By Kevin Westerling,
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Whether you recognize the quote from Voltaire (1832) or Spider-Man (2002), it is an enduring truth. And while the world of water/wastewater may not excite like a superhero, the work is important. In early 2014, Eileen O’Neill inherited important responsibility by becoming the executive director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF). WEF’s agenda for WEFTEC 2014 reflects the needs facing the water/wastewater community — infrastructure, financing, regulations, water quality, scarcity, et al. — but it also pushes the industry by promoting best practices, new technologies, and solutions. I spoke to O’Neill about what needs to be done to maintain a supply for years to come.
O’Neill and WEF exert influence on the market by helping foster innovation, through both the Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT) done in partnership with the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), and through WEFTEC’s Innovation Pavilion.
“Supporting innovation is not a simple or single-dimensional challenge,” said O’Neill. “Enabling innovation, or helping the innovation process move forward, requires a lot of the ‘right’ pieces to be in place. Of course you need the idea inventors — universities, start-ups, and sometimes established companies’ R&D centers, or even utilities — to help start the process. You also need capital/funding to invest in the R&D and promotion, as well as a consultant and a utility that is willing to take some risk to try something new and innovative. Even if you have all of that in place, you then may need a regulator who is willing to approve that new technology/approach; so, policy plays a big role as well. The concept of risk and risk-sharing is increasingly recognized as a real issue.”
What are the trending issues that innovation can solve? The biggest attention-getter may be stormwater management. WEF acknowledged this by introducing the inaugural WEFTEC Stormwater Congress last year and by expanding the 2014 program due to rising demand.
“We are all increasingly aware of the importance of stormwater management to address water quality and quantity challenges. In fact, since the passage of the Clean Water Act, the largest contributing force to water quality impairment has flipped from point sources to nonpoint sources,” explained O’Neill. “Predictions for the market for stormwater technologies indicate expanding need not just here in the U.S., but globally. Many of our utility members are taking responsibility for management of stormwater, and we are also aware of a growing cadre of stormwater professionals looking for opportunities to exchange best practices and learn about cutting-edge approaches to stormwater treatment, management, and financing.”
WEF’s strategic direction, according to O’Neill, also includes focus on communicating the true value of water to the public, defining and developing the skills and attributes needed by water professionals of the future, and identifying highly practical short- and long-term solutions for resource recovery and holistic water management.
As stewards of a precious resource, water and wastewater professionals are imbued with great power and responsibility — superheroes of public health and the environment, if you will — but part of that responsibility is to keep up with the latest technologies, techniques, and trends. The mission to continually learn conjures another enduring quote; it was Sir Francis Bacon, in 1587, who reminded us that “Knowledge is power.”
Knowledge, power, and responsibility — all in a day's work for today's water professional.