A ‘Wide-Angle’ View

Dick Champion learned to lead his utility with a broad perspective that includes a watershed approach to wastewater, stormwater and drinking water.
A ‘Wide-Angle’ View
Champion (back row left) is shown with members of the Independence EcoFest Steering Committee: back row, Dan Montgomery, Independence Water Department; James Helgason, Missouri Department of Natural Resources; and Larry O’Donnell, Little Blue River Watershed Coalition; front, Larry White, Christine Smith and Tamara Bennetzen, Independence Water Pollution Control Department; Jeff Umbreit, Independence Parks and Recreation Department; and Kathy Coffman, Independence Power and Light Department.

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As Dick Champion's job has expanded over the last 40 years, so has his vision of water.

From wastewater operator and plant manager, to responsibilities for collections, stormwater and watershed management in his current capacity as water pollution control director for the City of Independence, Mo., he has adopted what he calls a "wide-angle" view of the water environment.

At 62, he continues to work and advocate for a holistic approach to watersheds, "so we don't force the next generation to inherit more infrastructure repairs because we didn't invest."

Taking time out from his busy schedule of organizing the fifth annual EcoFest — a hugely popular community gathering that emphasizes sustainability of water and other environmental systems — Champion thinks back over a career that has allowed him to touch all phases of the water management profession.

Ever changing

"I got started with a part-time job at the old Rock Creek Treatment Plant in Independence in 1969," Champion reflects. "At the time I was thinking about law school, but I was fascinated with wastewater treatment."

He took a leave of absence to finish his degree in political science and public administration at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, then returned to Independence in 1978 and was involved in the startup of the Rock Creek plant. "It was neat stuff," he says. "I was promoted several times and in 1983 became director of the Water Pollution Control Department."

He has held that position ever since, but his job has changed dramatically as he has taken on new responsibilities, invested his time in public education, and served nationally as board member and president of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), and for the last four-and-a-half years as chairman of the Clean Water America Alliance (CWAA).

"In the beginning, I was focused on wastewater treatment," Champion says. But then he was given responsibilities for the more than 600 miles of collections system in Independence. In 1990, as federal regulations began to require stormwater permits for communities of 100,000 or more, stormwater management came under his direction. That "opened my eyes," as he puts it.

Looking to the watershed

"The short story is that I started looking at the watershed through a wide-angle lens," he says in his razor-sharp, no-nonsense voice. "The city had experienced heavy rains in 1998-99. Flooding had an impact on our sanitary system, in the same neighborhoods where the sewer system served. Eventually, we were able to get a stormwater sales tax through the city, doubled our stormwater crew, and got better equipment."

Rather than hold a myopic view of wastewater, he adopted a total watershed approach, with concerns for sustainability and water's role in the quality of life in his community. "It was a career change for me," he says. Today, his department oversees 16 regional stormwater detention basins and is looking toward a future of green infrastructure that will feature "soak basins," rain gardens, wetlands, swales, and a "grow not mow" philosophy toward grass and native plants.

"Our improvements include intercepting rainwater at the right location and conveying it slowly," he says. "We don't want to pass this problem downstream. Spread it out and let it infiltrate."

Obtaining approval for stormwater funds and getting citizens to understand green infrastructure requires a lot of public education, an area where Champion truly lives up to his name. "He has always been on the forefront in reaching out and telling our story," says Lorraine Loken, who has headed public education for the Water Environment Federation and the CWAA.

The city's progress on stormwater is a good example. There was a need for change in public attitudes toward rainwater and snow melt. "This is a paradigm shift," Champion says. "Normally, our homeowners want their lawns to look like golf courses, and they want to transfer their problems downstream."

Listen and act

To gain acceptance of new policies, Champion listens to ratepayers and responds. "When we build retention basins, we ask the neighbors what they'd like to see in the way of flowers," he says. "Then we plant these different species on the slopes — not at the bottom, which just gets soggy. We make sure the berm matches the neighborhood, so there's a transition."

In addition to plantings, Champion's department creates pods — small wetlands areas — for butterflies and hummingbirds. "No two basins are alike," he says. "We make sure the city property blends in with the neighborhood. We're getting smarter."

To broadcast the watershed message more widely, the city publishes a monthly newsletter that accompanies the utility bills, and Champion and his team members give numerous talks and presentations. "People don't get environmental degrees overnight," he reminds anyone within earshot. "Maybe they don't fully understand the watershed, but they're getting the idea. Over the last 10 years, people are starting to use the same words. We're making a difference.

"It's intuitive on my part, but you have to say it over and over again before people start to get the message. People really do care about the environment. Whether they put it into practice is another issue, but they really do care."

EcoFest

Champion's faith in his ratepayers is no doubt reinforced every summer at the city's EcoFest environmental fair, held at beautiful Waterfall Park. He chairs the steering committee for the event, sponsored by his department, various non-governmental organizations, and the State of Missouri Departments of Natural Resources and Conservation.

"It's all about water," Champion says. "We'll get between 500 and 800 people, mostly families, participating. That's the vision. Sustainability and future generations." The event includes 20 or more exhibitors who provide interactive experiences on watersheds, stream bank erosion, aquifers, water quality, rain barrels, wetlands, energy and the water-energy nexus.

Attendees can visit each booth to fill out a passport that entitles them to an EcoFest T-shirt. Along the way, they are entertained by performers like the Green Spirit Band, which fills the air with environmental songs, or Eco Elvis, a character who looks like and sounds like Elvis Presley but teaches environmental lessons.

Area elementary and middle schools compete in an environmental art contest. "The park is a perfect place, with waterfalls, ducks, geese," Champion says. "We get lots of press. Every year, the event just keeps getting bigger."

National work

While Champion is Missouri through and through, he has taken his passion for clean water to the national stage. For 13 years, he has served on the board of directors of NACWA, and he served as president in 2006. He now chairs the CWAA board of directors. He's passionate about the organizations' missions: to bring the various agencies dealing with water together to form and implement a unified policy on water sustainability — One Water, as CWAA likes to phrase it.

Champion observes that various agencies involved with drinking water and wastewater tend to speak in different languages. "We need to be bilingual," he says. "If we're really going to make a difference, we need to knock down the silos, change the paradigm. We need to speak with one voice. It's a new sandbox."

He sees NACWA and CWAA as having an impact: "We're starting to see public works departments talking with water departments, land developers, academia and commercial interests. We're starting to take a different approach to rainwater, stormwater and waste."

He believes the organizations have fanned enthusiasm for the water environment, but he recognizes that one size does not fit all. "While we're starting to speak with one voice, we recognize there are differences between the Southwest and the Northeast, the Northwest and the Midwest. We've promoted regional dialogs, webcasts. It's been very successful."

Another lesson: public-private sector cooperation. "We learned early on that a bunch of utility people can't keep running the show," he says. "We need businesses sitting with us to deal with innovation and funding." He advocates business advisory councils that bring a different viewpoint to the discussion. "There's greatness in diversity," he says.

Ken Kirk, executive director of NACWA, has worked closely with Champion in leadership positions. "He's truly a team player and person who speaks with his heart," Kirk says. "He has done an incredible job, working with the organizations across the water spectrum, focusing on the changing water paradigm — for the good of the country. He's a true friend of the environment and a statesman in every sense of the word."

What's next?

While it's hard to imagine someone so passionate about water hanging it up, Champion says he's beginning to "smell retirement." One of his goals is to make sure he leaves his utility with talented, capable people in the right positions. Beyond that, he says, he will absolutely eschew the proverbial rocking chair on the front porch.

Chances are you'll find him continuing to serve on national boards, campaigning for a unified approach to water, and speaking his mind. And if you're at the Independence EcoFest sometime in the future, he'll probably be there handing out the T-shirts.



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