Exciting Times

The Water Environment Federation’s new executive director gives high priority to raising awareness of the importance of infrastructure and the value of water professionals.
Exciting Times
The WEF created this salute to water and wastewater crews as something utilities can circulate on social media to gain recognition for their teams.

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Eileen O’Neill has worn many hats in her career: soil scientist, college professor, consultant to the U.S. EPA, hazardous waste cleanup specialist. The hats that fit her best of all have to do with water and the water profession.

After more than 20 years with the Water Environment Federation (WEF), O’Neill became executive director last February. She now leads an international organization of some 36,000 water-quality professionals.

O’Neill’s previous work with WEF included oversight of the federation’s technical, international and publications programs and serving as chief technical officer. She became deputy executive director in 2011 and interim executive director in mid-2013. She holds a bachelor’s degree in soil science from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and a Ph.D. in soil science from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She also undertook a post-doctoral traineeship in environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

O’Neill, a strong advocate for water and the water professions, sees challenging but exciting times ahead for the industry. Among the federation’s and her own priorities are to raise awareness of the value of water and the importance of water infrastructure investment, and to elevate the stature of the people who make clean-water systems work. She talked about her background and her vision for water professions in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was your professional background before you joined WEF?

O’Neill: I was a professor and lecturer at a Seale-Hayne College, an agricultural college in the United Kingdom that is now part of the University of Plymouth. I also worked for a government contractor that provided support to the U.S. EPA, and for two environmental consulting companies.

TPO: What led you to a career with WEF?

O’Neill: I had been aware of the federation since I entered the environmental field. I was working on corporate environmental support and hazardous waste site clean ups, my children were very young, and the no-notice travel that comes with the consulting life made me want at least a temporary career change. So I came on board for that reason, and have stayed because working in water has been so rewarding and has provided me with all kinds of opportunities. It has been an incredible experience working with water professionals from the U.S. and all over the world. If they’re active in WEF, it’s because they’re passionate about water, their careers and their professional development. So it’s been a very rewarding place to work.

TPO: What do you find exciting about the water industry?

O’Neill: Where do I start? It’s such an exciting time to be in water, because of the challenges we face with population growth, climate change and urbanization, and because water is such a fundamental need. It’s a very important area to work in, and while there are many challenges, it’s also a time of incredible opportunity as we explore more holistic approaches to water management and water services.

TPO: How would you outline WEF’s critical priorities over the next several years?

O’Neill: We have a relatively new strategic direction and that is guiding us in three areas.

First is our fundamental mission, which is to enrich the expertise of water professionals. We really believe the role they play is vital.

Second is to help drive innovation in the water sector. If we were starting all over to install wastewater and water infrastructure, how would we approach it now as opposed to 50 years ago? And how might we integrate some of that new thinking into cities’ existing infrastructure? And then there’s the opportunity to recover resources — water, nutrients, energy, organic matter — while treating wastewater.

Third is to raise awareness of the value of water, in terms of helping water professionals and the water sector, but also in terms of helping communities understand the value of water and the importance of investment in water infrastructure.

TPO: Practically speaking, how does WEF enrich its state and regional Member Associations and the individual clean-water professionals?

O’Neill: I like to think of us as an organization that operates for our members, but also with our members. We need to stay connected to practicing professionals so that we understand their needs and can fully tap into their expertise. We offer venues such as our conferences where they can network and exchange information and experience. We also advocate high standards of professional practice, certification and training.

We have expert committees that help guide everything we do. We have processes to make sure that the information we provide is of the highest quality and that the consensus of the profession is developed in a balanced and objective way. We also work with our Member Associations, which in many cases are the most accessible sources of development for local professionals.

TPO: In relatively recent years, WEF has expanded its international focus. Why do you see that as important?

O’Neill: I have noticed over my WEF career that our members are increasingly interested not just in what’s happening locally or nationally. They have a much more global perspective than ever before. They understand that what happens in, say, Singapore or Australia, in terms of technology or best practices, can provide useful insights no matter where they are.

So increasingly we are working to be a conduit for information and approaches that can be shared not just nationally but globally. We do that in part through our annual WEFTEC conference, which last year in Chicago had the highest number of attendees ever from outside the U.S. It is valuable when people can hear perspectives from water managers and water professionals from all over the world without having to leave the country.

TPO: It’s well known that many experienced wastewater operators will soon retire and need to be replaced. What is happening with WEF’s Work for Water initiative?

O’Neill: We’re still working on that with the American Water Works Association, and we’re talking to utility directors about what they need and seeing how we can partner with them. We continue working to raise awareness of the value of water professionals, and we’ve been encouraging them to tell their stories — how they came to work in water and what it means to them. We have a number of programs that aim to engage young people in water-related professions and to show them that there are good careers in the water sector.

TPO: How does WEF foster innovation in the profession?

O’Neill: We’re doing a range of things. We’re partnering with organizations like Imagine H2O and BlueTech Research, two entities that identify promising new technologies, and we’re making sure we showcase those at WEFTEC each year so that our members can see them.

Another initiative, with our Water Environment Research Foundation [WERF], is called LIFT [Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology]. One component of that is a way to allow utilities to share the cost and risk of investment in pilot-testing of new technologies. If there’s a technology that utilities are interested in, rather than pilot-test it several places, maybe there’s a way to pool funds and have one pilot test at a lower cost.

The LIFT program is also starting to go out and look for promising new technologies. There’s a “pull” side where utilities tell us they want to work with and test a given technology. There’s also a “push” side, where we looking at ways to bring technologies to utilities in areas we know are of interest to them. We also plan to convene a series of events that look at the barriers to introducing new technologies, and having conversations about ways to break the barriers down.

TPO: Do you see people on the operations side playing a role in innovation?

O’Neill: Definitely. Technology is important, but innovation also includes simple, clever ideas that save money and time or improve process quality. We run an Operator Ingenuity Contest every year at WEFTEC, and the winners are showcased at presentations in our innovation pavilion. It’s designed to make the point that operators can be innovators, too. It’s a lot of fun, and we see some very clever ideas. During my work with international groups at WEF, I’ve seen terrific ideas coming from countries that don’t have as many resources as we have here. It’s great to see through this contest that our operators in the U.S. are every bit as ingenious.

TPO: Please describe how WEF is working to advance the profession and speak up for infrastructure.

O’Neill: We work with the Value of Water Coalition [of leading water associations and businesses] to work toward speaking more with one voice as a sector. We’ve been hearing from utility managers that they are under pressure to show how investments in infrastructure benefit local communities. So we’re looking to develop that kind of information.

A principle is to amplify WEF’s voice by working with others, through collaboration with entities such as the Value of Water Coalition. We are also working to coordinate with other water organizations when we are being advocates for infrastructure.

We’re collaborating with WERF, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and others so that over time we will have what we want to call Water Week, where all the water organizations are doing their outreach on Capitol Hill, to emphasize how much we share in our support for water. We have many common messages and goals around the value of water.

TPO: What does the federation do to help local operators reach out to their communities?

O’Neill: Through the Value of Water Coalition, we plan to create toolkits, fact sheets, public service advertisements, and other things local treatment plants and managers can use. One of our members saw a message on social media thanking electrical workers — the linemen who work through storms to make sure power gets restored. She asked us to do something similar for water and wastewater professionals, and we did. It’s not branded by us. It’s just something that can be shared, say, on Facebook or Twitter to raise awareness of what water professionals do to provide an essential service.

TPO: A hot topic today is the trouble caused by wipes products that people flush. How is the federation taking action on this issue?

O’Neill: We are working on several fronts. We have our own public education materials, trying to raise awareness among the public and give our members tools they can use to get the word out that, as our brochure says, “It’s a toilet, not a trash can.” We also provided a small amount of funding to support a pilot program in Maine to help them develop some public education materials, with the understanding that they could be shared. We’re in discussions with NACWA, the American Public Works Association and INDA, the trade association for the wipes industry, about a process to consult with them on testing for flushability and guidelines for product labeling. It’s complex. It’s not just an issue of labeling what is flushable and non-flushable. It’s also about making sure that as little as possible gets flushed.

TPO: What final words of encouragement would you offer to the operator community?

O’Neill: I would urge them to continue taking pride in what they do and to remember the big picture — the importance of the work they do every day. We had a video at our opening general session at WEFTEC last year where we asked water professionals to tell their stories. This year, we want to highlight the diversity of our professionals and the diversity of careers available in water. We also want to encourage those professionals to come out from behind the scenes and engage with the public.   


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