An Operator's Conference Gives Participants a Test in a Highly Unconventional Skill

A contest for water reuse operators in the Pacific Northwest puts a new spin on friendly competition at an annual conference.

An Operator's Conference Gives Participants a Test in a Highly Unconventional Skill

Jay Irby

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Through 11 years in the water industry, Jay Irby has earned five licenses. Now he can add another: poetic license.

Irby, water renewal operator in Boise, Idaho, won first place in a poetry competition at the 2019 Idaho Reuse and Operators Conference (IROC). He entered because he likes to make people laugh and he liked the $100 prize money.  

“The last time I put a poem together was in high school, but water reuse is so important to our society and I thought I could have a little fun with this competition,” Irby says. IROC ran the contest out of a wish to get creative and change things up for the annual meeting. The contest for water operators joined an existing children’s art and poetry contest.

Collaborative venture

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality began hosting the WaterReuse conference in 2005. Then in 2013, the Pacific Northwest WaterReuse Association section collaborated with the DEQ to create an event that the two organizations take turns hosting. In 2019, the Idaho operators section of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association joined in, and more than 550 people attended.

The art and poetry contest for children began as outreach for the 2017 Water Reuse conference in Boise. The idea was to teach grade K-12 students about recycled water. Students watch online videos about water reuse with their families to give them a background on the subject. One goal is to teach families that water and wastewater treatment for recycling water is important, and that the professionals in this industry genuinely care. 

Tressa Nicholas, a DEQ wastewater analyst and conference planner, observes, “By hosting the contest, you’re getting the community engaged, because kids include their parents, and teachers can include water reuse in their curriculum. This contest helps to create a bridge between environmental education and how it can be applied to the students and their families.”

Art and poetry

The contest, now in its third year, is held with the annual Water Reuse conference.  It is open to all K-12 students from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It’s promoted by volunteers from the conference planning team to members in their communities and schools and to water education centers such as the Boise Watershed and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance. Students have three months to submit their entries.

Posters and poems must be original works with a water reuse theme. So far, the number of entries has ranged from 100 to 200 per year.  

Separate first-, second- and third-place prizes are awarded to poetry and art winners for grades K-6 and for grades 7-12. First place winners receive $100. Conference sponsors also donate prizes for the children.

Winning scores are tallied before the conference, and winners are announced at the event. Most winners are notified before the conference so they can attend with their families. “The children read their poems on stage, and everyone’s heart just melts,” Nicholas says.

Operators join in

For the 2019 IROC conference, the planning team members realized that in order to bring art, poetry and water together they should also invite operators, as many of them are poetic and creative.

The expectation is that more operators will share their recycled water poetry in future years. Prize-winner Irby started his career with Boise. He now works as a water reuse contractor for that city and for a number of smaller rural utilities in Idaho that do not have their own staffs. Those communities range from 800 residents and 60,000 gpd to 200,000 residents and 30 mgd.

All winners from the contests were recognized at a luncheon during the conference. The children and Irby read their poems while a large screen in the background displayed their entries. The winners received their prize money and other gifts while on stage.

Many volunteers work together to support the contest, including Sharonne Park, with Jacobs. “We received so many positive messages from parents and teachers that the students really took this competition seriously,” Park says. “The well-developed artwork the children submitted showed that they really learned about wastewater treatment and recycled water.”   


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