For WEF's Walt Marlowe, Water Is an 'Absolutely Fascinating Topic'

The Water Environment Federation’s executive director looks forward to meeting today’s water challenges, fostering innovation and elevating the stature of operators.

For WEF's Walt Marlowe, Water Is an 'Absolutely Fascinating Topic'

Walt Marlowe

Walt Marlowe came aboard as the Water Environment Federation’s executive director on Sept. 9, 2019.

A few weeks later, he was in Chicago at WEF’s Technical Exhibition and Conference, where he experienced the energy and passion of competitors in the annual Operations Challenge. “I was blown away by the energy we had at the Ops Challenge awards ceremony,” he recalls.

“We filled that ballroom with 1,000-plus people. They came together not only to compete, but also to share their experience, meet new friends and celebrate what they do every day to keep their utilities running. It was amazing how the energy in that room captured the strength of WEF.”

Marlowe came to WEF with a civil engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology, an MBA from George Washington University, six years as an engineering consultant and nearly 30 years of background in association management. He previously served the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Construction Specifications Institute and the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists.

Marlowe looks forward to helping the clean-water sector address issues such as climate change, water scarcity and the replenishment of the water workforce as experienced professionals retire. He talked about his role in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What attracted you to the clean-water industry?

Marlowe: I was introduced to it through my work with the civil engineers, and I also got a little taste of it at the consulting firms where I worked. My work with ASCE connected me to this community. Water is everything. We can’t exist without it. Dealing with water challenges is this century’s huge issue. Natural population growth, the limited supply of freshwater, how we use our water — all gets magnified by climate change and the complexities of politics at the local, national and global levels. Water is an absolutely fascinating topic.

What were your perceptions of WEF before you took on your position?

Marlowe: The passion that the people in the water sector bring to their jobs is unrivaled. It’s this culture of sharing a common mission that people are doing something good for humanity. I’m a structural engineer, and I brought a certain amount of passion to that work, but it doesn’t quite connect in the same way that supplying clean water to the population does. I could sense that community within WEF, and it was very attractive to me.

What does it mean to you now being WEF’s executive director?

Marlowe: You get to a point in your career where it’s not about climbing any kind of ladder anymore — it’s about trying to make as big a difference as possible in an area that you care about. The opportunity to be executive director at WEF opened up at such a time in my career. I consider myself extremely lucky.

What is your perception of WEF after a little more than a year in the organization?

Marlowe: The community I expected to find is definitely here. I’m amazed at how much time people contribute to this organization and how proud they are of the work they do, whether on the design side, in management or in the field making sure all these systems are working every day. I also like the diversity in this field — that it takes multiple pieces, from wrangling public support to finance, design, operations and management. It’s an amazing industry.

What about diversity in a different sense — diversity and inclusion as it relates to racial, ethnic and cultural heritage?

Marlowe: That has additional light shining on it now in view of Black Lives Matter and other social initiatives. This year’s events have made us realize that we have to invest even more time in proactively addressing these issues. Does our committee leadership path encourage diversity? Does our board look like our membership? Our workforce at the plants, in the utilities and in the consulting firms — do they look like the communities they serve? Are we doing enough outreach to attract people to this profession? There’s a need to make sure everyone knows that this is a diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming community.

In general terms, how do you approach the leadership of the organization?

Marlowe: I’m not a very formal, hierarchical person; I like to think I am open and accessible, and that’s pretty important in an association. The CEO of a for-profit company makes decisions and the organization follows along. Leadership of an association is a much more collaborative, facilitative situation. It’s not my company — this is the members’ community. My job is to help foster that community and bring expertise so that from the business side, we can be sustainable. The openness, the willingness to listen to all our stakeholders and ensure they see value in the organization — those are some things I bring to the table.

What opportunities do you see to strengthen the organization and expand its reach and influence?

Marlowe: Our brand is all about sharing high-quality, unbiased, fact-based information. That’s incredibly important in today’s world. Innovation is going to be huge; WEF has a natural role in bringing people together to identify innovative solutions and in helping to transmit those across our membership and the broader water community, in the U.S. and globally. We also have to be a leading voice in helping our members communicate with governments to make sure they understand the critical nature of clean water.

What about the importance of getting the general public on board and better informed about the importance of clean-water people and facilities?

Marlowe: That is a huge challenge. Our industry workers who provide clean water every day have done such a great job that the public largely forgets how valuable and critical a service we provide. Households will spend hundreds of dollars a month on cable TV, phone and internet connections, and other entertainment, yet they may balk at a $20 or $30 bill for clean water. We need to work hard to get people to recognize how important that service is. Until then, we’re not going to see politicians be particularly supportive of investing in water infrastructure or in new solutions to deliver water.

What would you say to clean-water operators about the value WEF brings to them?

Marlowe: I see the operations side being one of the faster-growing areas of WEF because there is a need for education and information exchange. In particular, as we deal with the aging out of some of the current workforce, the newer workforce will need to be educated. We continue to develop programs to put education into the hands of operators and designers in ways so they can use it when they need it.

What are some beneficial ways in which operators can engage with WEF?

Marlowe: Member associations provide an easy way for operators to connect with their peers and with other utilities in their geographic area. It’s also a way to be introduced to the continuing education and training materials we provide, the preparation materials for operator licensing and our best practices manuals. Getting involved in a member association is a great way for operators to dip their toes into WEF. Then they can work their way up into all kinds of national and global activities.

What is the outlook for this year’s WEFTEC conference in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

Marlowe: We made the unfortunate decision to cancel the in-person portion, but we’re still going to have a robust experience. People will still get a lot of education and networking, as well as exposure to new product and service solutions on the exhibit side. In addition, they’ll have access to it 24/7 to use at their convenience, and not just during the week of the live events — things will be archived for people to go back to. We’ll also have some secondary live events throughout the year. It’s going to be a great experience.

Would you care to offer any words of inspiration to operators and the rest of the WEFTEC community?

Marlowe: WEF will celebrate its 100th anniversary in eight years. By then, in my vision, we’re celebrating how relevant and valuable WEF is, how much the general public has increased its awareness of and respect for the value of water, and how our water workforce is as highly valued in the community as first responders like fire and police. That is what I would love to see in a few years.    


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