'Dr. Water' is hanging up his lab coat after three decades

Mark W. LeChevallier, vice president and chief environmental officer for American Water Works Co. in Voorhees, stands in the filtration room of the company’s Delran water-treatment plant.

Mark W. LeChevallier has studied a parade of waterborne perils in more than 30 years as a microbiologist for American Water Works Co. Inc., building an impressive scientific reputation. But he is perhaps best known to outsiders under his blog handle: “Dr. Water.”

When LeChevallier began working for American Water in 1985, federal regulation of drinking-water standards was still in its infancy, the Voorhees-based company’s research lab was tiny, and lab tests measured contaminants in parts per million. Modern lab equipment can detect compounds in parts per trillion, and the understanding of how to detect and prevent pathogens from infecting public drinking-water systems has advanced exponentially.

“I have found the issues around water really fascinating,” said LeChevallier, 61. “They are scientifically intriguing, and yet they are relevant to people’s everyday lives. It’s been a great area to do research in.”

Camera icon Clem Murray
Mark LeChevallier (right), American Water’s chief environmental officer, confers with researcher Patrick Jjemba at a microbial sequencer in the company’s Delran laboratory.

LeChevallier is set to hang up his American Water lab coat at the end of the year. As vice president and chief environmental officer, he oversees laboratories in New Jersey and Illinois, supervising 18 scientists engaged in research and development, innovation, and environmental compliance and stewardship programs.

He will move to Denver to be closer to family — two of his four children and six of 11 grandchildren live in Colorado.

But it’s not as if he will disappear in retirement. Last month, he was appointed to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s water science and technology board, a three-year appointment in which he will review research by others. He plans to take on some consulting work and serve as an adviser at the University of Sheffield in Britain.

LeChevallier has authored or coauthored more than 100 research papers, some funded by agencies such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control. He also writes the Dr. Water blog, drwater.amwater.com, where he assumes a less academic approach aimed at the general public, with such headlines as, “Drinking Water Week: Isn’t It Romantic!”

“He is a world-class researcher whose commitment, knowledge and passion have clearly benefited the entire water industry,” said Jeff Sterba, then the company’s chief executive, when LeChevallier received the 2012 Abel Wolman Award of Excellence, one of the highest honors of the American Water Works Association.

On a tour this week of New Jersey American Water’s treatment plant in Delran, LeChevallier accompanied Eric Hahn, the plant’s production manager, and David Forcinito, New Jersey American’s senior director of southwest operations, as they explained the operations of the 30 million-gallon-a-day facility that draws its water from the Delaware River, just across from the Philadelphia Water Department’s Baxter Treatment Plant.

The Delran plant went into operation 21 years ago to supplement the needs of municipalities in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties, which were under pressure from state regulators to reduce their reliance on well water, which was depleting South Jersey’s aquifer. About half the system’s water is sourced from the Delran plant.

The challenge in a system supplied by both is to treat the water taken from the river so its flavor is indistinguishable from that of the well water. Water at the Delran plant goes through an activated-carbon filter that absorbs organic odors. It is treated with ozone, a molecule that breaks up chemicals such as pesticides.

“Anything that would be in the Delaware River is essentially chewed up by the ozone,” said LeChevallier. The finished water that leaves the Delran plant, except for its temperature, tastes no different than South Jersey well water, he said.

Though the plant operations at Delran are impressive, it’s in the facility’s laboratories where he is really in his element.

When LeChevallier first started at American Water — directly from Montana State University, where he received his doctorate in microbiology in 1985 — bacterial outbreaks were the big challenge for utilities. Later, the battleground moved to microbes, viruses and parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium. Those threats have largely subsided as water utilities improved their treatment practices.

More recently, LeChevallier’s research team began to focus on the water-distribution system — how some pathogens survive inside pipelines despite having been treated with chlorine disinfectant.

“If water is not treated as well as it is here, it can have trace elements of nutrients that allow bacteria to grow,” he said. “We want to know what are those characteristics and what we can do to prevent them.”

The company’s work has contributed to rewriting industry practices to reduce the risk of outbreaks. Water samples from across the country are sent to the Delran lab, whose equipment can measure total organic carbon, the nutrients upon which bacteria feed. Another piece of equipment analyzes the DNA of waterborne pathogens with “next-generation sequencing,” aided by supercomputers.

“We may be the only water utility in the United States that has a piece of equipment that we can extract all the DNA and identify the entire composition of microbes in water by analyzing the entire genome,” he said.

The stage is set for new areas of research that will have applications in water-challenged environments: ways to treat and disinfect wastewater so that it can be recycled into drinking water; improvements to desalinate sea water into potable water; and new methods to treat wastewater with less oxygen, a process that could save large amounts of energy.

LeChevallier’s successor is already in place — the company in May hired Ben Stanford, who was director of applied research at Hazen and Sawyer, a national engineering firm focused on water and wastewater.

LeChevallier said he was first attracted to American Water because its commitment to research stood apart from that of other water utilities.

“If there was something going on, they wanted to know about it,” he said. “If there was something to fix,  they wanted to do that. In the 32 years since I came here, that hasn’t changed.”

Will Dr. Water’s blog go into retirement, too? That, a company spokesman said, has not been decided.