A Slow-Paced Job at the EPA Wasn't Good Enough for This Water Operator

Brian Steglitz has prospered in his career through advanced education, industry contributions and dedication to quality service at affordable rates.
A Slow-Paced Job at the EPA Wasn't Good Enough for This Water Operator
Steglitz (left) and David Fish stand above the Barton Dam, operated by the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Services unit.

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When Brian Steglitz graduated from Yale University, he joined an environmental consulting firm developing regulations for the U.S. EPA.

The snail’s pace of work life there didn’t suit him well. Today, as manager of the Water Treatment Services unit for the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, he finds much more satisfaction. In 20 years with the city, he has served as the sole water treatment engineer, laid the groundwork for a major upgrade of the plant infrastructure, and helped introduce people of all ages to the water industry through annual plant tours.

One constant in his career has been service — to his team, the community and the industry.

For his nearly 35 years of distinguished contributions to the water sector, he received a 2016 George W. Fuller Award from the Michigan Section AWWA.

Finding a focus

Steglitz joined an engineering firm in Washington, D.C., in 1990 after graduating from Yale University with a degree in economics and political science. “You could be working on the same regulation for your entire career at the pace they moved,” he says. He worked on Superfund, hazardous waste and other issues, gaining exposure to engineering.

“I really liked the more hands-on, real-time work where I could see the rewards for my investment,” he recalls. With that experience, he went back to school in the evenings and ultimately attended Stanford University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering, ending in 1994.

While at Stanford, he worked for the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which sponsored his master’s thesis on ways to discourage small businesses from discharging pollutant metals to the plant. New degrees in hand, he joined CH2M HILL as a project manager in Herndon, Virginia, and soon became resident engineer on a nine-month project in New York City, overseeing construction of three small industrial wastewater treatment plants he had helped design for ConEd, the city’s electric utility.

Move to Michigan

A little thing called romance brought Steglitz to Michigan. His future wife was admitted to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and CH2M HILL transferred Steglitz to the Detroit office. He soon tired of the travel the job involved and wanted to see what engineering life was like “on the owner side of the business.”

“I interviewed for a job at the Ann Arbor water treatment plant. I was thinking, ‘Why are they asking me all these questions about drinking water?’ I thought I was at the wastewater treatment plant.” Nevertheless, he was hired as the sole engineer on a water plant staff of 30.

“I was helping them replace capital equipment, but they’re the ones who had to live with it on a daily basis. So I saw them as my customers, doing the best I could to make their lives easier. I became a better engineer by having to live with the things I designed. Working for an owner versus consulting really helps you understand the operations and maintenance side of the business. I liked working with the staff, solving problems. That was my goal as the engineer.”

Over time, Steglitz expanded his horizons, and being active in AWWA helped broaden his viewpoint and improve his management skills. “Ever since I started working here in 1997, I got more and more involved in AWWA,” he says. “I went through the chairs in the Michigan Section. I was elected vice president as a director from Michigan, and I recently finished my vice presidential term.”

He now encourages his team members to get involved and to bring what they learn back to their jobs. “As you move up in the organization, you get exposure to public speaking and communication. You’re coming out of the weeds a little bit, maybe looking at things more from the 5,000- and 10,000-foot view.”

Prepared for transition

The AWWA experience helped prepare him for the move up to manager three years ago. In that role, he works more on the customer service and education sides of the business. As he looked at the bigger picture, he saw challenges, chiefly the need to update infrastructure in a facility built in 1938. That means keeping the older equipment running while winning customers’ support for investment in new systems.

“We’ve made a lot of effort to engage our customers,” Steglitz says. “If they can understand the tools we use to treat their water and the age of some of those tools, and if they can understand the effort we put into meeting regulatory requirements and meeting their service delivery expectations, they’re much more willing to support those investment needs in the future.”

The facility will embark on an $80-$90 million capital improvement program in the next three to five years that ranks with the largest in the water system’s history. Steglitz and his team are now doing studies, gathering data and demonstrating the need in order to win support for the necessary rate increases.

“We hope to bond for the capital improvements while maintaining annual rate increases below 7 percent for the foreseeable future,” Steglitz says. “We’ve done some rate comparisons with utilities of comparable size and age, and we’re quite competitive. We intend to maintain that competitiveness for our customers.”

Tours play a part in getting customers on board. As one example, all of the city’s fourth-graders go through the water treatment plant as part of their school curriculum. Operations staff members conduct the tours. “There are 17,000 kids in the public school system in Ann Arbor,” Steglitz says. “They all go through the tour as part of their education. We also hold annual open houses and provide tours on request. We usually get a couple thousand people through the plant each year as part of our public engagement plan.”

Embracing leadership

While adapting to management, Steglitz largely had to leave behind his long-cherished role as an engineer. “I had gone through a leadership training program earlier, and the instructor said, ‘It’s hard to let go of what you’re famous for,’” he recalls. “I spent 17 years doing engineering in this facility. I have an intimate knowledge of it, so it wasn’t easy to give up that role. On the flip side, I was ready for a new challenge.”

Steglitz tries to be a resource for people but not get in their way: “It took me some time to learn that this person may be doing the work differently, but I need to give them time to learn and make mistakes. I had that opportunity and I gained a lot from it. There are times I want to say something, but I’m biting my tongue and holding back.”

In 2016, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Steglitz to the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, whose job is to develop an infrastructure vision and road map for the state covering all areas: water, sewer, transportation, storm management, energy, telecommunications, ports and airports.

“It was quite an interesting experience to be part of that cross-functional team,” he says. “That was concluded and a report was delivered to the governor earlier this year. Now we’re trying to implement some of the recommendations. I’m on an advisory board appointed by the governor to oversee the development of an asset management pilot that will be used in certain areas of the state and then will be broadcast throughout the state after the bugs are worked out.”

Still growing

More recently, Steglitz began a three-year term on the board of the Water Research Foundation.

“The foundation plays a central role in advancing the science of water and developing solutions for utilities to use as they face future challenges,” Steglitz says. “It’s going to be an exciting few years. I’m fortunate to work for a utility that allows me these opportunities and understands the value of contributing to the water field.”

As for the future holds, “My job continues to be interesting and challenging. I’m constantly being pushed to get involved in something new. When one door closes, another seems to open. And each one is something that keeps me driven and motivated. Until that goes away, I’m going to continue to find the next open door.”

Active life

There’s more to Brian Steglitz than running the Ann Arbor water plant. He’s also a runner, mountain biker and swimmer.

He has run the New York City Marathon twice and the Philadelphia Marathon once; he completes a half-marathon in Ann Arbor every year.

Steglitz was a collegiate soccer player and likes to watch his two daughters play, one in high school and the other soon to join her there. “I now live vicariously through their performances on the field,” he says. He looks forward to seeing them play together.

For aspiring water professionals, Steglitz advises getting some hands-on field experience early in the career, and learning humility. He recalls trying to collect pump performance data during his first month at the Ann Arbor plant. He pumped into a pipe header that was valved shut.

“The pressure generated rotated the header because the joints were not restrained, and we had to hire a contractor to correct the problem,” he says. “Six of our 26 filters were out of service until this was corrected. Oops! That is a mistake I will never forget, but I clearly learned some valuable lessons.” That’s when it helps to know how to be humble.


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