Leadership In Times Of Water Stress: Answers For Pressing Issues, Including PFAS

Source: Water Online

By Kevin Westerling,

Dr. Mirka Wilderer

AqueoUS Vets is a water and wastewater treatment company with a unique name, one that references the service background of its founder while also invoking traits often attributed to the U.S. military — among them, committed leadership.

So, when it came to choosing a new president and CEO, AqueoUS Vets (AV) tapped a seasoned and accomplished leader, Dr. Mirka Wilderer, who has honed her water industry experience worldwide with positions in Germany, China, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, and the U.S. Most recently, she served as the first female CEO of De Nora Water Technologies, and prior to that served as General Manager at Evoqua Water Technologies, which has recently become part of Xylem. For those familiar with the space, that’s a list of heavy hitters!

The trajectory of AqueoUS Vets could very well follow the same path, especially considering their ability to treat one of the most prevalent and problematic (and soon to be regulated) contaminants in recent memory, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The following Q&A covers Wilderer’s vision for AV, her broader leadership thoughts, evaluation of industry and environmental challenges, and recommended solutions.

You’ve had leadership roles in some very large, well-known water technology companies. What drew you to AqueoUS Vets?

Aqueous Vets is on the leading edge of a highly attractive growth segment that I see as the most promising market segment in water today. It’s exciting to work with a company with a solid foundation in strategy, customer value proposition, systems, and people, coupled with the entrepreneurial drive to succeed and grow. Our team is loaded with experts who have deep knowledge of the water industry, which is complemented by Bain Capital Double Impact’s goal of creating sustainable impact for the greater good of society while driving value for our customers.

What’s your vision for the company?

My vision for AV is to become the pure-play industry leader solving the challenges around existing and emerging contaminants of concern (CECs) — such as PFAS — to ensure water quality and protect public health. I want to make AV’s name ubiquitous in the water space as a company that enables forward-thinking customers with innovative solutions.

What is AV’s approach to PFAS and contaminants of emerging concern in terms of complying with regulations, as well as protecting the environment and human health?

Regulations for various CECs are increasing at the federal and state levels, particularly for PFAS as the U.S. EPA is poised to finalize new maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) in drinking water for six PFAS compounds. These regulations are having huge ripple effects across the entire industry as water utilities will be required to install solutions to protect their communities from harmful contaminants. We offer the expertise of AV to water utilities of all sizes as they strive to meet today’s water quality challenges and address tomorrow’s emerging concerns.

This includes our knowledge and expertise on current and upcoming regulations as well as government funding that is available to water utilities for the installation of equipment to remove CECs. We use data to build trust and rapport with water companies and serve them as reliable and valued advisors.

In more general terms, how do you feel about the current state of water infrastructure and steps toward improvement?

For many years, our water infrastructure has been “out of sight, out of mind,” sorely lacking the investment it has needed. However, I’m very encouraged by the federal funding and state-level prioritization of upgrading our water systems now. Clean, safe water is a precious resource, too often taken for granted. In October, we recognized the National Day of Action “Imagine a Day Without Water,” and I’m hopeful that with ongoing investment and an all-hands-on-deck approach to improvement, preservation, and sustainability, we will help communities across the country avoid that possible future and provide water security.

What about the cost incurred with treating emerging and more strictly regulated contaminants, in addition to updating our infrastructure? How can we fund these needs?

Adopting new treatment methods for emerging contaminants is a costly endeavor. Fortunately, there is federal funding as well as state grant programs to help ease the burden on utilities — in fact, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is providing an unprecedented $55 billion in funds to overhaul the nation’s water infrastructure.

And there are ways to make grant money go further. For example, systems can avoid capital expenditures by seeking plug-and-play solutions like AV’s Cartridge Filter system, which offers leasing options on customizable equipment to enable smaller water utilities to remain in compliance and reach treatment objectives.

Many water professionals have recently reached or are nearing retirement age, and those roles aren’t being readily replaced. How do we accomplish more with less?

Megatrends such as the Great Resignation have attracted a lot of focus in the recent past. While this increase in staff turnover is challenging all parts of the economy, in the water industry it culminates with a sharp uptick in retirement rates and creates a severe labor crunch. These labor market dynamics pose significant operational challenges for all players in the water space. Yet, the Great Resignation and Silver Tsunami also represent an incredible opportunity to significantly innovate and “future proof” workforce approaches in the water industry.

Moving forward, early recruitment of water professionals will be paramount, but we can also employ more self-sufficient and automated systems that require less personnel maintenance and oversight to operate effectively and efficiently.

In addition, clean water offers a purpose-driven career, and the youngest generation of professionals is far more focused on meaning and purpose in their careers than any generation before them. The water industry has an exceptional opportunity to attract, retain, and strengthen the talent foundation by considering diverse, well-educated employees who want to make a difference in the world through stewardship, and the preservation, restoration, and availability of clean water. To take advantage of this opportunity, the water industry needs to embrace a shift in how they operate and present themselves to the world: from profit to purpose, from hierarchy to networks, from controlling to empowering, and from planning to experimenting.

We also cannot underestimate the importance of flexibility to Millennials and Gen Z. Remote work is more than a fad: Hybrid is here to stay. Companies that can offer their employees flexible schedules and a mix of onsite and remote working options see higher retention rates.

Finally, you have a unique perspective as a female in this industry, which has traditionally been dominated by males. What can you share about the importance of ‘women in water’ and how that looks for the future?

I often hear that the water industry lags in the evolution of innovation. This doesn’t surprise me: as we continue to ask the same type of people the same type of questions, we naturally get the same type of answers and solutions. To shake up and wake up the industry, we need to address both parts of this equation and empower people with non-traditional backgrounds, unusual experiences, and alternative perspectives to ask new questions. With the new “business-as-unusual” environment being dynamic, unexpected, and ever-evolving, we need to look for inspiration in unconventional places. Research shows innovation is born through diversity-rich organizations.

Earlier this year I launched “Diversity in Water,” an inclusive network for executive and emerging leaders in the water space to champion and advance diversity — not just women, but people from a wide range of backgrounds. Our goals are to connect, learn from one another, and support each other to reach further, dream big, dare, and accomplish our full potential as we do this incredibly exciting and important work.

In my view, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not just a “check the box” activity, but a critical prerequisite of a corporate mindset of resilience, adaptability, and continuous innovation. This requires active listening, the willingness to engage in courageous conversations, bold experimentation with unfamiliar ideas, and boundless curiosity about future approaches.