Q&A: Melissa Meeker Discusses the WERF/WRRF Merger

The merger of two leading water research organizations creates a single entity with a $200 million portfolio focused on resource recovery and reuse.
Q&A: Melissa Meeker Discusses the WERF/WRRF Merger
Melissa Meeker, chief executive officer of the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF;).

Last May, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the WateReuse Research Foundation (WRRF) announced plans for a merger to create the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF).

This new nonprofit organization brings together a portfolio of research in water, wastewater and stormwater valued at more than $200 million. The Water Environment Research Foundation, established in 1989, traditionally focused on research related to wastewater and stormwater. The WateReuse Research Foundation, founded in 1993, produced applied research specifically in water reuse, primarily from wastewater.

WE&RF will focus on research in resource recovery and reuse, helping provide the science for next-generation technology and innovation to meet growing demand for clean water. The foundation is supported by more than 200 utilities, businesses, industrial and commercial enterprises, educational institutions, and government agencies. The water agencies represent more than 50 million residential and small-business water consumers.

Melissa Meeker, chief executive officer of the new foundation, says the merger strengthens the industry’s movement toward One Water, which recognizes the true value of water, wastewater and stormwater.

Meeker previously was executive director of WERF and WRRF. Her background also includes serving as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District and several years with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She talked about the new research foundation in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the impetus behind this merger?

Meeker: The merger is in large part the result of a movement that recognizes that all water has value. All water is reused and renewable, through desalination, stormwater harvesting, more effective wastewater treatment, or any other number of avenues. Our merger reflects that fundamental principle.

TPO: In your view, why does this merger make sense?

Meeker: I believe there are significant synergies. It’s a great opportunity to consolidate two research organizations that were already focused on wastewater and stormwater. Whereas we used to think of these as wasted water, as a disposal issue, we now focus on the resources we can pull out of those streams. Bringing the two foundations together was a perfect fit.

TPO: As individual organizations, how did WERF and WRRF differ?

Meeker: WERF historically focused on the wastewater side. They did some stormwater research as well, but in the wastewater aspect they focused mainly on resource recovery — nutrients and energy. WRRF was totally focused on the water side and left nutrients and energy to WERF. The focus was on reuse of wastewater, from agricultural water reuse all the way up to direct potable reuse. WRRF also had a focus on desalination.

TPO: Please describe how the two organizations will be more effective as one.

Meeker: We’re bringing together the entire wastewater side of the industry. We’ve always worked in our own silos, and yet we know that the same issues we’ve been dealing with in wastewater and water reuse will have to be dealt with on stormwater as well. So we’ll bring together the lessons we’ve learned individually and share them. It’s taking our successes and blending them across all of the water sources that were once thought of as disposal issues, with the aim of capturing all the beneficial uses that we can.

TPO: Do you see the merged organization gaining efficiencies in terms of cost?

Meeker: We’ve worked very hard to ensure that we didn’t have any duplicative research. I believe the savings will come in combining our entire portfolio and the staff expertise that helped create that portfolio, and having them map out future research needs together, working with the industry to reduce overlap and help our money go even further.

TPO: Will there still be two sides of the house within the new organization?

Meeker: I would say absolutely not. We are developing an organization that will not be in silos but will have a One Water focus. In strategic planning, the new board has been intent on predicting industry needs 10 to 15 years down the road. We’re going to completely restructure how we approach research, keeping our very rigorous peer review processes in place, but also thinking about problems differently and trying to come up with solutions that really help the industry take the next steps.

TPO: How will the board and staff for the new organization be assembled?

Meeker: The combined foundation will include the staff of both research foundations. We will also combine both boards completely. Our new bylaws set the number of board members at 21. We have 38 now, but there is language to allow us to get to the final number through attrition. All members of the new board will complete their appointed terms. That allows us to bring in all the expertise from both boards to frame where we’re going in the future.

TPO: How would you describe the priorities of the merged organization over the next five, 10 or 15 years?

Meeker: Our goal is to further the conversation of One Water. That covers everything from dealing with public perception to technology and innovation. Our membership is very interested in how new technologies and new ways to think about resilient water supplies fold into everything from their permits to their governance. My focus is on everything that has not traditionally been a water supply. That includes wastewater, stormwater and desalination.

TPO: How does stormwater fit into the reuse equation?

Meeker: We’ve been focusing on wastewater for many years — the discharges to surface water and the downstream impacts to the ecology and to people downstream who pull from the water supply. The issues are the same in dealing with stormwater. On the Eastern Seaboard, for example, or in Oregon and Washington, the stormwater issues are just as important to them as wastewater discharges. You can use a lot of the same technologies on the reuse side for stormwater.

In California, specifically San Diego and Los Angeles, plans have been put in place to maximize wastewater reuse, but that still doesn’t address all their needs as they try to limit the water they have to import. So could they somehow integrate the stormwater system with the wastewater before it goes into the purification facility to capture that source of water as well?

TPO: Are there any specific technologies that you see as especially promising as areas of focus for research?

Meeker: We’re very excited about the Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology. That’s a WERF initiative focused on cutting-edge technologies that haven’t gone to commercialization yet. These are technologies that may be past bench testing and need to be piloted. There’s a lack of financial assistance for that part of the sector. LIFT aims to connect innovative technologies with agencies that are willing to try them out. It also works to get utility representatives to places where new technology is being implemented, so they can see it and talk to the operators. Some really good matchmaking is taking place.

These are exciting times. We have a lot of work to do. The industry has high expectations, as do we. Our goal is to figure out the best way to put together a research foundation that can help the industry move forward.


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