Q&A: WEF's Paul Bowen Chimes in on Sustainability

WEF president Paul Bowen brings fresh perspectives on creating sustainable utilities and communities and on attracting new talent to the water professions.
Q&A: WEF's Paul Bowen Chimes in on Sustainability
Paul Bowen

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Paul Bowen traces his interest in water treatment back to a crude water filter he made during grade school. From there, it has been a long and rewarding journey to becoming director of environmental sustainability with The Coca-Cola Company and 2015-16 president of the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

Bowen brings a private-sector focus on metrics and accountability to WEF. He also offers perspectives on shared values related to sustainable water and wastewater utilities, and to recruitment of new professionals into the water field.

With Coca-Cola, Bowen is responsible for delivering on company goals in water, energy, climate and packaging recovery. His team helps embed environmental sustainability in operations across the Coca-Cola system, which is composed of the company and more than 250 bottling partners worldwide. He serves as a technical expert in water reuse, water stewardship and wastewater treatment.

A WEF member since 1977, Bowen has held multiple leadership and committee roles. He has also served as a literature review author for the Residuals & Biosolids and Industrial Wastes Committee and as a board member for WEF’s charity of choice, Water for People. In addition, he is active in the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, the American Water Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the International Water Association and the International Society of Beverage Technologists.

Bowen shared his thoughts on sustainability and the recruitment and retention of young professionals in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How did you come to be interested in the water professions?

Bowen: When I was in fourth grade, I built my first water treatment device. I took a coffee can and punched holes in the bottom, filled it with rocks and sand and some crushed charcoal, and made a water filter for a science fair project. That sparked my interest in water and the environment. When I was on the debate team as a senior in high school, the national debate topic was on whether the United States should have regional or nationwide pollution control laws. It was a very timely topic.

As a chemistry major at Mercer University, I saw a real need for people in the environmental space. I got an EPA fellowship to do graduate work at Clemson University. Later, I was an assistant professor in the School of Civil Engineering & Environmental Science at the University of Oklahoma. After that I became a vice president and senior staff consultant for Metcalf & Eddy. That led to my current position with Coca-Cola, where I’ve been for 17 years.

TPO: How did you become involved with WEF?

Bowen: When I was in graduate school at Clemson, the professors strongly recommended that we join what was then the Water Pollution Control Federation and make sure we received their journal, too, so we could follow what was current in the field. While at the University of Oklahoma, I took part in the local member association meetings, and I did the same while at Metcalf & Eddy. Eventually I got on the program committee at the national level and it grew from there.

TPO: How do you see your private-sector perspectives as being valuable to WEF and to utilities?

Bowen: I tend to focus on objectives and performance metrics — making sure an organization sets the appropriate objectives and that those objectives have measureable outcomes, so that we can drive performance to a different level. So, I bring a business perspective and strong technical background in water stewardship and wastewater treatment. My for-profit perspective can benefit WEF members, many of whom represent municipalities. While they are not in business to make money, they still need to be responsible, solvent and financially sound.

TPO: From your position in a corporate environment, what does the term “sustainable business” mean?

Bowen: Ultimately, being a sustainable business means being a business that continues to operate and grow. At Coca-Cola, we recognize our business is only as sustainable as the communities where we operate. So, we listen, assess and implement initiatives that benefit both the local communities and our business. A sustainable community and a sustainable business take the shared values they hold and learn to understand how they can work together to achieve sustainability. While WEF and utilities aren’t technically businesses, they can benefit by incorporating select corporate practices with the end goal of creating a sustainable “business.” That means meeting bottom lines, finding ways to be innovative, looking at new ideas and helping solve technical, financial and social problems.

TPO: What do sustainability and shared values mean as applied to the urban water cycle and to those who operate water and wastewater facilities?

Bowen: At Coca-Cola, we believe that without sustainable communities, our business cannot be sustainable. You can apply that to any industry. Sustainability is a journey. It’s a long-term commitment to creating shared values for the business, its partners and the community.

What values do a water utility and its community share? They share the values of clean water, of clean energy, of recycling and reuse, and of proper control of stormwater. If we can create a long-term commitment to those shared values, that’s our best bet at achieving environmental sustainability. On the other hand, citizens have to appreciate that they have a commitment to the utility, and that these services don’t come without a cost.

TPO: As experienced operators retire, there is a critical need for new talent in the water professions. How can utilities forge more connections with young professionals?

Bowen: WEF is an excellent resource for young professionals and students considering water careers. WEF has long been regarded as a go-to resource in the water sector and it remains so today, particularly for those just starting out. We have excellent programs and resources like the Water Leaders Institute, quality publications, the Work for Water website and job board, as well as valuable training and networking opportunities at WEFTEC and other events.

WEF is a great support system for all stages of a career but it’s not the main attractor for future water leaders. What will attract new people to the field is giving them attractive opportunities to be problem-solvers. Most of us want to be problem-solvers. We want to find solutions and achieve results. What’s more important than water? Protecting public health? Our environment? We’re on the cutting edge of instituting a fundamental, sectorwide change in how we manage water and make the most of every resource that can and could be derived from that process.

Utilities need to have a vision for where they’re going and what they want to accomplish. If we set clear goals and clear visions that people understand, then we’re going to attract those who want to be part of something bigger and better.

TPO: What can be done to make more young people, at earlier ages, aspire to careers in the water professions?

Bowen: For the most part, young people in the U.S. don’t remember what it was like to have polluted water. They didn’t experience the river in Cleveland catching fire, garbage floating down the Mississippi or water supplies so contaminated people couldn’t drink from them. They don’t have that background. So we have to talk about going from just treating waste to recovering resources — water recovery, nutrient and minerals recovery, and energy recovery. That’s how we excite young people. We talk about the opportunity to make their community sustainable and the threats that exist if we don’t monitor and care for current infrastructure. The troubles in Flint since August 2015 are likely sparking new interest in the topic.

I also think it’s about helping young people understand the education and technology behind advanced wastewater treatment. When we talk about what it takes to have water resource recovery and green facilities, some of those are highly technical and challenging jobs. We need young people to understand that it’s not just about turning valves; it’s about making a positive difference in the world. This is a generation that cares about that.

TPO: In a time when public agencies are budget constrained, how can people entering the field be shown a promising career path?

Bowen: We have to highlight shared values. What values do communities always talk about? They talk about education, the welfare of their kids, jobs. Aren’t those things that a utility or water resource recovery facility is also concerned with? We also need to show that there are opportunities for people to work their way up and advance, and we’ve got to be willing to support their advancement from one stage to the next. I know there is supposed to be a huge brain drain coming, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Now, while it’s starting to happen, is the time to give people the opportunity to advance and move forward.

TPO: You work for a company that owns one of the most powerful brands in the world. What lessons can you offer about effective branding for wastewater agencies?

Bowen: We’ve made a good start by talking less about wastewater treatment and more about water resource recovery. Beyond that, I’m not a marketing expert, but I think we have to find what resonates with people. One former Coca-Cola tagline was, “Open Happiness.” In speaking to groups, I would tell people to close their eyes and think about the first time they had a Coke. As I looked out over the audience, I’d see smiles on everybody’s faces. That’s what the brand delivered. We need to think of how we can touch a nerve in a similar way. Maybe it’s “clean water factory.” Maybe it’s “resource recovery.” We have to find what resonates and let that be the mantra that we embrace.


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