WEFTEC, the annual trade show for the folks who serve our nation’s wastewater systems, has come and gone again. WEFTEC is put on each year by the amazing staff at the Water Environment Federation, and rotates between Chicago and New Orleans. I attended this year in the Big Easy and was yet again staggered by what I saw:
The size and scale of the businesses and services that serve this cause. Although there is a new report that emphasizes the economic and community vitality that we drive – one need but see the floor of the convention center to be amazed by this reality. The floor was nearly a half mile long and about a football field in width, teeming with people describing a nearly endless array of innovative goods and services. The remarkable creativity of the people who do our work, and their willingness to help their brethren. From dawn to dusk from Saturday to Wednesday, programs and seminars on almost every conceivable topic burst with vision and wisdom.
For me, I arrived on Sunday evening and spoke at my first event at 7:15 on Monday morning – to the annual breakfast of the American Association of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEE). AAEES’ membership list is a who’s who of some of the most accomplished members of our profession, and much of what they focus on is both how to create suitable technical standards to underscore our work and people, and also to identify and highlight the best of scientific and engineering accomplishments of these same people. I was honored to be there.
Yet as I scurried from one engagement to the next, I took away three special messages:
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy knows water! During the opening morning plenary, the Administrator spoke to a huge, standing-room only crowd in a gigantic ballroom. The Administrator is known for her expertise on air issues and climate change, given her prior position as Assistant Administrator for Air at EPA. Some of us were concerned that maybe she would not be as attentive to water issues. I can state with certainty that this worry was put to rest.
The Administrator spoke with authority on water issues, painting a compelling picture that water (is) will be the first and perhaps most important measure of climate change, and that the protection of water when there is both growing scarcity and flooding is becoming more important, not less. She explained the need and importance of an updated definition of the “waters of the United States” for the Clean Water Act, and the need for both increased flexibility in implementation, yet continued focus on reducing nutrient pollution. Mindful of algae blooms in Lake Erie and droughts in the West, the Administrator has a command of water issues and is a powerful voice for us at the helm of our nation’s environmental agency.
The Johnson Foundation released a remarkable report that is the capstone of a six-year effort to chart a new future for water in the United States. I was honored to be asked to provide brief remarks about the report, which I have already read and annotated! While I am mindful that reports on almost any topic seem to be published by the day, I am certain that this one is different.
Unlike many reports on water, the Charting New Waters report does not spend much time on why we need to act. This report, neatly organized and well written, is about what we need to do and how. It is a practical roadmap, a game plan for any coach of a water team, of the extraordinary flowering of creative ideas and approaches that can leap-frog our enterprises to new levels of service, effectiveness and efficiency. And the best part is that every idea is tied to examples – real world examples that demonstrate the words go beyond fascinating ideas, but have already been developed and implemented by some of the best of us in the industry.
I applaud the work of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, their creative and charismatic project leader Lynn Broaddus, and John Ehrmann and Molly Mayo of the Meridian Institute who helped create the report. Honestly, if I were to suggest one read for our industry this year it would be Charting New Waters. I guarantee your copy will have underlines and notes in the margins like mine does. It captures this moment in time – one where our industry is changing because it must, led by the spirit and ideas of our own.
Water Works! Once again, we also emphasized the economic and community vitality we are driving in the water industry. SanFrancisco PUC General Manager Harlan Kelly seemed to be everywhere, representing a group of 30 General Managers who have banded together to tell the story of the strength of our industry. WEF highlighted the importance of the study we published about the hundreds of billions of dollars of work we will be undertaking over the next decade, and the tens of thousands of jobs we will foster.
My most significant take-away, again, is to admire the people who work in our industry. We are a group that is dedicated to public service, are problem-solvers to our core, and both creative and practical. I congratulate WEF on another extraordinary year of WEFTEC, and look forward to next year in Chicago.