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EWEB 2021 State of the Utility Address

March 10, 2021

Picture of General Manager Frank Lawson

As a public utility, owned by the people of Eugene, it's important for us to be open and transparent with our customer-owners. The following State of the Utility Address, delivered by General Manager Frank Lawson at the March 2 EWEB Board meeting, highlights key events, accomplishments, and challenges of 2020.

President Schlossberg, Commissioners, Employees, and Members of the Public,

I am here to report that the state of your utility is "healthy." That word has intentional meaning this year because it reflects the utility's condition in the context of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that impacted 2020 and challenged our community. Even when healthy, you can feel good or bad from time to time, but your general condition-a result of your history, diligence and hard work, and good habits-is strong. EWEB is indeed healthy.

A pandemic, major wildfire, economic challenge, cyber-attacks, along with social and political unrest tested our community and our utility in 2020. Sadly, people in our community have suffered, struggled to cope, spoken out in anger and frustration or with empathy and praise, and even died because of the events of this past year.

If struggle both builds and reveals character, it did both for EWEB in 2020. As an organization, while these conditions challenged our finances and systems, they mostly tested our people-EWEB's employees and our Board. But we were able to respond, and respond we did!

This month marks the one-year anniversary of EWEB's first executive stay-at-home order, a situation we fully expected to pass within a few weeks or months. EWEB Human Resources and Safety staff have worked tirelessly with EWEB leadership throughout the past year to make adjustments to policies and procedures, often influenced by changing government regulations or health standards, to help our employees and protect our capacity to respond to the needs of our community. EWEB employees have endured and worked under ever-changing conditions and rules, smog and smoke, fires, threats from citizens, and in some cases, at-home conditions impacted by family situations and technology.

Despite cyber challenges like the SolarWinds attack in December, EWEB's Information Services staff provided important support enabling a safer and more flexible working environment and also managed to upgrade many of our systems, becoming more cloud-based in the process. These and other lessons learned in 2020 will continue to provide opportunities for EWEB in the years ahead.

In 2020, not only did EWEB safely and reliably and affordably deliver almost 8 billion gallons of fresh, high-quality, great-tasting drinking water and 2.4 billion kilowatt-hours of low-carbon electricity, we also contributed over $18 million dollars directly to the community through customer assistance programs, education grants, water and energy efficiency and electrification incentives, and contributions in lieu of taxes to the cities of Eugene and Springfield.  Staff responded quickly to both the COVID economic impacts and Holiday Farm Fire victims with special assistance qualification adjustments, new payment programs, and in some Holiday Farm situations, bill and loan forgiveness.

To ensure the ongoing viability of our services, EWEB made approximately $58 million in capital investments in 2020, including roughly $18 million in water infrastructure and $40 million in electric and share services systems. These investments were specifically prioritized to reinforce the values of our Board and community-Safety, Reliability, Affordability, Environmental Stewardship-and our strategic objectives focused on emergency preparedness and disaster recovery and preparing for a new energy supply future.

Besides the miles of water pipe upgrades, pump station enhancements, and customer building requests, the water utility has now fully commissioned five emergency water sites throughout Eugene (two years ahead of schedule, with another two planned), completed the construction of a new water lab building at Hayden Bridge, made significant progress on the design and planning of our new base level reservoirs, with construction on the E. 40th site starting this summer, and received laboratory accreditation to perform in-house cyanotoxin and renewed biological testing.

And then there's the watershed. We have worked with the Board to expand our approach from watershed protection to watershed recovery, requiring additional care and investment. Besides replacing poles and conductor, along with responding to customer building and renovation projects, the electric utility significantly rebuilt the McKenzie valley service territory in a matter of weeks, added an important switching system linking the north and south downtown Eugene underground electric networks, significantly increasing resiliency, and replaced some key large substation transformers.

If 2020 showed us anything, it's the importance of respectful relationships-with our colleagues, with our advocates, and with our critics. EWEB continues to build individual and organizational links with Lane County, the cities of Eugene and Springfield, and communities in the McKenzie valley; with organizations that share similar visions, like Pure Water Partners and McKenzie River Trust; with other energy suppliers like public utilities and Northwest Natural to de-carbonize both the electric and gas grids; members of our community and our neighbors, and with our colleagues and Board of Commissioners. These relationships will continue to be important in the years ahead.

Because, although EWEB is healthy, some heavy lifting is still to come. After years of no rate increases, including absorbing increases from our largest energy supplier, the Bonneville Power Administration, EWEB will likely need to raise rates in 2022. But, as with your other assets, we will continue to be good stewards of your money, and make prudent investments ensuring the continued delivery of safe and reliable drinking water and electricity.

Finally, I celebrated my 10 year anniversary working at EWEB in 2020 and I can honestly say I've never been prouder of the organization, including staff, management, and the Board. I am excited about the opportunities in front of us and know that we have the ability to fulfill our Board's and community's needs.  Thank you to all who continue to contribute to the essential services that we provide, for making EWEB a great place to work, and for ensuring that our community can indeed "Rely on Us."