Editor’s takeaways from select sessions of the AWWA Virtual Summit
WWD Senior Managing Editor Bob Crossen's Takeaways
2020 posed an immediate challenge that resulted in a complete change in thinking and perspective in how we get work done. The AWWA Virtual Summit highlighted a way to fill in the gap and void left by in-person events. The keynote presentation was fantastic as always and Hakeem Oluseyi’s cosmic perspective on water was a very cool reminder of water’s pervasiveness in the universe.
“We're made of these elements: Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon, Phosphorous... Every time we breathe, that oxygen was once in the core of a star" Hakeem Oluseyi said. "When I look at a water molecule, it is something unbelievable to me. It was once in an environment over 15 million degrees!"
He also noted that because he was not aware of the American Water Works Association, it highlights just how good the industry is at doing its job. He would have known about the association if something were going wrong, but because it’s working well, we don’t hear about it in the media. This was a particularly interesting stance for me and only furthered the narrative that water in the U.S. is taken for granted.
State of the Water Industry
This presentation was quite reassuring and the data aligned well with what I and my colleagues have heard over the course of the year thus far. Optimism in the industry had been increasing each year for three years according to the American Water Works Association State of the Water Industry survey, and panelists Jim Williams, former AWWA president, Barb Martin, AWWA director of engineering and technical services, and Joseph Jacangelo, director of research for Stantec all indicated the optimism is likely to continue.
Williams indicated that this optimism is one that shows the industry is confident it can address and overcome the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has placed on the industry. Martin noted also that the industry was quick to adapt to the pandemic with digital technologies so as to maintain business continuity.
Both of those elements showcase just how resilient the water industry is to disaster, and that should be celebrated.
Fireside Chat with U.S. EPA
As we have heard throughout the year, The U.S. EPA made a concerted effort to secure personal protective equipment for water and wastewater workers throughout the country. Jennifer McLain is the director of ground water and drinking water office for the U.S. EPA. She said the U.S. EPA secured 3.5 million cloth masks for U.S. water workers this year.
“We have just been so impressed with the resiliency and dedication of the water workforce," McLain said.
Andrew Sawyers is the director of the office of wastewater management for the U.S. EPA. He said the crucial considerations for utilities this year have been financial and compliance issues. Due to rate structure changes or delays in receiving payment for bills (or receiving no payments at all), ensuring financial stability has been difficult, and that challenge has only made compliance more difficult.
He said the recently proposed Financial Capabilities Assessment will play a critical role in addressing the financial challenges of water and wastewater utilities moving forward.
WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello’s Takeaways
Advancing the Ball on Communications in the Time of COVID-19
This session started with discussion of being “essential” and communicating that with the public. Using phrases and terms like “Water Warriors Work Here” helps to convey that human element to the public and what water workers do to keep the public safe not only during the pandemic, but every day.
Also noted was how to express empathy in a year during which many are experiencing emotional and mental turmoil.
“There is an underlying theme of not only empathy but gratitude,” said Michell Zdrodowski from the Great Lakes Water Authority. She said this is a driving factor for internal/external communications for her utility moving forward.
Lastly, engaging with the public in newfound ways is also on the table. Establish means of connecting with the public through video, social media, email and other means that may not have been considered prior to the pandemic. Extreme times can call for experimentation in communication strategies and tools.
Day Zero - What Did We Learn?
Day Zero in Cape Town highlighted challenges of rapid population growth, aging infrastructure, operational inefficiencies, quality issues and stressed financial capability. These issues were addressed with water meters, replacing aging pipe and pumps, new protocols for water quality surveillance and GIS mapping of that water quality data. Additionally, the data was tied into the SCADA system along with information on flow, distribution, and the extended sewer network. Perhaps most importantly, it forced the city to connect more closely with the public by starting more conversations and interacting with customers where they could be found.
Ultimately these strategies resulted in regular daily water supply, no jaundice cases, revenue increased by 100%, customer satisfaction on grievance redressal increased to 92%.
“Cape Town’s day zero experience is definitely not unique,”said Mike Webster, director of water and waste for the city of Cape Town. “As Churchill said, never let a good crisis go to waste.”
My key lessons from this session were that Cape Town is vulnerable to climate change-related risks, and it survived the drought by dramatically reducing demand. It shows a need to build ahead of time and how diversity plays a role in solutions. Regional resource risks need to be better managed as well and Cape Town was able to use the shock of the drought to create a more resilient water network.
Water Group Associate Editor Cristina Tuser's Takeaways
In Pursuit of Progress
Led by Dr. Chi Ho Sham AWWA President-Elect Chief scientist, Eastern Research Group
Ji Im made points about what employers can do to make their workplaces more diverse. This is what drives success and growth. Speaking up against exclusive language is crucial to creating long-term change. She notes being asked “Where are you actually from?” multiple times at the same event, and how it makes a person feel out of place. Always questioning who is not in the room is one of the first steps in fostering a more inclusive mindset and aids in the process of creating a more diverse team of professionals.
"The water industry is only as diverse as our workforce," said Ji Im, P.E.
Wendi Wilkes, regulatory and legislative affairs manager for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), spoke about how innovation takes commitment. Climate change is noted as the biggest challenge that the industry will continue to face. She ultimately encourages a future mindset and to look within ourselves to identify what we can do now and how we can continue this growth in the future.
“Innovation has to be engraved in our practices and habits,” said Wilkes.
Pranjali Kumar, P.E. project engineer for Carollo Engineers talked about sharing best practices in the workforce. For the panel, a survey was conducted. According to the results, the major overarching message was that sharing best practices is key. From a YP’s perspective, open channels of communication provide for a means for an entire team to share information effectively. Integrity, honesty, availability, good listening skills and willingness to share space (e.g. bringing YP’s to certain meetings to see where the career can take them) were key takeaways.
Public Perceptions of Tap Water
AWWA conducted a survey about consumer preferences of tap water. The survey assessed items such as perceived quality and safety of tap water, as well as overall satisfaction with the utility. They were pleasantly surprised by public confidence in tap water. Perceptions of water safety differ by income and race, however.
"Nearly 80% of respondents felt their water was high quality," said Adam Carpenter, manager of energy and environmental policy for the American Water Works Association. Carpenter is a 2020 WWD Young Pro and you can learn more about him in WWD’s video interview with him.
Lower-income, Black, and Hispanic respondents rate their water lower than high-income and white respondents, according to the results.
The webinar also discusses the importance of proactive communication. What are the needs of each community? Building relationships and partnerships with key community leaders is crucial. Do your staff look like the community? Do they come from the community? These are critical questions to consider when addressing the public’s perception of local tap water.
Responding to Legionella in Water
Cases of Legionnaires’ disease are present in our communities now more than ever. Discussion in this session included information about the Legiolert test.
Due to COVID-19, commercial, industrial and institutional buildings are experiencing low water usage. This stagnation is tied to legionella, and there is a clear indication that the bacteria is more likely to be discovered in warmer temperatures. Legionella can occur in water even if there are more than enough chlorine residuals.
Flushing systems in these buildings is of utmost importance to ensure when workers return that the water will not transmit harmful bacteria to the public.