Q&A: Sue Mosburg, Executive Director of CA-NV AWWA

March 5, 2020

Associate Editor Cristina Tuser interviews Sue Mosburg, Executive Director of the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA)

About the author:

Cristina Tuser is associate editor for WWD. Tuser can be reached at [email protected].

Tuser: What can industry professionals expect from the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) Spring Conference

Mosburg: I’m excited that the Section will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020. Preparations are well underway to make this a grand celebration at the Disneyland Hotel April 6-9 in Anaheim. The week is packed with opportunities for learning, networking and fun.

Sunday afternoon through Monday the Section’s 50+ volunteer units will be conducting Section business and planning for upcoming events. The conference halls will come to life Tuesday morning with the Opening Session, which features a panel discussion on past and present challenges and how utilities and AWWA can embrace innovation to address the future. The panel will be moderated by George S. Hawkins, CEO of Moonshot, who will also join us as the Keynote Luncheon Speaker.

Other highlights include the 100th Anniversary Museum, hosted during exhibit hall hours, featuring historical artifacts and images spanning the last 100 years of the Section and the water industry. Two full days of lively operator competitions, the 100th Anniversary Member Welcome Reception on Monday evening, and a Water for People & Young Professionals Mixer on Tuesday evening round out the schedule.

The Spring Conference is the place to be for skilled distribution operators, treatment operators, engineers, managers, administrators and field professionals from the world of drinking water supply and safety. Readers can visit our website for more information. 

Tuser: What changes to drinking water standards do you hope to see in the future? 

Mosburg: There are a number of chemical and physical substances in the spotlight at this time, with compounds like PFAS getting a lot of media attention. AWWA members take seriously the responsibility to provide water that is safe to drink 100% of the time. Rather than focus on individual standards or the latest contaminant of the day, what I think is most important is the scientific and regulatory process. What water utilities—and also consumers—need most of all is a strong scientific and technical basis for whatever standards will be proposed. That means we want to see the U.S. EPA and other relevant science programs get sufficient money and personnel for strong, reliable research on the health effects of these substances and treatment methods for removing them. 

In addition to reinforcing its scientific credibility, our federal government need to show more leadership in following the regulatory process. We need more attention on keeping toxic chemicals out of the environment. For those pollutants that are already present, we need to rely on the process set up by the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Most utilities will take any steps necessary to meet the recommendations of a health advisory, but these have not undergone the same careful scrutiny and analysis of a formal standard like a maximum contaminant level (MCL). Then the other thing is, in the absence of a federal regulation, individual states are coming up with different drinking water regulations. Bottom line, it is important and necessary for U.S. and state government to carry out its regulatory roles, on a foundation of accurate science, treatment methods and economic analysis.

Tuser: What are some common misconceptions about drinking water? 

Mosburg: There are quite a few, but the ones we hear over and over involve taste, smell and safety. Taste and odor are important aesthetic characteristics – a person is not going to drink water that really tastes or smells horrible. Many people equate these secondary qualities to the water being safe to drink or not, when there is not necessarily a correlation. When it comes to safety, there is the age-old myth that bottled water is safer than tap water. 

Tuser: How can drinking water professionals encourage growth in the industry and interest from future generations? 

Mosburg: Studies show those entering the workforce today, and likely into the next decade, take pride in personal expression and seek jobs where they can leverage their individual talents and ideas; where they can make a positive difference through the work they do for a company that shares their core values. Like those in my generation and before, they want to be recognized for a job well done and seek jobs that reward hard work. 

Yet, unlike past generations, tomorrow’s workforce was raised with technology surrounding them. Graphical touchscreens, on the fly access to data warehouses, real-time instructional videos delivered 24/7 in only a few swipes on the cell phone. It’s a part of daily life. A shrinking workforce, the result of baby boomer retirements, is also driving the competition for talent. Flexible work hours, company-paid career development opportunities, relaxed dress codes and allowing space in shared work areas for personalization are good starts. 

Given the high consequence of error, a culture of "can’t fail, no mistakes" is prevalent across the water sector. The need for strict compliance to operating procedures and standard methods coupled with aging infrastructure and constricted budgets has resulted in an industry historically slow to change. To be attractive, employers will need ratchet up their digital literacy, be open to fresh ideas, and create a supportive environment which learns from mistakes and allows diverse perspectives to thrive and be considered. 

This may mean creating training programs and offline systems that allow workers to apply what they know to new situations, and teaching employees to challenge the status quo in an operationally safe and personally respectful manner.

Tuser: How can smaller water systems keep up with current water quality standards?

Mosburg: Although the vast majority of people can have complete confidence in their tap water, we all would like that to be everyone, all the time. The small and economically challenged areas are typically where problems persist. Training helps, and AWWA has been able to offer more free workshops to small systems in recent years. But this a big challenge and in some cases training is just not enough.

There are economies of scale in operating a water system, and many of the very small systems simply lack the resources to keep up. We strongly support SRF programs, which are extremely important for low-interest loans on infrastructure improvements. 

Tuser: What can be done to mitigate environmental contaminants caused by human actions?

Mosburg: I see two main courses of action, and both are needed. First, there may be policy changes to stop continuing pollution. Many people scoff at some of the laws California recently enacted to limit single-use plastics, like grocery bags. But the evidence is clear, plastic breaks into smaller fragments yet remains in the environment a very long time. So, if it turns out that microplastics end up being regulated as a drinking water contaminant, then consumers are going to end up paying higher treatment costs, which will be reflected in their water rates.

The second approach is, unfortunately, to do the hard work of cleaning up the mess we have created. We generally approve of the principle that the “polluter pays.” That should come first, to figure out who caused it originally. Sometimes that alone works, but when the cause is not easy to pinpoint, it becomes a problem for society as a whole. 

And honestly, sometimes the polluter is “all of us.” That is where we really do need government at all levels – federal, state, and local – as well as industry and even volunteers, to organize, fund, and manage cleanup. There is no magic bullet for this stuff, we just have to take responsibility as a country and put the policies, and the projects, and the money and people, in place to get the job done.

About the Author

Cristina Tuser

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