Jun 18, 2021

AWWA President Melissa Elliott Passes Gavel to Dr. Chi Ho Sham

Read comments from AWWA CEO David LaFrance, Immediate Past President Melissa Elliott and current President Dr. Chi Ho Sham


AWWA Immediate Past President Melissa Elliott passes the gavel to AWWA President Dr. Chi Ho Sham. (Photo Credit: AWWA)
AWWA Immediate Past President Melissa Elliott passes the gavel to AWWA President Dr. Chi Ho Sham.

Dr. Chi Ho Sham is the 140th American Water Works Association president following a gavel-passing ceremony June 17.

“It was an honor to be elected by the AWWA Board of Directors in January 2020 as the president-elect of AWWA. I am very grateful to the nomination committee and the board for their confidence in me,” Sham said. “I believe we have been doing a great job, but there is still a lot to do with our community to make improvements with our drinking water systems.”

He quoted Hellen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” while noting the dedication, persistence and determination on the long game is what sets water professionals apart from others.

“I believe it is important for all of us to think critically, learn avidly and collaborate strategically to link sound science and engineering with effective education and communication to build a resilient workforce and to enhance public trust in the water industry,” Sham said. “I look forward to making a better world through better water.”


During his speech, Sham explained he is the son of two factory workers who migrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai in the 1940s. He was born in the 1950s on the verge of Hong Kong accelerating to a world class city. but in the 1960s, drought struck the country.

“We had running water for four hours every four days,” Sham said, “so I truly understand what it is like to live through a day without water.”

He added that the drought seen in the Western U.S. is not a new problem, but rather one with a recurring focus. As a child during the drought, he said they would boil water every morning for drinking water, and that a push began for using seawater to flush toilets, “which of course required a separate infrastructure,” Sham said. By the year 2000, he said 79% of buildings in Hong Kong use seawater for flushing toilets.

He talked about his career path traveling to abroad for collegiate studies, and then to Buffalo, New York for a Masters Degree, followed by a Doctorate in Water Resources Management and Hydrology. He was offered a teaching position at Boston University in 1982, finished his dissertation in 1984 and remained on staff as a junior faculty member until 1991. At that point, he became a technical consultant for the Safe Drinking Water Act. He followed the winding path of his career with significant milestones and research efforts along the way before getting involved with AWWA at the section level.

“I’m a big fan of sections because — pardon the cliche — I believe drinking water requires to tackle it both from a top-down and also a bottom-up approach,” Sham said. “The collaboration between the association and the sections, and also between sections, have offered and will also continue to offer us optimal solutions to many of these problems.”

The entire gavel passing ceremony is available on YouTube, which can be viewed below in full.

Remarks from AWWA CEO David LaFrance

During his opening remarks, AWWA CEO David LaFrance said the gavel passing is a way to mark a moment. He touched on several moments in the past year – the pandemic declaration and the passing of the gavel to Elliott — as memorable ones but for different reasons. 

With her initiation as AWWA president, Elliott is the only president for the association to serve entirely virtually, he said. In her speech last year, LaFrance alluded to her statement that the industry would get better at connecting virtually. The industry and AWWA, he said, did just that.

Elliott, he added, is only the second AWWA president ever who is a communications professional. This became a critical point of her success as president during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The selection of a communication professional as AWWA’s top volunteer leader speaks loud and clear about AWWA’s commitment to strengthening public trust in water,” LaFrance said. “Melissa is a model for how water sector’s modern day leaders come from a variety of professions and backgrounds and this allows others to see how they can possibly belong to and have an impact in the water community.”

LaFrance thanked the Cal-Nev Section of AWWA for co-hosting AWWA ACE21 All Virtual, and added that more than 1,600 people attended the virtual event. That attendance number includes 100 students and attendees from those outside North America.


Remarks from immediate past AWWA President Melissa Elliott

During her remarks, immediate past AWWA President Elliott talked about recognizing when the world was changing due to the pandemic because she boarded a plane from Denver to Newark, New Jersey, and only 24 passengers were on the flight. 

“Except for some incredibly supportive Rocky Mountain leadership with me today, I have gone an entire year without seeing another AWWA member without a computer screen between us,” Elliott said. “We’ve all gotten used to losses over the last year, and the reality is I have been so fortunate to be able to apply my leadership skills at perhaps a time when they were needed the most.”

Before passing the gavel, Elliott noted her three goals she listed at the beginning of her term: economics, engagement and equity. In terms of economics, she said the association is in a good financial position due to its conservative nature not unlike the industry as a whole. She said the pivot of the association to virtual events and webinars was a feat that prepared AWWA for future success.

In terms of engagement, she said this value shot up the priority list due to the pandemic. One of AWWA’s core roles is bringing people together, she said, and through the use of virtual platforms and social media, the association was able to reach industry professionals in new ways.

“One of our great successes in the last year is that AWWA provided a space that was more normal than much of what was happening in the rest of your life,” Elliott said. “The resources, the connections you always had with AWWA were still here.”

As for equity, she said AWWA made tremendous progress. In August 2020, it updated its strategic plan to advance diversity and inclusion as an association value, and just last week the executive committee approved an update to the AWWA diversity and inclusion policy statement. The next step is a diversity and inclusion strategic plan, which Elliott said AWWA is “on the cusp” of releasing, and she said this will accelerate its forward momentum on this subject.