See How Two Leading Water Groups in Illinois Are Sharing Ideas

A pair of Illinois associations plan a joint conference to help foster more connections between the engineering and operations sides of the clean-water industry.
See How Two Leading Water Groups in Illinois Are Sharing Ideas

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Many states have two (or more) associations for water and wastewater professionals. Typically there’s an independent operators’ group and a Water Environment Association (WEA) affiliated with the Water Environment Federation.

That’s all fine. The groups aren’t duplicative. They have somewhat different roles and serve different mixes of industry players. The typical WEA membership, for instance, tends to slant toward wastewater and the engineering and management sides, while the operator association members are the folks who make water and wastewater treatment plants run day to day.

Still, wouldn’t it be a good idea if the two came together now and then and shared ideas and perspectives, instead of existing in silos? Leaders of two Illinois associations thought so. And therefore, April 24-26 in Springfield, the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators (IAWPCO) and the Illinois WEA will hold their first joint conference. The focus will be on the importance of wastewater, stormwater and plant operations.

Billed as the Illinois Wastewater Professionals Conference (IWPC), it will include about 80 vendors and other exhibits, and a technical program with presentations covering a wide range of topics. Clean-water organizations in other states may want to keep a close eye on how it works out, as this approach could easily be replicated (in fact, associations in some states already hold joint conferences).

As this issue went to press, the IWPC program was still being built, but the idea had generated lots of positive commentary among the state’s professionals. Andy Warmus, utilities superintendent in Algonquin, a member of both organizations, and technical chair for the IAWPCO, talked about the conference in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How would you describe the organizations putting on the IWPC?

Warmus: They’re both professional organizations that go back to the early 1970s, each with celebrated histories of progressive conferences that aim to educate young professionals and foster environmental stewardship. Each brings a little something different to the table. IAWPCO is geared more toward the operators. The IWEA, while having operators as members, has a heavy presence with engineers and more focus on larger utilities and districts. Each group has about 900 members.

TPO: How did the idea for this conference come about?

Warmus: It came out of conversations between current and past presidents of both associations. Over the years, we’ve worked together on half-day or day seminars. Our conferences were attracting much of the same memberships and exhibitors, and some of the same presentations and speakers. It made sense to try to combine both groups and reach out to a broader audience. My IWEA counterpart Mike Lutz and I, with the help of program committee members, have done a great deal of work to assemble a diverse, engaging conference program.

TPO: Do you see it as important to foster more interaction between operators and engineers?

Warmus: One of the big goals of the joint conference is to bridge the gap a little bit, to get those folks in the same room so they can understand each other’s challenges and perspectives.

TPO: What kinds of conference activities might help accomplish that?

Warmus: One example would be to present a case study and have operators and engineers speak about it from their perspectives as the project moves from concept to construction. The engineer might present from the standpoint of design and how to draw upon operators for input and information. And then once you’re in construction, what unforeseen problems do you come across? It’s about understanding what’s important to each side — why operators are looking for certain things and engineers are looking for certain things — and trying to create a better end result.

TPO: Were there any other major goals in planning the conference?

Warmus: Another goal was to get the Illinois EPA more involved in attendance and as an educational resource. The agency historically had a heavy presence at our conferences before the constraints of budgets. We want agency staff to be more involved as speakers and in getting information out to the operators and to the engineers.

TPO: So far, how have your overtures to IEPA been received?

Warmus: They have been very receptive to every idea we’ve presented. That includes a one-stop shop — an information booth on the exhibit floor, where attendees can ask questions about anything, whether low-interest loans, stormwater issues, nutrient removal, watersheds, CMOM. We have also secured several IEPA speakers for the technical program.

TPO: Will there be any separate events during the conference for members of the two associations?

Warmus: Each association will have its own awards banquet. Everything else will be shared, including an exhibitors’ reception and several networking functions. It will be one show for everyone.

TPO: What are some of the conference highlights?

Warmus: We’ve invited the mayor of Springfield to open the conference and give a welcome. We’re going to tour the Sangamon County Water Reclamation District’s Spring Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s a recently rebuilt, state-of-the-art facility. We’ll have representatives from several engineering firms with presentations that appeal to both young and more seasoned professionals.

TPO: Given the more diverse audience, what will the technical program look like?

Warmus: We had 106 abstracts submitted for about 60 spots. In making our selections, we tried to look at everything in terms of: What would an operator take away from this presentation? What would an engineer take away? That same consideration applied to workshops on topics like BOD and emergency management.

TPO: What is your approach to the exhibits?

Warmus: We’re looking for ways to make the exhibits more interactive. Vendors want to increase traffic and bring exposure to new products and technologies, but we want to make it as much of a learning experience as we can. We’d like the exhibitors to come up with a game, a presentation, something to grab attention and hold on to people while they’re spending time on the floor. There are the younger professionals we’re trying to bring along, and the more we can educate them and expose them to new things, the better off they’ll be.

TPO: How would you characterize the value of conferences generally?

Warmus: The first conference I attended was in 1986, in my first year as an operator. I left that conference saying, “I want to come back every year.” I met my peers. I talked to people who accepted my inexperience and took the time to explain things. I had a good time, I learned things. I’d like to see if we can’t restore that excitement and sense of community. How do we make it so the first-year operator comes to our conference in April and says, “I want to come back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. I want to get involved.” That’s what we’re trying to do.

TPO: Do you envision holding joint conferences from now on?

Warmus: I think we’re just dipping our toe in the water for right now, but the response from both organizations has been very positive. Each group does things in different ways, but everybody has been receptive to trying new things, mixing things up so we can have a better conference.

The planners

Here are the people from each of the two associations who helped plan the 2016 Illinois Wastewater Professionals Conference:

  • IWEA Executive Board
  • Mark Termini, president
  • Dan Collins, president-elect
  • Eric Berggren, first vice president and conference chairman
  • Kam Law, second vice president
  • Mary Johnson, corporate secretary
  • Debra Ness, treasurer/WEF delegate 2019
  • Mark Halm, WEF delegate 2017
  • Lou Storino, past president
  • Laurie Frieders, executive manager
  • IAWPCO Executive Board
  • Tom Glendenning, president
  • Josh Stevens, first vice president
  • Rick Lallish, second vice president
  • Mike Burnett, third vice president
  • Doug Armstrong, past president
  • David Miller, executive director
  • Ed Brown, secretary/treasurer


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