These Are Exciting Times

Technology is advancing. Expectations are rising. That’s a challenge and opportunity. Has there ever been a better time to be in the clean-water profession?

Sure, fiscal times are tight. Sure, there’s a wave of retirements coming and a shortage of new operators in the pipeline. Sure, clean-water agencies are being asked to do more in a time when resources are increasingly scarce.

Despite all that, can you think of a better time to be in the clean-water profession? That’s a good attitude with which to approach the WEFTEC conference in Chicago, Oct. 5-9, or your next state or regional WEA or operator association conference.

What’s so exciting?

Why, from the comfort of my editor’s chair, far removed from your daily issues, do I think these times are so great? In two words: technology and expectations. Let’s take them one at a time.

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t receive news of some new product or some experimental method that could change treatment for the better. In this issue alone, we have two such stories: the University of Kansas and the City of Lawrence collaborating to test algae for removal of nitrogen and phosphorus from effluent, and the Victor Valley (Calif.) Wastewater Reclamation Authority undertaking a co-digestion project with the ultimate aim of becoming a net producer — not consumer — of energy.

Those aside, there are all sorts of new high-efficiency blowers that cut energy costs for aeration. New membrane filter processes. A process that turns otherwise troublesome struvite into a marketable fertilizer. Solar biosolids dryers. And “better mousetraps” in just about every class of equipment you care to name. You can count on seeing many intriguing new technologies at WEFTEC. It’s exciting to contemplate putting these new tools to work for the benefit of plant teams, customers and the environment.

Expecting more

And that brings us to the second word: expectations. You can look at that word as something onerous (“Now they expect us to do what?”) or as something elevating.

The time is passing when wastewater treatment plants and wastewater operators were thought of simply as occupying the end of a big, dirty pipe, in glamorless, thankless roles. Industry groups are leading a charge to create a much more positive — and truer — image of the profession and its role in protecting our waterways.

Specifically, the Water Environment Federation, the Water Environment Research Foundation, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies are asking the profession and the public to think of the industry in a whole new light, with expanding roles and spheres of influence.

Their report issued early this year, The Water Resources Utility of the Future: A Blueprint for Action, states, “Instead of solely collecting and transporting wastewaters as far downstream as possible to central treatment plants where wastes are cleansed to meet permit limits prior to discharge to waterways, the Utility of the Future transforms itself into a manager of valuable resources, a partner in local economic development, and a member of the watershed community seeking to deliver maximum environmental benefits at the least cost to society.”

Doesn’t that accurately reflect much of what the profession already does? And doesn’t it include a role and a stature people in the industry should aspire to? There’s a big difference between being seen as a person in dirty jeans in a plant on a dead-end road and being seen as a protector of resources and watersheds.

Embracing the role

Our own Fire Chief Project (see has a somewhat similar mission — it aims to help elevate the profession such that clean-water operators enjoy the same community stature as the fire chief, and that boys and girls grow up wanting to be clean-water operators.

So, expectations are rising, and with them opportunity. It’s time to say goodbye to the low profile. The attitude that “I do my job, I do it well, that’s enough,” may have been fine, but no longer.

The profession has an essential role to play in society — as important as any other in the public sphere. It’s time to embrace the expectations, and embrace the technologies that will help drive the industry forward in the years ahead.


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