Rising to the Challenge

April 2, 2018

About the author: Jessica Moorman is associate editor for Water & Wastes Digest. She can be reached at 847/391-1012 or by e-mail at [email protected].


In the August 2005 issue of Water & Wastes Digest, we asked Neil S. Grigg, professor of civil engineering at Colorado State University, to share his thoughts on issues such as water security and his role in educating future members of the water industry. This month, we’ve asked Grigg to give us an update on these important issues, as well as his recent research projects.

WWD: Have you been involved in any water-related projects/studies recently? If so, what have they focused on and what were the findings?

Neil S. Grigg: As a water industry researcher, I’m constantly looking for new projects and topics. Over the past year, my focus has been on water infrastructure conditions and security, and on water resources management. We completed a National Science Foundation project to compare security for water, electric power and road transportation systems. We learned that, while there are interdependencies, each system goes its own way. Water depends more on electric power than vice-versa, and transportation has more redundancies. The nation has a lot more to learn about maintaining the readiness of these systems.

Also, as a participant in AwwaRF’s Research Advisory Committee on infrastructure reliability, I’ve helped formulate new project proposals in asset management, distribution system integrity and corrosion control. It’s exciting to work with utility professionals to explore the challenges faced by the drinking water industry. I think we’re learning that delivering high-quality and reliable water involves a lot more than treating it and putting it into distribution systems. Many chemical, biological and behavioral issues are going to change the way we look at water supply in upcoming years.

WWD: Do you think water utilities have gotten a handle on incorporating security into everyday management?

Grigg: The question is answered with a “yes” for the parts of security that deal with fences, entry control and creating emergency response plans. So, that’s progress. The question is answered “no” when you look at the bigger issues of security dealing with all risks from natural and human-caused threats. We may have over-hyped terrorism to the point where other important risks such as system deterioration are being ignored.

WWD: What still needs to be done to make utilities more secure against both natural disasters and terrorist attacks?

Grigg: Better all-around protection goes to the quality of the workforce. Like some other businesses, utilities today are facing a workforce crisis that threatens their abilities to tend to basic systems and infrastructure. Security starts with these basic systems and infrastructure, which must be robust, reliable and ready-to-serve. We don’t lack knowledge about risk management, but in some cases, we do lack the ability to implement it through our workforces.

WWD: How are you preparing students for the future of water system engineering and management?

Grigg: In my engineering courses and research projects, I emphasize security in system design and a bottom-line approach to water system management. By that I mean to try to get engineering students to think about management issues in the legal, financial and political spheres. A typical engineering student without water industry experience has not thought about these issues, and a typical student with experience will have experienced them and have a hunger to learn more about them. It’s like a new facet of engineering, what you’d normally call “engineering management,” but with a broader view than this term had in the past. It’s interesting that the birth of management consulting was in a field called “management engineering,” but it was applied primarily to manufacturing businesses. Today, I’m trying to apply a similar approach to water system management.

WWD: What issues do you feel will be the most important for water systems in the future?

Grigg: Given that water supply utilities exercise tremendous influence over water resources and health, they will be challenged to retain public confidence, while continuing to develop new supplies, high-quality drinking water and reliable infrastructure. Management must rise to the challenge, keeping its head low while being proactive to get in front of the contentious issues it will face.

WWD: Are there any other topics you feel are currently important in the water industry?

Grigg: I’d like to close by mentioning again the challenges faced by utilities, including their workforce issues. It’s an exciting time to be in public management; although, sometimes the obstacles look pretty formidable. There will be good opportunities in the water industry, which has some 1 million jobs, according to my estimates. These include all utility and government jobs related to water, and all the jobs in the private sector and support sector. I think the water industry is larger and more important than most people realize and look forward to seeing it mature and develop in the years ahead.

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