By Kevin Westerling,
Despite overseeing our most precious resource, water professionals often go unnoticed, and hence unappreciated. To that end, it’s my pleasure to highlight the efforts, accomplishments, and insights of industry leaders such as Joy Eldredge, chair of the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association.
CA-NV AWWA represents an area and utility presence larger than most countries. The spate of issues is large as well, both in number and scope — and that was before the pandemic hit. The repercussions of COVID have forced difficult operational decisions, and sometimes concessions, yet the goal of sustainably achieving the highest level of water quality and customer service remains the same. Joy Eldredge embodies this goal, and her service to others is evident even beyond her professional duties. Read on to learn about, and from, her experience.
You were passed the gavel at CA-NV AWWA’s 2020 Annual Fall Conference, which was held virtually in October. Can you describe your role and how COVID has affected it?
As Section Chair, I work with the chairs (vice chair, chair elect, and vice chair elect) as well as the Executive Committee to set the course and the priorities for the year. The Executive Director and 12 other staff work with the volunteers to serve our members.
The biggest change for the section was canceling our annual spring conference, which was very unfortunate. We had robust plans for a 100th anniversary celebration at Disneyland, which always draws a large crowd. We changed the format of our annual fall conference to be entirely virtual. By all accounts it was successful, and I am very proud of section staff, our ad hoc committee, and our members that ensured a successful event. Our upcoming Operator Symposium [March 23-24] will also be virtual, and we hope for similar results. [Visit www.ca-nv-awwa.org for details.]
What has COVID wrought in terms of day-to-day operations for your sector and the industry at large?
The State Water Resources Control Board has recently published survey results that indicate there is over $600 million in outstanding bills directly related to drinking water systems that customers have not paid since the start of the COVID pandemic. This is a huge impact to the industry and, as we know, water systems are already challenged with sufficient funding to maintain and replace aging infrastructure. Similar to the recent drought when associated mandates for reduced consumption reduced revenue for many systems, infrastructure does not stop aging, but the investments must be made after additional degradation, often resulting in higher overall costs to the operation. Individuals need to understand that paying their water bill needs to be among their highest priorities.
You are also deputy utilities director at the city of Napa, in the heart of California’s Wine Country. What unique challenges are posed by your environment and user base, and how are they addressed?
The city of Napa has had its share of disasters in the last seven years, including a 6.0 earthquake in 2014, the Atlas and Patrick Fires in 2017, public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) of the energy grid starting in 2018, and the recent Hennessey Lightening Unit Complex and Glass Fires in 2020. We are well-versed in emergency response and I encourage others to plan ahead for emergencies. One of the most important actions is to sign up for CALWARN, the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network [or your state’s equivalent], which provides a structure and contractual mechanism for mutual aid from other agencies. The value is that the other agencies operate and maintain systems, so they are already trained and have the materials and equipment necessary to provide immediate and effective assistance.
Admirably, you served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, East Africa, from 1995-1998. Did that experience help inform or influence your views on water? If so, how?
I spent three years building small concrete tanks for rainwater harvesting from roof catchment systems. It was very basic construction using locally available materials and purchased concrete. It was the ultimate in hands-on construction, and I realized I learned more about concrete than I did in my 300-level college courses. Spending time in a very remote part of the world where people are in a situation of subsistence living reinforced the importance of water and that it is a vital resource.
Americans often take for granted the amount of work that goes into ensuring their clean, safe tap water is available every day and reliable in times of natural disasters. When you carry every gallon of water you use with a bucket, you will value it much more than when you simply turn on the faucet and it appears.
But perhaps not as taken for granted as it once was. Hopefully, the pandemic has taught America and the world about the value of water and water services. Thank you to Joy and all our water professionals out there.