A New Organization Aims to Create

A New Organization Aims to Create

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The water sector faces a set of persistent challenges: developing the workforce of the future, deploying innovative technologies, defining research needs and implementing projects, engaging effectively with local communities, and others.

A relatively new nonprofit organization looks to address challenges like those in its home territory around metropolitan Atlanta, and eventually in a wider geography. The Water Tower, launched in 2019, is based in Georgia’s Gwinnett County, near the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center, which treats much of the county’s wastewater.

 The organization consists of two entities. The Water Tower at Gwinnett is responsible for the development and operations of the physical campus, while the Water Tower Institute carries on the organization’s varied research and programming.

 Together, these entities aim to create “a thriving ecosystem of water innovation fueled by imagination, informed by research, and powered by pioneers,” according to the website at www.theh2otower.org.

 They do this by bringing the public and private sides of the water industry together, along with academic institutions and other nonprofits, to tackle the critical challenges the industry is facing. Kristan VandenHeuvel, director of applied research and engagement, talked about The Water Tower in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What specifically are the organization’s areas of focus?

VandenHeuvel: We focus on four main areas: applied research, technology innovation, workforce development and community engagement. 

What are the basic functions of the applied research area?

VandenHeuvel: We have labs on our campus where we can work with university partners and other collaborators. For example, if a university has visiting professors who would like to do research on our campus, we can work with them. In addition, over the past two years we have worked with stakeholders in the Lake Lanier watershed to develop a five-year research plan to protect and maintain the lake.

What is the significance of that Lake Lanier research?

VandenHeuvel: The metro Atlanta area gets the majority of its drinking water from Lake Lanier, and treated wastewater gets discharged back into the lake. So it’s important to have that resource protected for generations to come. We worked with utilities on the lake, universities, environmental groups and regulators, to come up with a list of research needs. Then we took those needs and a list of questions to technical experts who helped us devise 32 applied research projects that we hope to implement over the next few years. 

Where does technology innovation fit into your organization’s work?

VandenHeuvel: Our focus is on companies coming up with novel technologies. Historically, the water industry has been slower than some others to adopt new technologies, and for good reasons. There’s the need to protect public health, and utilities may lack the resources or capital to pursue innovations. We created a space where companies can demonstrate their technologies, and where utilities can learn about them in a no-pressure environment.

How have you created that space to explore innovation?

VandenHeuvel: We have water piped in from the nearby F. Wayne Hill facility. We set the companies up with data and electricity so they can hook up their pilots or skid-mounted systems to those flows. They have access to our labs and different partner support at our facilities. It’s a way to demonstrate the technologies and provide opportunities for utilities to see them. 

What is your approach to helping develop the future workforce?

VandenHeuvel: We offer training for entry level water and wastewater operators, maintenance technicians and laboratory analysts. We work with the Georgia Water and Wastewater Institute, which is the state certification authority. They come to our campus to teach the 40-hour classes required for those positions, and we supplement that with hands-on learning in our field training center on campus, where folks can practice on heavy equipment. We also have a vault for confined space training, and different courses to augment the standard courses, helping students succeed not just in passing their exam, but also in the workplace.

Are there any innovative workforce development initiatives?

VandenHeuvel: We have the Water Workforce for Resilient Communities program, which serves people throughout our region who are in disadvantaged communities or have lost jobs due to COVID. We connect them with our training program, provide scholarships and supplement the required courses. Once they pass their exams, we have partner utilities that help place qualified candidates. That benefits the utilities in the Atlanta area because there are about 1,200 water-related jobs open. We hope this program will help people who are looking for stable careers.

Do you also reach out to other groups like high school students?

VandenHeuvel: We take part in many career fairs where we talk to students about opportunities in the water industry. No matter their education level or their interests, there’s a place in the industry for them. We held our first student-centric event on campus last September, called the Water Innovation & Leadership Summit.

What was the focus of the event?

VandenHeuvel: We brought high school students to the campus for a mini-career fair in the morning. In the afternoon we had hands-on stations that the students rotated through, at The Water Tower, F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center and the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center nearby. Between those locations the students saw many aspects of the water industry, sort of a day in the life of a plant operator.

What activities are included in community engagement?

VandenHeuvel: Our student events are part of that. Also, during the pandemic, we created a series of water-related videos where we interviewed experts across the country about what their work involves, why they chose the water industry, and the paths they took to get there. We sent those to schools for their digital learning days. We also have job shadowing programs and offer tours of our facilities. We have networking events for women called W3: Women, Water and Wine. We also do author events with water-related literature.

How would you describe The Water Tower’s facilities?

VandenHeuvel: We have a 35-acre campus. Our main building has conference space for up to 250 people. In the lobby we can hold public activities and displays. We also have microbiology, analytical and experimental labs. There are three classrooms and five conference rooms. On the third floor we have tenants who are water-related companies. They get access to our conference rooms, labs and technology demonstration space. On our second level we have a co-working space with desks, touchdown stations, workstations and private offices for small companies or individuals working out of their house who might like to move to a new location and contribute to the projects we have going on.

What are you doing to reach out to a larger geography?

VandenHeuvel: Although we were born out of Gwinnett County and greatly appreciate them as a partner, we want to support utilities all around Georgia, the Southeast and beyond. No. 1 would be events like Demo Day where people can see new technologies and network. Our first Demo Day brought in utility and company representatives from several states. We’re also working on a webinar program that will extend our reach. We do a lot of outreach on social media and through newsletters.

How can interested professionals find out more about The Water Tower? VandenHeuvel: I would encourage them to check out our website, where they can find out about upcoming events and get information about our programs. We have some online courses that people can take even if they’re not in our area. We hope to keep building a community of innovation and fostering an ecosystem here on campus and throu


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