What’s in a Name? Or a Title?

What’s the potential benefit of calling facilities something other than ‘wastewater treatment plant’? And those who work there something other than ‘operator’?

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In the same week recently I heard from two professionals — one each from the wastewater and drinking water sides — about the merits of calling treatment plants something else, and giving people who work there different titles.

From Jack Saltes, P.E., wastewater operations engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Water Quality: “The Water Environment Federation now refers to all wastewater treatment plants as water resource recovery facilities [WRRFs]. Suggestions have been made that the DNR also change the title ‘wastewater treatment plant operator’ to ‘water resource recovery specialist.’ Do you have any thoughts or opinion about this repackaging?”

And from Sam Wade, deputy CEO of the National Rural Water Association: “The NRWA and state Rural Water Associations ... have launched the campaign to refer to the staff who operate water and wastewater systems as water or wastewater system operations specialists.”

In both cases the thought is that these designations better reflect what water facilities do and the skills, knowledge and expertise plant staff members have. “Simply put,” says Wade, “these positions are not just task-oriented jobs. They are professional career tracks that deserve to be recognized as such.” (See the interview with Wade on the topic in this issue of TPO.)

In concept, yes

Anyone who reads this magazine knows basically where I stand on questions like this. While many operators take great pride (and rightly so) in their titles as they exist today, I believe the term “wastewater operator” is a sort of reverse euphemism — an expression that takes something great and makes it sound less good than it is.

On the wastewater side, I have advocated for the terms, “clean-water plant” and “clean-water operator,” on the grounds the plants and people should be known for the wonderful end product they produce, not for the unpleasant raw material that comes in.

Now, the WEF’s plant name is a bit of a mouthful and has a kind of bureaucratic feel, but it’s also more inclusive than “clean-water plant” in that it speaks to resource recovery on both the solid and liquid sides. And energy production from biogas is increasingly important as our society looks toward cleaner energy to combat climate change. But then, “clean water” is just so nice and simple and, well, clean. That matters when trying to influence the general public. So either approach has merit.

What’s the impact?

More to the point, will changing the names of plants and the titles of professionals by itself change public perceptions of the industry? Not likely — but the names and titles we use now force the industry to swim upstream.

We don’t call a place where cows produce milk a “manure processing facility” to reflect the main input to the fields that grow the cattle feed. We call it a dairy farm, and that conjures images of wonderful things like milk, cheese and yogurt. So why do we call a facility that makes clean water a wastewater treatment plant or, worse, a sewage plant?

The same general principle applies to the term “wastewater operator.” To the uninformed, which means most members of the public, the term conjures images of guys in dirty jeans working in a disgusting place. Why let that image get in the way of the great service the plants and people provide?

Share your opinion

Wade has more to say about this issue in his interview — I hope you’ll take time to read it. In the meantime, TPO is deeply interested in your thoughts. Please express your opinion by sending a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will publish a sampling of comments in a future issue.


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