Updated: Sep 30, 2019
Two things have always been sources of fascination for John Bednarski: construction projects and water. Both played leading roles in his 1960s childhood memories of Placentia, California, a town of some 20,000 people nestled in the citrus groves of northern Orange County.
By the time he was 10, Bednarski’s once-rural neighborhood of orange and lemon groves had given way to linear, forgettable tracts of modern suburban housing. But this transformation also fueled new and unexpected adventures.
“I’d ride my bike through the housing tracts after school, after the workers had gone,” he recalls fondly. “I vividly remember walking through the eerily quiet tract of half-completed homes, and looking up at the rough framing, electrical wires, plumbing and other structural features. It marked the beginning of my fascination with the construction process.”
It also introduced him to the concept of water management.
Building a New Approach
Today, as chief engineer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the largest supplier of treated water in the U.S., Bednarski is still motivated and challenged by major construction and water issues. He leads a group of more than 350 employees engaged in executing nearly 350 water-related projects for Southern California.
One of its most ambitious projects is the Regional Recycled Water Program (RRWP), a revolutionary #watertreatment and recycling demonstration effort that MWD is conducting in partnership with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County (LACSD).
In a full-scale version, Bednarski explains, the RRWP is projected to convert a large percentage of Los Angeles’ wastewater (currently being dumped as treated effluent into the ocean) into purified drinking water for the region. This “new” water would become a key local supply for MWD, adding to the water it currently imports from the Colorado River and the California State Water Project.
“We’re going to create a drought-proof supply of water through replenishment of our groundwater basins,” he said.
MWD and LACSD are currently proving out the RRWP concept with a water purification demonstration facility in Carson, Calif. The partners hope to obtain approval to develop and begin operating a portion of the full-scale facility as early as 2026.
Fulfilling the Dream
Curiously, Bednarski’s adolescent interests in water did not guide his college career, at least not initially. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, Calif., but not before becoming seriously interested in environmental engineering. That interest took him to the University of Southern California (USC), where he earned a Master’s degree in environmental engineering.
“The Master’s degree fueled my nascent interest in water and building projects and the recognition that I could really be involved in these arenas for a career,” said Bednarski. It also drove his decision to take a job in 1981 with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as an assistant engineer. His subsequent 10 years of working for LADWP included exposure to its early design work in water treatment facilities.
Since joining Metropolitan in 1991, Bednarski has continued to fulfill his curiosity about how things work. In 1997, he completed a Master of Public Administration degree at USC.
To date, Bednarski has been quite pleased with the technical and logistical progress of the RRWP, a situation he attributes to the strong partnership between MWD and LACSD.
“Teaming up with LACSD, a nationally recognized leader in wastewater, has been a huge success."
MWD and LACSD are sharing the cost of developing the APC demonstration facility in Carson, and are already thinking about how best to move forward jointly on developing a full-scale water purification facility on the same site, he added.
Bednarski’s typical day begins with a 30-minute ride on the Metro Gold Line train from his home in Altadena, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, to MWD’s headquarters at Union Station near downtown LA.
And like any good boss, he has a preferred routine. About once a week, he stops at a donut shop near home to buy a dozen donuts for his team and administrative employees. “It’s something I’ve been doing for many years,” he said. “When I became chief engineer in November 2018, I just kept doing it.”
And even though Bednarski’s workday is now filled with more meetings and bigger decisions than he faced in previous engineering roles at MWD, he still makes time for his community. He has served on the board of directors of Las Flores Water Company, the small mutual water company that serves his home, for more than 23 years.
“It’s my way of giving back to the community because of the skill set I have and because of being a leader in a company that understands what it takes to build and manage capital infrastructure,” said Bednarski with pride.
And so it goes. Bednarski is now a part of diverse, multi-talented teams working on multi-million dollar infrastructure projects for the people of California. But deep down, he is still that bike-riding kid fascinated with water and construction projects that have helped shape the cultural landscape of Southern California.
“I’m really excited about the potential of the RRWP to fundamentally transform the way Southern California thinks about and manages its scarce water supply," he said.
“2019 is going to be a very important year for Metropolitan and the RRWP. We expect to be ready soon to give our board of directors the information and confidence they need to make a positive and well-informed decision about the future of this program.”
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