When we gather in Chicago to attend WEFTEC® 2017, it will mark the 90th year the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) has hosted this annual conference. This is a good reminder that the Federation and its members already had been working to restore U.S. waterways and protect public health for more than 45 years when the U.S. Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto and approved the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. Even though CWA set us on the course to control water pollution, significant environmental challenges persist today.
WEF of today faces new challenges
During that critical time for water, Joe Lagnese served as WEF president from 1971 to 1972. The February 2017 edition of WEF’s flagship publication, WE&T, contains a Viewpoint from Lagnese in which he says WEF has become a less forceful advocate for clean water and federal funding today than during the time he was president, especially considering current challenges.
We are fortunate to be reminded about the history and goals of CWA from such water champions as Lagnese. Past President Lagnese’s viewpoint caused me to reflect about WEF; while the overall goal of achieving clean water is the same as in the past, today’s challenges seem profoundly different than 45 years ago.
Working toward clean water through collaboration and mobilization of members
I see present-day WEF as an organization with a clear mission and attainable strategic outcomes focused on achieving clean water and vibrant communities. WEF advocates for clean water policy as well as federal and local funding using many strategies, and not all occur on Capitol Hill. WEF’s Water Advocates program is a grassroots initiative working to obtain funding at the local level to achieve clean water. Most important, through knowledge development and exchange, WEF is empowering individuals to make lasting changes in their communities.
WEF is not alone; we value and support the effective collaboration we’ve forged with such valued partners as the American Water Works Association (AWWA; Denver), Water Environment and Reuse Foundation (Alexandria), National Association of Clean Water Agencies (Washington, D.C.), WateReuse Association (Alexandria), 75 WEF Member Associations around the world, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Just last fall, WEF and 12 other leading water organizations hosted a Partnering for Impact event to find ways to increase collaboration and accelerate success.
I see WEF as the champion for science-based regulations and innovative approaches that deliver solutions. WEF has partnered with our members to create advances in treatment technology, process modeling, environmental compliance monitoring, and effective utility management. We work with the regulatory community to produce measurable water quality improvements that go beyond simply meeting numeric-based discharge permits.
Diversifying skills to meet complex challenges
While the great work of water quality professionals has accomplished much to advance CWA’s goal of achieving fishable and swimmable waters, challenges remain. In recent decades, utilities have evolved. I believe that the challenges facing utilities not only are more complex than in the past, but also will continue to become increasingly complex. Many of us have had to move beyond our traditional responsibilities to address current water issues, such as
- engaging the public to address emerging contaminants,
- forming partnerships to address nonpoint pollution, and
- working to implement green infrastructure within our community.
We measure ourselves not only by permit compliance, but also by the value we bring to our communities. By working in reuse, I know our customers and partners aren’t just concerned with whether we comply with our permits, but also whether we are competent, reliable, and responsible engineers and managers. Without the credibility and legitimacy provided by transparency, it would be impossible to get our programs funded.
Taking the helm of the Utility of the Future
As water professionals, we simply must earn the public’s trust and confidence if we are going to operate and manage the Utility of the Future.
Utilities of the Future essentially are green factories that recover nutrients and energy from wastewater and, my personal favorite, transform wastewater into drinking water. It seems the water sector is on the cusp of implementing the next series of innovations as
- universities and utilities create hubs for research,
- atmospheric scientists provide information needed to better understand our climate,
- stormwater and watershed-based solutions produce benefits,
- design-build and public-private partnerships deliver infrastructure, and
- membrane separations and advanced oxidation processes allow potable reuse.
Advocating for infrastructure
After spending the past 30 years working at water resource recovery facilities, I know firsthand that water, wastewater, stormwater, and water-recycling infrastructure does not receive significant federal funding. Immediately after CWA was passed, the Construction Grants Program contributed more than 87% of the cost for a water pollution control project; but today, local fees and rates pay for 98% of water and wastewater infrastructure. While they’re certainly welcome, we can’t rely on funds from state and federal sources.
I believe WEF assertively and effectively communicates the value of investment in water quality protection. The Federation has become a more powerful advocate for infrastructure funding than ever by
- being a founding member of the Value of Water campaign,
- partnering with AWWA to propose the new Water Innovation Finance and Innovation Act,
- partnering with WateReuse to report on the impact of the State Revolving Fund program on federal tax revenue, and
- offering such testimony in support of funding as that made by our current Government Affairs Committee Chair Rudy Chow.
WEF equips professionals for the future
From my vantage point as president, I am confident WEF is as forceful and relevant an advocate for the challenges of today as it has been in the past. We are building partnerships to help make that advocacy even more effective. Just as WEF helped equip the talented and dedicated water quality professionals that solved water challenges in the past, the Federation offers information, tools, and other support to those professionals on the frontlines addressing the water challenges of today and tomorrow.
I am grateful for the water professionals who built this organization. I am proud of both our members and staff — trusted partners in the journey to achieve clean water. I look forward to celebrating each member’s positive influence on the water sector in 2017. I encourage you to post your achievements using #MyWaterLegacy, and to follow @WEForg and @Rickwarner13.
As WEFTEC 2017 approaches, watch the progress of two ambitious members, Linda and Gary De Kock. These extraordinary members are setting off to raise money for Water for People (Denver) by taking an 1892 km (1176 mi) kayaking voyage to attend WEFTEC in Chicago. Make a pledge, and wish Gary and Linda a safe voyage.
Thank you for your passion and commitment to water.
— Rick Warner, WEF President 2016–2017