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October Madness

It’s that time of year again; one I think we can justly refer to it as October Madness.

Kick-off with some workshops. I participated in the workshop on sustainable design lead by Andrew Shaw.  With between 30 and 35 attendees, the presentations were good and the discussion lively.

One issue that came up is what do we mean by sustainability and the tendency to slap the name on everything these days. One of the fellows was from Saudi Arabia, and, during an interval, we discussed sustainable oil production when someone pointed out that their oil production has a much lower carbon footprint than Canadian oil from the oil sands. 

While discussing a “sustainable design” for a project in King County, WA, at a price of $ 1.8 billion, there were some eyes rolling especially when the speaker told us in the name of sustainability, how they saved $39,000 by recycling old concrete.  The plants had MBRs but blended that effluent with stormwater overflow before discharging to Puget Sound.  Another emotional point was that regulators should be introduced to the concept of sustainability.

Professionals Take Part in Walkway to Wetlands

Approximately 75 volunteers – including four Black & Veatch professionals – took part on Saturday, 15 October, in the Walkway to Wetlands project in conjunction with the kickoff of the Water Environment Federation’s 84th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC).

The fourth annual project, organized by the Water Environment Federation (WEF)’s Students and Young Professionals Committee, helped to revitalize a former industrial area and provided a grand entrance to the city of Los Angeles’s wetlands project located directly across the street from a brand new high school. The volunteers planted 37 trees along the perimeter of a constructed wetland located in the previously underserved neighborhood just south of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The volunteers included Black & Veatch professionals Jim Clark, Matt Bond, Heather Cheslek and outgoing SYPC Committee Chair Bob Wimmer. Clark is a past president of WEF, and Bond took the gavel as current WEF President at WEFTEC 2011. Black & Veatch is also a sponsor of the project.

An Amazing Gavel: What WEF is doing

Last night now-past-president Jeanette Brown passed me the ceremonial gavel at WEFTEC here in Los Angeles, and I want to tell you about that amazing gavel. Defying the laws of physics, the gavel is simultaneously light and heavy; it carries an exceptional honor and great promise along with daunting responsibility.

The gavel is light—and also shiny—because it’s relatively easy to be president of the Water Environment Federation working with an incredible board, executive director and staff when we are well along in fulfilling our vision to preserve and enhance the global water environment. We are in good financial condition with a growing membership, and WEFTEC is as robust as ever.

This is an exciting time with many opportunities. We recently completed the data-gathering phase of our strategic planning process, and all our members and stakeholders have weighed in on the strengths of WEF and opportunities for the future. We have looked at the best-in-class non-profit organizations in other fields for ideas and best practices and confirmed that WEF is in excellent shape as an organization. Our members confirmed we are fulfilling our core mission of providing reliable technical information and training on water and utility management topics.

We are increasing our effectiveness in advocacy and are recognized as a trusted voice for unbiased, scientific information for the USEPA and on Capitol Hill and shaping water science and policies in many areas, including biosolids management, the water-energy nexus, nutrient control and recovery, and wet-weather flow management. And we are poised to influence the impending new stormwater regulations coming out before the end of 2012.

The gavel is heavy because there is important work to be done in the year ahead to finalize the strategic plan and begin implementation. We will involve our members, stakeholders, member associations and partners. In talking with our partners, regulatory officials, utility executives, business leaders, and member associations, they and our WEF board and staff are all energized about positioning WEF as an organization to influence the dialogue about the value of water and water infrastructure around the world. This will require us to add resources and increase the skills of our volunteer and staff leaders.  Following are noteworthy goals and activities.    

Continue our effective collaboration with the American Water Works Association. We are launching an Emerging Leaders leadership development program to train a class of water industry leaders who next year will begin work on a leadership curriculum taught by water industry leaders. The Emerging Leaders will virtually collaborate throughout the year and at conferences such as WEFTEC.

Continue our efforts to reinforce the importance of wastewater operators. In the third year of this initiative, we continue to collaborate with partner organizations in improving training materials and developing messages on the importance of these crucial, front-line protectors of public health so our operations professionals will be widely recognized as we know them:  “essential personnel” and “first responders” who are as important to our communities as police and fire officials when budgets get tight or emergency situations arise.

Focus on services for our utility leaders. Water utilities today face more severe funding and financing challenges than ever and are dealing with serious demographic issues, aging infrastructure, technology advances and ever-increasing regulations. One initiative is the formal rollout of the Utility Partnership program, with discounted WEFTEC pricing, special packages for distance learning courses, and discounted publications and a “no charge” membership for a public official as designated by the utility. I plan to work with WEF staff and the Utility Management Committee to make sure that we continue to provide the training, technical information and best-management practices that our utility executives need from us.

Engage a group of water industry leaders in a Water Leader’s Council. Executive officers and thought leaders from business and utilities will work with WEF to help us identify trends and innovations so that we can move boldly to capture them.  We had our first meeting of this group yesterday, and will be sharing more as we move throughout the year.

Change the dialogue about wastewater. We have been promoting a “water is water” message for several years now and are making great strides in helping to break down the silos in organizations and society as the lines between all facets of water blur. Now we are increasingly recognizing wastewater components as a valuable resource and soon should shed the term “wastewater” from our vocabulary.  We have examples of water reclamation utilities, such as East Bay MUD, that are now net energy producers, and as an industry we are recovering nutrients from “gently used” water. I hope everyone participates in discussion about these issues at WEFTEC and afterwards.

As I shared at last night’s ceremony, I am confident that we can expand our leadership role and positively impact our global water environment. I look forward to working with our Executive Director Jeff Eger, our amazing staff, our Board of Trustees, our volunteer leaders, our members, and all of you over the next year to fulfill WEF’s mission and vision and to further communicate the value of water.  Dan McCarthy, president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s global water business, has described water as a fuel with no alternatives.  Water industry strategies and approaches for managing water may vary among regions and utilities, but we all agree on the importance of maximizing and communicating the value of water.

The future of water: Water leaders’ conversation

Dan McCarthy, President and CEO of Black & Veatch’s global water business, took part on Tuesday, Oct. 18, in a high-powered series on future insights, global issues and sustainability — “Looking Forward: A Conversation with Key Water Leaders About Water in the Next Decade.” The session was an unscripted, conversational format where senior water leaders could cover topics, such as meeting growing urban demands, public awareness as to the value of water, financing infrastructure replacement and demands for new service, finding sustainable solutions to water scarcity and watershed management issues, and managing water resources as part of a global climate change.

The focus of the dialogue drove back, time and again, to the need for public communication, one voice for water and protecting the environment.

In closing commentary, McCarthy recalled the fundamental mission of wastewater providers — protecting the environment and public health.

Additionally, McCarthy brought forward an interesting concept to help communicate the value of water. A “total appreciation,” type of communication, showing what the customer pays and what the real cost is. A total rewards type statement to provide a better appreciation for what customers are getting.

Said another panelist: “They more you understand about getting water delivered and what goes into taking wastewater away, the better off we are.”

“We should help the public truly understand the value of water,” McCarthy said. “If you view water as a fuel, then you may begin to see it very differently.”

UK Trade and Investment Breakfast Briefing on the role of the water industry

On Tuesday morning, Oct. 18, I had the opportunity to present in an exciting UK Trade and Investment Breakfast briefing, “The Role of the Water Industry in the Transition to a Global Sustainable Economy. ” This program was a nice transition in to the next session in which I appeared, a Water Leader’s Session on the “Future of Water.”

At this UK forum, I spoke about the nexus of water and energy. Energy is the second highest operating cost of most water and wastewater companies, and future changes to water and wastewater quality regulations require additional energy intensive processes to acheive even more exacting requirements.

We have some outstanding examples of what we’re already doing to help with sustainability, that is, to the water industry, making the best use of a finite resource (water) and ensuring correct attribution among all potential users.

Combined heat and power (CHP)  from biogas can contribute significantly to the net energy demand of the water industry. This has been achieved at a number of locations in the UK, including the Cotton Valley Sludge Treatment Centre, where energy recovered from advanced sludge treatment is being used to feed to treatment process using CHP engines.

At Scottish Water’s new Glencorse Water Treatment Works, the energy of raw water flows is being harnessed by a hydro turbine to produce up to a third of the works’ onsite power requirements.

The practice of using biogas produced by the digestion process to generate electricity and heat is already well established across the UK. However, there is a potential lucrative market for water companies and waste management companies to clean biogas and turn it into biomethane for injecting into the gas distribution network.

Community outreach with Echo Park Lake has been key

On Monday, Oct. 17, I arrived at WEFTEC later in the afternoon as I attended a field meeting at the Echo Park Lake Rehabilitation Project.  The project has been under construction about three months now, and the neighbors are keeping a watchful eye over everything. One example that was cited is a webcam at http://echoparklake.com/.  The City of Los Angeles has done a great job with reaching out to the public on this project, but they probably won’t be “buying him a beer” soon, as they have their own webcams installed.

The community outreach with this project has been extensive and impressive. As I mentioned in my presentation today, we “started with blank slates and colored pens” to ensure their voice was heard as we worked to bring back a sustainable sparkle to this jewel of Los Angeles.

On Tuesday morning, I presented this project in session 43. It was a great session with lots of good questions and dialogue. Tommorow from 1 to 5 p.m., I will be at our poster session (No. 109) which features Echo Park Lake and other Proposition O Projects by the City of Los Angeles.

A message resonating throughout the industry

Black & Veatch’s Chairman, President and CEO Len Rodman recently talked about the work that our company does in the field of “critical human infrastructure.” Dan McCarthy, President and CEO of Black & Veatch’s global water business has also carried that torch but targeted the water industry with infrastructure that is largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

All around WEFTEC — really all around the venue for this year’s event — similar messaging is resonating with attendees.

WEF, the Water Environment Federation, has a new campaign, “Water’s Worth It.”  From my room at WEFTEC, a huge billboard is on a building just over the roof of the Staples Center. Throughout the convention center where some 17,000 water industry leaders are exhibiting, presenting and meeting, there are still more signs and kiosks with the same message.

It’s a strong statement toward the advancement of the linkage of water infrastructure and critical human infrastructure.

Don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

Les Lampe’s presentation on Monday, Oct. 17, at WEFTEC 2011, helped me to recall a famous song from my youth — “Don’t Know What You Got Til It’s Gone,” by 1980s heavy-metal hairband Cinderella.

Part of Lampe’s presentation on “Adapting to Climate Change,” in Monday’s technical session discussed water use efficiency programs that have been put in place in places like Australia. It was part of several case studies — ranging from Singapore and Australia to the UK and the Colorado River Basin here in our own backyard — where Lampe looked at the holistic strategies that are and have been put in place to adapt to climate change.

Lampe said the water use efficiency programs that were put in place in Australia as a response to the extreme drought conditions of the last decade have stuck. Despite the waning of the drought with rains (and in some cases flooding deluges), the communities where those plans were implemented have stayed the course with their decreased water use.

“We don’t seem to do it until we have to do it, but people learn it and it becomes habit,” he said.

Of course, water use efficiency is extremely important, but it’s only part of the portfolio of solutions to combat climate change and water scarcity. That portfolio can include many strategies, including a focus on reuse and desalination, using stormwater as a resource, aquifer recharge, water demand management, and the list goes on. For community involvement, look to the most sustainable supplies — they’re typically embraced by the community.

Additionally, facilities around the globe are more and more looking to renewable energy and examining their own carbon footprints to offset increased energy demands that can sometimes be associated with solutions in the portfolio.

“Carbon footprint and renewables are something that everybody’s going to have to look at,” Lampe said.

Check out Les’s video summary of his presentation now available on YouTube!

Restoring a historic locale in LA

Andy Andrews found a way to tie in Casper the Friendly Ghost, Gilligan’s Island and other former Hollywood favorites into a presentation on Monday, Oct. 17, at WEFTEC 2011. “The things you learn at WEFTEC,” Andrews said.

His presentation was on the historic Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles and the work that Black & Veatch is doing to restore the quality of its water. The lake, built in 1868 as an urban water supply reservoir, is currently being used as a stormwater detention basin. The 14-acre facility, located near Dodgers Stadium, marks the place where Gilligan’s Island was filmed — not the South Pacific! Andrews was also able to point out during the discussion, that aerial views of the lake somewhat resemble a silhouette of Casper the Friendly Ghost, a cartoon character from the 1980s … and maybe earlier.

But in 2006, the lake began having environmental issues. Black & Veatch is working to improve its water quality to meet state standards, and, when complete in 2013, the facility will once again be a place to experience wildlife (there are more than 1000 birds that sometimes call Echo Park Lake home) and enjoy family fun. The renowned lotus garden at the lake will also benefit from the improvements, Andrews said.

Five acres of constructed wetlands and recirculation of the water is key for enhancing water quality, Andrews said.

To protect that current wildlife — the fish and the birds — a separate pond has been developed to move the animal life while the current Echo Park Lake is being drained.

Check out Andy’s video synopsis of his presentation, now available on YouTube.

My colleague George Minter contributed to this report.

Misquoting Ben Franklin and Other Urban Myths

You can’t believe everything you read on t-shirts in Los Angeles.

For that matter, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet—including this blog—so just think of this as my idea of what’s true.  

As I wandered around the convention center soon to be filled by WEFTEC attendees, my eyes were drawn to a t-shirt that featured a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” In trying to verify the quote before passing it forward, I found an urban myth buster indicating that a brewery owner recalled promotional t-shirts with that inaccurate quote.

The site provided a sentiment expressed in a letter from Benjamin Franklin in 1779, which has since been misapplied: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

Wine lovers may tend to interpret this as “Wine is proof that God Love us,” but those of us in the water industry more accurately interpret it as “Water—and everything we do with water—is proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” If your religious beliefs differ from mine, you may want to convert that to “Water—and everything we do with water—is proof that nature loves us.” Just don’t attribute that version to Franklin if you decide to pass it along.

Black & Veatch has completed two series of water dialogues, one on reuse and more recently one on economic and other pressures that weigh on utility leaders worldwide. One key point that has figured prominently in both sets of dialogues as well as other discussions among water industry leaders is the need for the water industry to more clearly communicate the value of water.

Because nature provides us with water (some of the time, in some places, and sometimes too much so), water is perceived as a basic human right.  Water may be a basic entitlement, but it’s an urban (as well as suburban and rural) myth to believe that water is there for the taking.

Water scarcity and clean water concerns around the world have gone a long way towards helping reposition water as a precious commodity, but few people outside the water industry truly understand everything utilities do to tap into water resources, apply advanced technologies to make that water safe to drink, transport it to users, and then carry away used water to treat to high standards so it can be returned to the environment.  Nor do they realize how much they’d have to pay for water if costs for consumers weren’t subsidized by government.

That water is underappreciated and undervalued shouldn’t come as earth-shattering news to anyone who reads this. Organizations like WEF and AWWA and company leaders like Len Rodman and Dan McCarthy of Black & Veatch are increasingly focusing on the need to increase public awareness about the true costs and value of water. But if that message doesn’t hit home, there could be earth-shattering—or at least myth-shattering—consequences for us all.

Feel free to put that on a (very large) t-shirt or bumper sticker, as long as you spell my name right.

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