Thursday, December 12, 2013

Southwest Idaho Operators Section - Annual Meeting
December 11, 2013
Address from the PNCWA Board
PNCWA Secretary, David Keil, P.E. (SPF Water Engineering, LLC)

On behalf of the Board of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association, thanks to all of you for inviting us to participate in your annual meeting and celebration.  You clearly have a healthy and vibrant section thanks to the hard work and dedication of many.  Laurelei, special thanks to you for leading the section recently and for putting together a terrific operators’ conference earlier this year.  Also, congratulations on your somewhat recent promotion, all the awards you’ve been winning, and your marriage this summer.  You’ve had a big year and we’re all really happy for you!

Have you ever had to explain your job to your family?  I’ve had the pleasure of having to explain what I do several times.  I recall, not long after college, when I traveled to visit my mother for Thanksgiving, she had some of her friends over and we were sitting around the coffee table talking and one of my mother’s friends had asked my older brother and me what each of us do for a living. 

My brother is an engineer at Boeing and was deeply involved in the design of the 777 jumbo jet.  The 777 at the time was Boeing’s hottest new airplane, capable of flying long distances, and which had broken multiple sales records for Boeing.  It was the airplane to save Boeing and keep Seattle as “the Jet City.” My brother had since moved on to manage the design of various parts of the 787, Boeing’s newest airplane, and he had traveled to really cool and exotic places – Japan, England, Italy, Germany, and Israel.  As far as I am concerned, he is in just about as “sexy” of a career as any engineering student could be – that is, if you want to call engineers sexy.  In my mind, my brother has a really cool career. 

To answer the question about what we do, my brother proudly answered, “I design airplanes for Boeing.”  The eyes of my mother’s friends seemed to open widely as they were clearly impressed.  When they turned to me, clearly looking for an equally impressive response, I said, “I design sewer systems.”  I don’t know if they were disappointed, confused, or astonished, but I suspect they were not as impressed with my response as they were with my brother’s. After several moments had passed, one of my mother’s friends had commented, “Well, I know which one I cannot live without!”  She meant the sewers.

Each of you provide a service to our communities that none of us can live without.  If we did not have clean water, what would we do?  You give us clean water.  Thank you.

I also like to look back on my favorite high school English teacher, Mr. Schmang.  He was a funny, jaded, old guy who took pleasure in challenging youthful idealism with provocative conundrums in his class, “Literature of Conflict and Survival.”  What a cool class name?  I’m sure every Idaho kid would stand in line for hours to get that class!  Mr. Schmang liked to tease us kids with various moral dilemmas.  He would sort of go through his desk drawer full of literary hand grenades, toss one into the middle of the room, and sit back in his chair and smile widely as we kids debated whatever topic de jour he felt compelled to detonate.

Of all the long discussions we had, my favorite one-liner by Mr. Schmang is, “Be sure to flush your toilets so Chinook can drink!”  Yuck!  Our water – or more correctly, our wastewater – flows downhill? Is he serious?  Wait a minute, who is upstream of us?  Hmmm…  It was around that same time that my father encouraged me to get into the water industry.  I really didn’t know much about why we have safe and reliable water when we turn on our taps, nor did I appreciate what happens to our wastewater when we flush.  Getting into the water industry required math and science – hey, I’m pretty good at both of those – and we’re always going to need people who can keep our water clean.  Seemed like a great move to me!  So, here we are.

Each of you have your own stories of how you got here.  Why are you in the water industry?  What is it about what you do that keeps you coming to work? 

This is an exciting time in the water industry.  We are not short on challenges.  We have new regulations that we need to navigate.  We have limited funds to implement systems to meet unlimited pressures and push beyond the limits of technology or we seek and find alternative solutions when technology seems to be a barrier.  Even though you are doing your best, someone is always pushing you to do more.  Why?  It’s because we all value our water and you are on the front lines of keeping our water clean!  It isn’t personal.  It’s what you do.  Embrace it.  Be proud of it.

We have countless opportunities to be creative and meet new challenges!  We’re already seeing emerging technologies that are no longer emerging, but are commonplace, all in the spirit of pushing that much more and meeting new clean water challenges.  And, it isn’t just about water anymore!  What we have called sewer plants has shifted to being called wastewater treatment plants and then to being called water reclamation facilities and now some are being called resource recovery facilities.  First, resource recovery facilities recycle water – they’ve been recycling water since before the Clean Water Act – so that Chinook, the town downstream from my home town, and other downstream communities, can drink.  Second, a global phosphorus limitation can limit the world’s future agricultural production and increase an already alarming starvation rate.  Do you know anywhere in the world that has more nutrients than they want and would be more than happy if someone would simply come and take it?  How about your wastewater treatment plant?  Resource recovery moves beyond removing nutrients into recovering nutrients.  Last, our treatment plants typically use more energy than any other asset owned by a city or a utility, yet our treatment plants oftentimes produce large amounts of energy waiting to be captured.  Resource recovery doesn’t just “waste” gas in a burner, it recovers the energy that is available in excess biogas. 

These are great opportunities to learn and do more!  But, where do we learn about these things?  How can we affect change to make sure these things are done in a smart way and add to the betterment of society instead of become a burden of just one more thing to operate? 

We can learn about these kinds of things by being active in the Southwest Idaho Operators Section on the local level, the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association on the regional level, the Water Environment Federation on the national or international level, or any one of these great organizations.  These organizations have a healthy blend of operators, engineers, manufacturers, academics, and regulators who engage in healthy conversations relating to key issues that affect what you do.  All you need to do to participate is to get involved in something.  It can range from participating in a webinar, which are often free and rarely go more than an hour, to joining a technical committee or a conference organizing committee, or even being an active SWIOS, PNCWA, or WEF board member.  Whatever it is, you are involving yourself in a conversation with your peers in the water industry – the people on the front lines of producing clean water – to discuss what more we can all do to leave clean water not just for Chinook and other downstreamers, but also for our kids and grandkids.  You make it happen, but you don’t do it alone.  It takes a team.  SWIOS is your team and PNCWA is your team.  We’re all here to help you and because we believe in clean water for ourselves, for our families, and for future generations as much as you do.

So, whether you are interested in learning through webinars or conferences, or you have an interest in helping on a committee, or anything else, pick up the phone, write an email, go to our websites, or for those young or young at heart professionals, send a tweet or text to any board or committee member about getting involved.  It only takes an interest to get active. 

Finally, we should all keep our perspective.  While we might not have sexy jobs building shiny, new airplanes that take us to the four corners of the globe, not many people in the world can say that they carry out as important of a mission on a daily basis as you do.  Be proud.  Be active. 

Thank you for asking me to visit with you today and thank you for keeping our water clean!  Have a great meeting!

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