Where Do We Go From Here? Measuring Opportunities, Challenges of the Future

The water and wastewater industry today faces many challenges but also anticipates many opportunities, particularly in the areas of funding, workforce issues, water quality and supply, and technology issues.

Dec 9th, 2013

By Paul Spofford

Where do we go from here? The simple answer is anywhere and everywhere we please because several of us involved in WWEMA, including our President, Dawn Kristof Champney, are moving into retirement mode in the near future. It is an exciting and mildly unsettling time after having spent our entire careers in the water and wastewater industry.

We can look back at our careers starting almost around the same time as the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). It has been a wonderful time to be in this industry - a time when a visionary act made the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a factor in everyone's lives, when the public became more aware of pollution and pollution control, when technologies advanced to meet growing needs, and when we recognized that the challenge is almost never ending.

It's easy to say where we are going as individuals. The larger question, however, is where does our industry go next? Forty-plus years of hard work and measureable progress leave us far from our goals - especially when those goals continue to change and become more difficult and far more expensive to achieve. As such, the challenges are daunting, and even a short list of them reflects that fact:

  • Funding. This is the issue that keeps everyone up at night, from utility managers to consulting engineers to contractors to water and wastewater equipment manufacturers. It doesn't matter whether it is federal, state, local, or private money - nothing happens without project funding. Our infrastructure needs are well documented, and those needs far exceed our ability to find project funding. Do we see good news on the horizon? It is difficult to see good news as the first round of sequestration in 2013 caused cuts to SRF funding. And now, without congressional action, the second round of sequestration could cause further SRF funding cuts in early 2014. We have some municipalities that have declared bankruptcy and others that just can't go back to their rate base for more money. All of them face myriad calls for funding from competing municipal needs. There are efforts in Congress to eliminate caps on Private Activity Bonds and to provide alternate funding programs and mechanisms, but it will take political will to make it happen.
  • Workforce Issues. We can speak personally to the "graying of the industry" (with Dawn the exception) and to the fact that replacement of employees is a major issue for municipalities, consultants, contractors, and manufacturers. There is good news on this front, however, in the fact that so many of our new employees come well versed in the technologies of our industry. In addition, they almost universally have the excellent computer skills that make our lives easier - meaning that a given operation needs fewer employees than in the past.
  • Water Quality and Supply. We have been fortunate in North America to be blessed, in general, with adequate supplies of raw water of a reasonable quality. However, that situation is changing rapidly as a result of population dynamics and growth, aquifer depletion, climate change, and competing demands for limited supplies. Further, these are critical issues for municipalities, the industry and agriculture, and the challenges demand political and technological solutions.
  • Technology Issues. Technology has changed, is changing and will continue to change. Likewise, technology continues to be the great hope of our industry, and WWEMA is proud to be a voice of the equipment manufacturers who are leading the technological evolution. It is interesting to observe that technology gives us the ability to measure contaminants at ever lower levels, and it must advance to provide treatment solutions to achieve ever lower effluent limits. A key challenge is to find the appropriate balance between measurement advancements, risk assessment, subsequent regulatory action, and the added cost of sophisticated treatment schemes.

We have spent forty wonderful years in this industry, and they have given us the opportunity to visit places, meet people and make a difference, and we have enjoyed the journey immensely.

Yes, there are major challenges facing the industry, but there are also many talented people and excellent technologies that will meet those challenges.

About the Author: Paul Spofford is vice president of municipal sales for Infilco Degremont, a full-service treatment provider specializing in the design and supply of equipment for all stages of water, wastewater and biosolids management.

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