Meet Rengao Song: Director of Water Quality and Research
A musty smell in the city perplexed everyone. Some said the source was a landfill. Others suggested sewers or industrial sites.
Dr. Rengao Song, Director of Water Quality and Research at Louisville Water Company, had a better explanation. Song and another Louisville Water scientist, Mark Campbell, explained to the Air Pollution Control District that the smell was probably caused by geosmin, an organic compound in the soil that can release an odor when it gets wet. The district researched the issue and found that geosmin was, in fact, the source of the smell.
This was not a drinking water issue, but it’s a good example of the depth of Song’s knowledge and his willingness to share his expertise with others. Responsible for planning, managing and directing water quality from the Ohio River to customers’ taps, Song oversees regulatory compliance, research and development, treatment technical direction and distribution water quality. Essentially, Song and his staff have a laser focus on public health, making sure Louisville’s drinking water is of the best quality and tastes great.
He grew up in China, where he went to college when he was just 16, and later became an assistant professor. He moved to the United States in 1991 and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “because of its top three rank in civil and environmental engineering,” Song says.
Working on his Ph.D. dissertation—Ozone-Bromide Interactions in Water Treatment—he realized it is “very challenging yet critical to have high-quality, safe water, and it requires strong and comprehensive knowledge in chemistry, biology, fluid dynamics, data mining and other fields.”
He could have worked at other water utilities in Arizona and New York, but Song says he was drawn to Louisville “because of the rich research tradition pioneered by George Fuller,” a sanitary engineer also trained in chemistry and bacteriology. In the late 1800s, the city of Louisville hired Fuller to study Ohio River water treatment through filtration.
Today, Song upholds Fuller’s legacy and plays an important role in managing water quality through four pillars of treatment:
- Protecting the quality of source water (by working closely with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission)
- Maintaining “multi-barrier water treatment processes,” including two treatment facilities that produce an average of 120 million gallons a day
- Managing water quality throughout the company’s distribution system, a network of pipes, pumping stations and storage tanks. (Scientists in Louisville Water’s EPA-certified laboratory do 200 daily tests to ensure safety as the water flows into the system.)
- Providing water quality customer care for a population of nearly one million.
Song notes that customer care is more subjective than, say, the safety of drinking water, which can be measured through objective, data-driven processes, but it’s still a critical component because it includes such issues as public trust.
“In addition to providing high-quality water to customers, we are proactive in dealing with any perceived risks by providing customers with treatment options, technical support and service, and water quality communication,” he says. “In order to be a water utility of the future, we have to have high customer satisfaction.”
During a typical day, Song studies and forecasts potential water quality issues and develops solutions to prevent them from occurring. He reviews key water quality parameters at the treatment plants and directs any needed modifications. And he regularly volunteers technical support to other water utilities in Kentucky and Tennessee. Song also coaches and mentors other water quality and treatment staff members, and he serves as an advisor to graduate students in environmental science and engineering. (He has directed many Ph.D. and master’s degree students over the years).
Song notes that one of the most challenging aspects of working in the field is the necessity of being right the first time. “There are no recalls in our business,” he says, “so we have to be 100 percent correct in making water quality treatment decisions at the plants and in the distribution system. Otherwise, our reputation is lost.”
“I am so proud of our company,” he added, “and of the high-quality, safe water we provide to the city of Louisville and surrounding counties.”