dump.” Once a month a 16,000-gallon pond was drained and scrubbed down using bleach to help reduce the spread of avian tuberculosis.

The curator of the crane exhibit asked McCaleb if he could design a better system.

“They were totally emptying the pond once a month and running thousands of gallons through it for the rest of the time. I built a biofiltration system, and we got it down to where they were cleaning once every six months and the water was recirculated.”

Because the system was so successful this solution became part of the zoo’s master plan for all the ponds.

“That was an accomplishment to me. They were an 80-acre zoo and they were using more water than the Denver International Airport, which didn’t make sense to me,” he says.

McCaleb also reduced the water being used for irrigation at the zoo by one-third and “nothing suffered,” he says.

Assessment investmen

He took the skills that he used at the Denver Zoo to his next job as water conservation specialist for the town of Oro Valley, Arizona, which he began in 2003. It was during his time at Oro Valley that the use of irrigation assessments became a valuable part of McCaleb’s work.

He notes, “There’s a lot of tradition that goes into irrigation that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality. So when you are a creative or innovative person, pushing against people to change is not always an easy thing to do.”

Instead of using formal water audits using catch cans, McCaleb used standard equations for the commercial and residential assessments he started in Arizona to “get them in the ballpark.” Those tests showed the need for official water audits.

Before McCaleb arrived, he didn’t know of anyone doing any sort of audit on residential irrigation in the region. The process he developed was even recognized by the University of Arizona in a study on water conservation techniques and ranked high on the list of available solutions.

“The issue was cost at the time,” says McCaleb.

“Not every municipality can afford to have somebody that goes around and does this all the time, but I also did lectures and speaking engagements to help share the concept.”

An important river

Taking the job of water conservation specialist in Lake Oswego, Oregon, where he’s worked since 2007 brought McCaleb back to the Pacific Northwest, where his brother lives. While Arizona and Oregon certainly have different water needs, conservation is particularly important to Lake Oswego.

The water in Lake Oswego comes from the Clackamas River, a pristine federally and state regulated stream. It has dams but water is not allowed to be retained in the river.

“What goes in has to come out for fish flows,” explains McCaleb. This is different from the water supply in a lot of other Oregon municipalities, like nearby Portland, for example, which has several reservoirs it can use as part of the Bull Run system to retain water for the dry season.

“We don’t have that ability,” he says. To educate residents, he created an 18-minute video about the Clackamas River to show residents that every time they turn on their tap, they are connected to the river.

McCaleb also works with the state of Oregon on the city’s Water Conservation and Management Plan. The long-term plan lays out how the municipality extracts and cleans its water. He serves as the face of the water utility. “I am the person that interacts on a one-on-one basis with the customer on the water utility.”

This involves meeting with water customers and providing leak checks, water audits and consultations with them.

“It is really public outreach. It is being involved with the city as far as commercial installations are concerned. I tell people all the time I’m everybody’s conscience,” he says. But don’t worry, he adds, he’s not the kind of guy who goes around wearing tie-dye shirts and singing “Kumbaya.”

“I interact with all different levels of the field from the contractor to the homeowner to the designer to developers — all levels that have to do with water usage, not just irrigation,” he says.

Spreading the word

McCaleb says many municipalities lack resources for homeowners to understand their irrigation system. Irrigation professionals might leave a client’s home without giving them any sort of detailed instructions of when to seasonally change it, how to control the system or how to program the controller.

“I found in Arizona and here in Lake Oswego that people are doing things because they don’t know any better. They just know their plants are green,” he says. “They don’t know that they’ve put on 40% to 50% more water than they need, and it’s infiltrated the soil in the root zone and the plant can’t use it anyway.”

Being a proponent of water audits can be a form of public outreach for smart water usage.

The city of Lake Oswego offers free water audits to residents during the spring and summer season when watering yards begins. McCaleb will assess the water usage inside and outside the home and provide homeowners with suggestions to help improve their water management, which also saves them money.

“The goal of starting these residential and commercial assessments is to teach people better water management skills,” says McCaleb.

The city of Lake Oswego was recognized by the Oregon Water Resources Department’s 2018 Stewardship and Conservation Award Program with a second-place award in the best conservation program for large municipalities category. The city, its residents and the Clackamas River can all be grateful that McCaleb is helping ensure the longevity of their valuable water source.

“I am kind of a water geek,” admits Mc- Caleb. “Water is all inclusive to me. In my opinion people tend to silo it too much, ‘This is irrigation water. This is residential water. This is wastewater.’ In reality it is all the same water. What my constituents do on their yard affects the people downstream to them. I try to get them to connect with the fact that every little thing you do affects something bigger.”

Kristin Ely is an award-winning writer who specializes in industry reporting for business publications and can be reached at kristinsmithely@gmail.com.