This Illinois Operator Reaches Out Globally on Behalf of Women in the Water Professions

While succeeding in her water career, Brianna Huber looks to help expand opportunities for women professionals domestically and worldwide.

This Illinois Operator Reaches Out Globally on Behalf of Women in the Water Professions

Brianna Huber with her staff. From left, Jared Barber and Josh Bowen, maintenance technicians; Bob McGeehon, maintenance crew leader; Alec Thompson, operator; Chris Fronk, lead operator; Dave Thompson, electrician technician specialist; and Perry Barber, maintenance technician. Not pictured are Jim Rosenthal and Fred Snead, operators; and Regina Walters, administrative assistant.

How far will Brianna Huber go to elevate the status of women in the water management professions?

How about 8,300 miles to Tanzania, and then up 19,341 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro? How about launching a nonprofit organization, Her2O, with the vision of women “equitably involved in water management in every corner of the globe”?

She has done all this while working up the ranks from the water plant laboratory in East Moline, Illinois, to her current role as interim director of water filtration. Right now, she’s working on an MBA from Western Illinois University to add to her master’s in health science from the same school and her bachelor’s degree in biology from Augustana College.

She entered the water business seven years ago and found it appealing. “First of all, it’s science, and I’ve always been interested in science,” Huber says. “But most intriguing are the infinite possibilities. It’s so large and so broad. There are always opportunities to learn more and to gain additional skills.

“At the end of the day, it’s an industry where you know that what you’re doing is good, not only for your local community but your country and really the entire world.” Now a key part of her mission is to help women see and take advantage of the industry’s possibilities. For her efforts she received the 2020 Women in Water Outstanding Woman Award from the AWWA Illinois Section.

Change of direction

Huber grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, part of the Quad Cities metropolitan area at the Iowa-Illinois border on the Mississippi River. She worked in a hospital medical laboratory while doing her undergraduate studies and then became a child health consultant at a public health department in the Quad Cities.

“After I had been there for a while, I needed a change, and so I decided to switch over to the environmental side of public health,” she says. On a whim, she applied for and won a lab chemist/lab supervisor/assistant department head position in East Moline. “It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the industry, and I know this is where I’m supposed to be. I would definitely say water chose me.”

The East Moline Water Filtration Plant (10 mgd capacity, 3-4 mgd average production) treats Mississippi River water in a largely conventional process, using powdered activated carbon for taste and odor removal, traditional sedimentation basins (aluminum sulfate as coagulant), gravity filtration (sand, gravel and anthracite coal media), UV inactivation, fluoridation and pH adjustment with caustic soda.

The plant team includes Bob McGeehon, maintenance crew leader; Chris Fronk, lead operator; David Thompson, electrician technician specialist; Jim Rosenthal, Alec Thompson and Fred Snead, operators; Perry Barber, Jared Barber and Josh Bowen, maintenance technicians; and Regina Walters, administrative assistant.

Keeping tabs on quality

Source water quality is variable. “It’s definitely not clean water coming in,” Huber says. “We do work miracles here. But once you understand our treatment process and get a feel for it, it’s fairly consistent. It’s definitely harder to treat in spring, summer and fall than in the winter, but each season has its own challenges.”

Lab work is crucial to making the adjustments needed to ensure a high-quality product: “We do a lot of lab monitoring of our raw, process and finished water throughout the day, and a lot of visual monitoring goes on in addition to the laboratory testing. We have a good feel for what our basins and filters should look like. That helps us understand what we need to do in terms of our carbon dosage and what kind of organics we have coming in.”

The lab performs coliform and heterotrophic plate count testing, titrations for alkalinity and hardness, and continuous monitoring for chlorine and turbidity. Lab equipment includes Hach pocket colorimeters, a Hach benchtop turbidity meter, and a Hach AT1000 titrator for free and total chlorine testing. Advanced tests are sent out to a reference lab.

Points of pride for Huber include the creation of a comprehensive lab procedure manual, a laboratory training and competency program to help new analysts acquire certifications and maintain their skills, and an emergency response plan.

Community service

Huber has also developed a variety of initiatives extending into the community. A school outreach program includes third- and fourth-grade classroom presentations and drinking water plant tours.

Plant staff members take part in a middle school career fair with a table where students can look at bacterial growth under a microscope and run a chlorine test on a pocket colorimeter. For high school, Huber does two-day presentations in chemistry and earth and space classes, dealing with water treatment, water careers, and lab investigation of water quality.

She worked with Black Hawk College and neighboring utilities to create a drinking water operations and maintenance specialist certificate program that includes a set of five courses followed by an internship. “When the students complete the program, they are fully qualified to sit for an exam and become fully licensed as Class D water operators,” Huber says. East Moline was the first utility to hire one of the interns (Alec Thompson) as a full-time employee.

Lifting women up

Amid all that, Huber’s passion has been to help other women enter and succeed in water professions historically dominated by men. She recalls, “As I began feeling comfortable in my job, I also recognized how differently men and women can function in the workplace.

“It kept occurring to me, why don’t they communicate in meetings? Why is it so hard to get somebody to respond to a question? I started noticing differences between my approach to problem-solving and solutions, compared to the men’s approaches. As I started serving on water-based committees and coalitions in the community, I noticed the differences there, too. I thought, ‘Is this just me? What is going on here?’”

Curious to understand if other women saw the same differences, she reached out to Kyla Jacobsen, then utility director in Elgin, Illinois, and if her experiences were the same.  “She said, ‘I’ve been experiencing them for the last 30 years.’” Out of that conversation, in 2016, she proposed forming a Women in Water Committee in the AWWA Illinois Section. The board approved.

Women quickly embraced the committee, and as it grew, Huber looked to a broader horizon, reaching out to women in other states and offering her help in creating similar committees; some accepted. “Then my interest was even more piqued, and I thought, I’m going to do some research on women in water.” She made it part of graduate research for her MBA.

Going global

At the same time, Huber contacted U.N. Water to inquire about a group she had learned about in Tanzania doing work with women in water. That led to a connection with a woman who was a U.N. Water delegate based in the Netherlands: “She invited me to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in New York. I attended that, and I learned so much.”

In the meantime, she connected with a women’s group, the Tanzanian Gender Networking Program, which was working on water and sanitation projects led by women. She was so inspired that she decided to summit Mount Kilimanjaro to fundraise for the group. By promoting the hike through the Illinois Section AWWA and on social media, she raised $3,000. In September 2019 she summitted Uhuru Peak, despite a bout of altitude sickness.

A year before the adventure in Tanzania, Huber had started sketching out the framework for a nonprofit group for women in water. A few months after returning from Africa, she received an invitation to speak in the Women Leaders track at a water and waste management conference in India. At that point, she thought, “That’s it. This is my life’s purpose. I’m going to bite the bullet and form this nonprofit.” In January 2020, with Huber as founder and executive director, Her2O ( became a legal entity. Its board members as of last October were:

Kyla Jacobsen, secretary, an AWWA training specialist

Martha Wells, treasurer, owner of an accounting business

Julie Gelaude, director of Business Training Center at Black Hawk College

Susan Llewellyn, retired training coordinator at Black Hawk College

Miranda Robinson, municipal engineer with the Village of Skaneateles, New York

Margaret Maina, managing director at Limuru Water and Sewerage Company, Kenya

Three precepts underlie the group’s approach to women in global water management:

Stimulate. Encourage women’s interest and development and fuel women’s opportunities.

Elevate. Raise awareness of the critical role women play in water sustainability and create a culture of enthusiasm and vitality.

Embolden. Build women’s courage and confidence to be their authentic selves.

“We intend to have programming in several areas, including outreach and education, training and mentoring, advocacy, scholarship and sponsorship, research and support,” Huber says. “We’re working toward an ecotourism program where women-led groups of water professionals from more developed countries would help less-developed countries evaluate their water and sanitation needs and implement water and sanitation projects, involving or led by women in those countries. This may include training, advocacy, education and outreach as well.”

Other projects include partnering with Girl Scouts of the United States of America to develop water and sanitation-based programming, working to create Her2O programs at colleges, and doing national research on recruiting, integrating, supporting and retaining water professionals — for both men and women but with a gender focus.

“We want to understand what water professionals’ experiences have been and what exactly they want and need from the workplace,” says Huber. “This research touches on recruitment practices, workplace cultures, employee preferences and benefits.”

Her2O has an interesting long-term aim: “Our overarching goal is to put ourselves out of business,” says Huber. “We want to get to a place where gender is not an issue in the water management industry, where all we see are skills and how those skills work together. Men and women might sometimes bring different skills to the table, but all of those skills are necessary for a well-rounded team.”

One gets the sense that Brianna Huber won’t be “out of business” for a very long time.   


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