On Feb. 3, Eileen O’Neill was formally named executive director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). She had served as interim executive director since July. O’Neill has more than 20 years of experience at WEF; in 2011, she became WEF’s deputy executive director and before this, served as chief technical officer with responsibility and oversight of WEF’s technical, international, and communications programs.
In the Q&A below, O’Neill shares her plans and vision for WEF and the water sector with Highlights.
What are the primary short-term and long-term goals for WEF?
O’Neill: We have an exciting and visionary strategic direction that has focused WEF on water-sector innovation, awareness of the value of water, and the expertise of global water professionals.
This strategic direction was developed by our Board of Trustees and senior staff who listened carefully to the opinions of WEF members and other water leaders about current and future water profession needs.
It has driven the identification of practical short- and long-term goals related to contributing tools and developing knowledge in such areas as resource recovery and holistic water management. We also are focusing attention on helping our members communicate the true value of water to the public as well as defining the skills and attributes water professionals of the future need and how we can support development of these skills.
What are the largest challenges facing the water sector?
O’Neill: In an era of climate change and competing demands, the primary challenge is meeting the water service needs of growing and, in some cases, shifting populations with an eye to resiliency and flexibility. North America and other developed parts of the world face additional layers of complexity from the challenges of integrating legacy systems, replacing aging infrastructure, and, in some cases, addressing combined sewer overflows.
What do you see as WEF’s role in facing these challenges?
O’Neill: WEF will help share and distill knowledge. WEF’s diversity and our strength as a practitioner-rich community allows us to help bridge the gap between new water management research and theory and practical, on-the-ground adoption and implementation. We can shine a light on successful early adopters, and contribute to the identification, verification, and dissemination of leading practices that catalyze implementation of innovative and practical solutions.
Under your leadership, what will WEF seek to do differently than it has done before?
O’Neill: As executive director, I am just one element of WEF’s leadership with a responsibility to lead the staff, manage operation of the organization, and work with the board on planning.
I will focus on enhancing WEF’s operation through consistent application of business practices while maintaining the sense of volunteer ownership that makes us much more than a business. Using business analytics and data and developing clear and overarching strategies can foster greater understanding of where we are going, what we need to do to get there, and how we will know when we have arrived.
I believe we must ensure that the experience we offer to volunteers continues to evolve and grow. This advancement will allow WEF to keep sharing the expertise of our members today and into the future. Things have changed since I joined WEF more than 20 years ago: Today, we need to offer new high quality engagement opportunities. But the high value water professionals place on information developed through WEF’s robust consensus and peer-review processes has not changed. We will find new models to develop and synthesize high-quality, globally-informed technical information.
What will utilities of the future look like?
O’Neill: We already are getting a glimpse of what utilities of the future will look like and what they will deliver. While utilities historically have provided crucial services and been leaders in protecting public health and the environment, they often have operated in the background. Emerging utilities of the future are visible partners in local development, innovators, leaders in resource recovery, and forces for the enrichment and greening of communities.
It is remarkable how quickly the role water utilities play in their communities is changing and how large an impact many are having on health, economy, and vibrancy of cities.
What role will innovative technologies play in the future for the water sector?
O’Neill: Innovative technologies are saving community resources and driving smarter water management. For example, short-cut nitrogen removal meets stringent nitrogen limits while decreasing use of energy and other resources, and asset management tools and data analytics enable better decision-making and resource allocation. I see these sorts of trends continuing.
Also, through the work of such programs as the WEF and Water Environment Research Foundation (Alexandria, Va.) Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT), I see an increasing pace of adopting innovation in the U.S. As a country we have some of the best technical minds in the world and we lead in innovation in many spheres. Now we are putting our minds to work, making sure that the water sector and the public sees the benefits of water innovation sooner rather than later.
Collaboration seems to be a buzzword in the water sector right now. How will WEF foster collaboration? Who needs to take part in this collaboration?
O’Neill: Effective collaboration is not just a priority for WEF, it’s an expectation from our members and customers who are looking to maximize their investment.
The water sector is rich with opportunities and we believe there is room for contributions by many organizations. WEF is very open to both meaningful coordination and true partnerships. We prefer to identify specific collaborative activities and programs and build understanding and trust by working together.
Now that WEFTEC has become the largest water show of its kind in the world, what’s next for it?
O’Neill: It’s going to be hard to top the success of WEFTEC® 2013, but our staff and committees are hard at work planning for an even more interesting and vibrant program and event for WEFTEC 2014 in New Orleans. While being the world’s largest water show is a testament to the many individuals who contribute to WEFTEC, we are equally focused on growing the quality of the WEFTEC experience for exhibitors, sponsors, presenters, and attendees.
Once again we will be looking to bring in top experts from all over the world so that our attendees will have access to the best and most complete technical and thought leadership programming. We will continue providing tailored programming on innovation and stormwater — both of which have been very well-received.
Attendees and exhibitors can expect to mingle with an international crowd again this year as WEFTEC grows in relevance as a major global event. And the dynamic and unique water story of New Orleans can provide a unique context for discussions of new approaches to urban water management, recovery, and resilience.