How Operators Can Inspire a New Generation on Earth Day

A new profession was born as a result of April 22, 1970. Clean-water operators still stand at the forefront. Now is the time to raise their profile.

How Operators Can Inspire a New Generation on Earth Day

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Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on the first Earth Day? I remember vividly because back then I was a high school senior semi-committed to the cause. And environmentalism was a bit of a tough sell. 

To observe the day, Rob, a classmate and firebrand activist, had publicized a cleanup of the Lake Michigan beach in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where we lived. On that sunny but chilly Saturday morning of April 22, 1970, I drove my parents’ Rambler station wagon to the Sentry grocery store, bought a couple of caramel-frosted Persian rolls and two half-pint cartons of chocolate milk, and reported to the lakefront parking lot at 8 o’clock.

Rob was there, along with one other classmate (just who I can’t remember). We waited half an hour for the expected throng to arrive; no one else showed up. We decided there wasn’t much three kids could do with a quarter-mile of beach about a hundred feet wide. So, after briefly bemoaning the apathy of our city’s residents, we parted company. And I must confess I was mostly relieved — I could now go home and enjoy my sweet rolls instead of laboring all morning picking trash out of the sand.

Beyond mere apathy, Earth Day to some extent provoked a backlash. Early environmentalists were branded as tree-huggers. Industries claimed that cleaning up their discharges to air and water would decimate jobs and destroy the economy. But the true believers fought on. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. Gradually the skies over polluted cities cleared, and limits on coal power plant emissions halted the threat of acid rain.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 aimed to make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable. As the resulting regulations took hold, the lakes and streams recovered. Industries no longer piped their wastes directly into rivers. Wastewater treatment plants were built by the thousands. And an essentially new profession was born: wastewater treatment operator.

A new line of work

Sure, there were treatment plants before 1972, but most were rudimentary — primary settling, at best some level of secondary treatment. The new plants were much larger and more sophisticated, and running them required qualified people. So, federally funded programs sprang up to train, over a couple of decades, tens of thousands of operators.

Those operators, most now retired, others in the waning days of their careers, can look back with pride at what they helped accomplish, and the process improvements they have wrought as best practices and technologies evolved. The same is true for the engineering consultants who designed the plants, for the manufacturers that devised and built the equipment, for the trainers of operators, and for the regulators who wrote and enforced the rules and updated them to meet modern demands.

And so here we are in 2023, our waters much healthier than 53 years ago, with operators still front and center, but also still facing challenges. What’s to be done about PFAS? How can clean-water utilities best contribute to the control of phosphorus that feeds the growth of nuisance aquatic vegetation and blooms of toxic blue-green algae? What is the role of clean-water plants in combatting climate change?

And perhaps most fundamental, where will the new generation of clean-water operators, plant supervisors and plant managers come from? Because even after all of the profession’s arguably heroic accomplishments, young people are not gravitating toward the field. That has been the sad fact through all the environmental movement’s iterations.

Always something

The prominence of Earth Day has waxed and waned over the years, periods of satisfaction inevitably interrupted by new symbolic events. The Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland in June 1969 is widely credited with igniting environmental activism and leading to the first Earth Day.

The chemical leak from a factory in Bhopal in India in December 1984, which killed some 3,700 people, refocused attention on air pollution and the presence of toxic gases on industrial properties. Three years later a garbage scow left New York City and for two months was turned away at port after port, making national news all along the way. Its story raised concern about excessive landfilling and brought recycling to the forefront.

In 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound called attention to the risks of petroleum production and transport, and to the risks of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 1997 multiple nations signed the Kyoto Protocol calling for reduction in greenhouse gases to combat global warming.

In the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, former vice president Al Gore laid out the scientific evidence behind global warming as being caused largely by human activity. Two years later the U.S. government listed the polar bear as a threatened species.

The meltdown of a reactor in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power complex after an earthquake and tsunami in 2010 put nuclear energy under further suspicion; Germany decided to phase out nuclear power. 

In 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden galvanized calls for action on global warming, speaking forcefully at venues including the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Since then, reports of faster-than-expected melting of polar icecaps have raised the level of urgency for a global response.

Earlier this year, the U.S. EPA proposed to establish legally enforceable levels certain PFAS (sometimes called “forever chemicals") in drinking water; the widely used substances are suspected of links to a wide range of health problems. 

Without fanfare

Through it all, clean-water operators just kept doing their jobs, churning out effluent consistently cleaner than their permits required even as those permits, especially for the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, became substantially stricter. They did it capably, quietly, content to work behind the scenes.

As a consequence, as the waters became and remained healthy, their contributions remained largely unnoticed, except within the small circle of their peers. And now, as many begin to age out of their jobs and retire, their replacements are hard to find. Even those well aware of clean-water careers — and they are a minority — generally don’t see them as appealing.

Ask people in high school and college what careers they aspire to and you’ll get answers like YouTuber, game designer, computer programmer. Doctor, attorney, banker. Musician, architect, engineer. In surveys of the most desirable professions to pursue, clean-water operator barely registers. And yet is it one of the most essential professions of all.

What to do?

What can the average operator do to change that picture? Attend career fairs? Sure. Give treatment plant tours? Of course. These things have been going on for years, and with some success. But somehow the rewards that keep operators in the career for a lifetime are not taking hold widely with prospective successors.

Earth Day on Saturday, April 22, is a good time to try changing that. And here is one suggestion: Kiss the low profile goodbye. In a time when the profession needs a big boost, quiet competence, although admirable, is not the right long-term posture.

You and your team should trumpet your every achievement. When someone attends a training school or conference, send your paper a news release. Do likewise when a member of your team earns a new level of licensing. When your plant achieves another full year of 100% permit compliance. When you install an interesting new technology. When the plant or a team member earns an industry award.

If you think this kind of horn-blowing is unwarranted, if you think what you do isn’t all that noteworthy, step back for a moment and think about what it is you actually do every day — as the people in your community would see it. You take in filthy, smelly water. And from it you make three wonderful products: clean water, energy and high-quality fertilizer. In the process, you keep the waters clean and healthy for humans, fish and wildlife.

To the average person, all that looks a lot like a miracle. A miracle makes a great story. So tell it — every chance you get.


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