By Kevin Westerling,
His surname notwithstanding, David Rager is an affable guy. Small-town, Midwest affable. He grew up on a farm in a town of about 5,000, went on to serve Cincinnati government for 40 years, including 17 at Greater Cincinnati Water Works, and is now set to serve as president of the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Through his upbringing and career, he has been immersed in water issues for his entire life.
So what are Rager’s concerns and goals in leading AWWA — the largest organization of water supply professionals in the world with 51,000 members and 4,100 utilities, responsible for the lion’s share of drinking water supply (80 percent) and wastewater treatment (50 percent) in the U.S.? Rager was kind enough — exceedingly so — to talk with me about his personal priorities for his 2018-19 tenure, the long-term challenges of the industry, and the impact that AWWA can effect through its slate of initiatives and its Annual Conference & Exposition, ACE18, after which he will take the reins from outgoing president Brenda Lennox.
What’s your main focus point as you enter the office of AWWA president?
For me, the focus is on how to maintain a reliable supply of quality water to the communities we serve and the countries we serve. We think about water in terms of consumption and public health. That’s very important, but it’s also essential for commerce; a lot of manufacturing is done with water supplied by utilities. If you don’t have commerce and you don’t have jobs, there’s no reason to have people live in those cities, and then the cities aren’t successful.
A doctor would say the three most important things for a healthy community are public water supply, public sanitation, and refrigeration. All three of those take water. It takes water to produce the electricity to run the refrigerator.
A particular concern that I often remind people about is fire protection. As I watched the fires out in California, I was always looking to see where they were connecting. Those hydrants have to be backed up with pumps and a quantity of water to provide 3,000 gallons per minute.
My goal is to make everybody understand that we need to keep focused on providing a plentiful supply of quality water, because it’s necessary for so many aspects of our lives.
AWWA’s strong stance on lead — that all lead service lines should be replaced — would help ensure safe drinking water, but how can we feasibly afford it and compel private property owners into action?
We’re talking about billions of dollars of expense. It’s not going to happen overnight. Private property rights are not going to go away, either. You have to work on educating the public, to help them understand whether they have lead issues in their private plumbing or not, as well as their choices for remediation.
The second part is corrosion control, because that helps coat the inside of the pipe to protect the quality of the water from the lead. That has to be forefront for anything we do in terms of national strategies on lead. We’re going to have this lead issue for quite a long time, and we have to make sure we’re doing corrosion control appropriately and properly to protect the pipes now.
You have different communities that are in different positions, financially, across the country. There’s going to have to be a role for the federal government in assisting utilities and communities with the removal of lead. There are just communities that don’t have the economics to address the issue on their own. This is something we need to work with smaller utilities, to put them in a better position to address the issues. It will have to be a shared responsibility between the property owner, the community, the state, and the federal government.
"My goal is to make everybody understand that we need to keep focused on providing a plentiful supply of quality water, because it’s necessary for so many aspects of our lives."
Is the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) a financing option, or is it limiting due to its large project focus?
That’s a misunderstanding that I run into a lot across the country. While a focus of WIFIA is large projects, which generally would be large utilities, you can actually package small projects together and apply for WIFIA funding.
If you’ve got 10 $3-million projects, you can package those together and submit them as one group for $30 million of funding. There are actually provisions in the WIFIA legislation that allow states to do that. If they’re out of SRF [State Revolving Fund] money, states can package together a lot of small projects for several small utilities and go after WIFIA funding.
What about technology solutions to help alleviate the financial burden?
The one area that I keep looking toward is asset maintenance for extending the useful life of assets. A big challenge in the industry is asset repair and replacement. I look for technologies that allow you to take a pipe that’s already in the ground and extend its life as opposed to replacing it. There are a lot of technologies that are working toward that effort. One that’s pretty prevalent is slip-lining pipes, or re-lining of pipes.
While your general goal for asset repair and replacement is 1 percent, you’ve really got to have a master plan to understand how your city grew or your service area grew over time, and then what the demands are going to be over the next 40 or 50 years. Maybe you can take 20 percent of those assets and slip-line them to add 20 years to their life. That pushes out these complete replacements of the pipe and smooths out those bumps in your asset replacement work.
In terms of detecting leaks and potential breaks, thermal imaging is an interesting technology. Trying to find those leaks can be pretty labor-intensive, so any technology that allows you to drive down a street and sense variations in temperature from the water inside the pipe versus the ground is very helpful.
A lot of the large utilities are also tying their ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems to real-time monitoring technologies. Anything that helps a utility better understand consumption, flow, and how demands are impacting their system will provide the opportunity to reduce cost.
ACE18 is a showcase for these technologies, and much more. What excites you about the event?
When you go to the exhibit hall and you just look at all of the different professions that are represented, from IT to engineering to manufacturing to filtration to billing, you recognize that it takes all of those technologies and all of those professions — a collective we, coming together in a systematic way, to make the industry successful. Each discipline is innovating their piece of this whole mechanism to ensure clean, plentiful water. I find it fascinating.