Carolyn Sawai, a civil engineer with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, is developing programs that seek to quantify how much water the board loses through leaks. In her office on Thursday, she looked at a schematic of the board's water system.

Looking for leaks

Carolyn "Cat" Sawai is working
on ways to assure that Oahu’s
water isn’t wasted

Carolyn "Cat" Sawai

Title: Civil engineer, Honolulu Board of Water Supply

Job: On special assignment to develop a water-efficiency program for the city's water utility.

Carolyn "Cat" Sawai is not one to cry over spilled milk, but leaking water is another issue. Trying to stop water loss from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply system is the focus of her work as a civil engineer at the utility, which she joined 13 years ago in the water resources division. A 1984 graduate of Maryknoll high school, Sawai interned at the utility while getting her bachelor's of science degree from the University of Hawaii. Originally she had wanted to be a veterinarian, but, she said with a laugh, "I just didn't think I had the stomach for it. I saw what they had to do, and I thought, 'Oh, I don't think I'll be able to handle this.'" But she can handle her job at the water board, where she works across its various divisions to help develop a supply-side water-efficiency program. Sawai, who also has a master's degree from UH in public administration, is single and lives in Manoa near Punahou School.

Question: What is your title actually?

Answer: I'm a civil engineer. But I am on a special assignment for what we're calling "internal conservation."

Q: What do you do exactly?

A: In my current capacity, I am the project manager to develop -- well, I kind of have leeway, this is why I love it -- I sort of developed a program from scratch where I could determine where our water's being used in our system and develop water-efficiency programs.

Q: So is that like finding where the leaks are?

A: Yeah. You know, it's really huge, and I found it interesting that when I started looking more in depth about the (internal conservation) program, that it's really big. And I found out that we're already doing a lot of important components of a good auditing and water-efficiency program. So that's the good news: It's already being done. So part of what I was doing is to bring all of that information together and kind of like number crunch.

The other good thing is I got to learn about what other divisions are doing in the organization. They teach me a lot. Because prior to this I was mostly in the office, and this project allows me to go out and work more closely with the field people, and I enjoy that.

Q: How much of your work is done in the field and how much is in the office?

A: Well, you know, I would say this program is about a year old, and the first months took me out in the field about 40 percent of the time, because I had so much to learn, but now it's only about 20 percent of my time.

Q: What do you do when you're out there in the field?

A: Initially it was to learn. I really wanted to see some of the site conditions, because some of the proposals that I think about, I don't know if it's realistic to think that it can be done without experiencing what's involved -- for example, a main repair. So it really helps with the decisions.

Carolyn Sawai's days on the job include field work, office work and occasional meetings. On Thursday, she met with Douglas Lee, left, and Woodie Muirhead, engineers from Brown & Caldwell, and her boss, Barry Usagawa, to discuss water conservation programs.

Q: Do you inspect buildings and homes or just water pipes and such?

A: We're doing a conservation effort for our customers, but the internal conservation is concentrated on our own system. So that includes our own Board of Water Supply practices that we do.

Q: How do you find leaks in the system?

A: The investigators are really the ones that find the leaks. I don't do it. We have investigators who everyday go out and try to find nonvisible leaks. That's a real important term because a lot of people think we see a leak and fix it, but it's not that simple. It's quite an involved process.

Q: How do they find nonvisible leaks?

A: In a nutshell, we prioritize areas for them to survey. Then the investigator will "sound," using a piece of equipment that they place mainly on valves, and then if they detect a sound, the next step is they have to pinpoint the leak. Then at that point we have our field repair crews that will work all day long 'till they fix that main.

Q: How much water do you think is lost each year through leaks?

A: Well, islandwide -- and the program just started last year -- that's pretty much our goal, to figure out how much is attributed to those leaks.

But we have been doing a lot of leak-detection already and we did a little experiment on the Windward district, because we do want to know, like you've been asking, about how much do we think is attributed to leakage.

We estimate for that Windward district we save about a little over a million gallons per day.

Q: Because of the leaks you've fixed?

A: Yes. For every leak that they repaired, we did a little estimate of how much was leaking, and that's an estimate.

Q: What are you doing in the office then?

A: The people in the field do the laborious work, and I try to gather the information from them. They uncover the fracture, measure it, take pictures of it, and they have a form with blanks they can fill out, and we plug that information into a formula, and we try to estimate the loss, and that's what I try to number crunch for the main breaks. But we're only concentrating on the metro side right now, because I couldn't handle the whole island.

Q: What's the upshot, then of this program?

A: The goal, of course, is to reduce water loss in the system. We wanna try get it to below the national median. That's always going to be a goal. We always want to be better. I don't have the figure right now, but I know we're doing fairly well ,but we want to bring it down more. It's kind of like a budget. We want to know what's coming in and what's going out, and that's our water budget model.

Q: So who would you be present your findings to?

A: My executive sponsor, who is Kathy Matayoshi, our chief of staff. Then what we'll do is be able to prioritize our investments. For example, if main breaks is our largest contributing factor to water loss, then we would want to propose solutions, and that costs money, and that's one way we can provide the support to budget for these things for the next year.

Q: So what would your typical day at work would be like.

A: Well, the first thing I do is I check to see if I need to be anywhere, like, say if there's like a main break in an area that I've been studying for awhile. You wanna drop everything and be there. And usually one of the field operations supervisors will call me to tell me something's happening.

Other than that, what I'm trying to do is muddle through a water-loss-control manual, because I'm really new at this, in terms of trying to quantify water in the system. And then it's about slowly trying to conjure up programs that will really help reduce water loss in the system.

And of course, the typical day is not really typical, because every day is different, but I like that. It really makes it enjoyable.

"Hawaii at Work" features people telling us what they do for a living. Send suggestions to mcoleman@starbulletin.com

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