On Politics and Professionalism

Water Week 2016, held in Washington, D.C., April 10-16, featured many groups engaged in discussions about our nation's water infrastructure and especially how we collectively provide access to safe, affordable drinking water for all citizens.

By Bill Decker

Water Week 2016, held in Washington, D.C., April 10-16, featured many groups engaged in discussions about our nation’s water infrastructure and especially how we collectively provide access to safe, affordable drinking water for all citizens. Participating in the conversations were elected officials, plant operations personnel, regulators, administrators, manufacturers, engineers, and various trade associations. Over the course of the week, two subjects were of continued interest: the presidential election and the tragedy that happened with the drinking water in Flint, Mich. One might ask how they are related.

Rahm Emanuel is credited with saying that you should never let a crisis go to waste, and it seems that some follow that advice carefully. When any disaster happens involving our infrastructure - be it a power outage, bridge failure, water main break, or any other issue - some people rush in with opinions and comments. But on a daily basis, our water infrastructure is largely invisible. In many small towns and cities, our pipes get one year older every year, and we have significant issues with both leakage and infiltration. Where is the national debate about infrastructure funding, and when will we have a serious conversation about infrastructure sustainability as a principle of public safety?

Too often the people who are involved with the sensational moment are nowhere to be found when the cameras are off. I applaud all of the elected officials who actively participated in Water Week along with all of the industry professionals who work every day to deliver safe, affordable water. I urge others to join the conversation.

During Water Week, the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (WWEMA) held its annual Washington Forum. In one session, Pan Ji, a doctoral candidate in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech and a member of the Flint Water Study Team, presented the results of the team’s studies exposing the high levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint.

Virginia Tech’s research laid out a compelling case that the incident did not happen due to one decision made by a single person on a single day. Rather, there were failures at every level, from the plant to the city and up to and including the state. The very sad fact is that this incident was both foreseeable and preventable, and existing regulations are on the books to have both caught and corrected this issue sooner rather than later. At the most basic level, government should exist to protect the people, and in this case both government and the water industry collectively failed. This is not an indictment on all government employees or water professionals, but collectively we need to hold all accountable, and the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study Team research should help identify those responsible and help identify any policy or regulation shortfall.

I encourage all to follow the continued updates of the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study Team at http://flintwaterstudy.org. I also encourage all to become actively involved in local governance. Starting at the local level and building support through the state and federal levels, we need to create the conditions for safe, affordable, and sustainable water along with other infrastructure needs. From a funding standpoint, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

At the end of Ms. Ji’s presentation to WWEMA, one participant asked her to summarize in 30 seconds what advice she would give to young engineers working on similar issues. Without hesitation, her answer was, “Tell the truth!” This is sage advice for engineers, politicians and all of the rest of the water industry. The public trusts and depends on each of us to do our collective part. When an incident such as Flint happens, we have collectively broken trust with the public and that is simply not acceptable. We should not need a crisis to remind us to do our jobs within the water sector or at any other level of governing.

The people who pay the water bills, both municipal and industrial, depend on the water industry, including manufacturers, engineers, operators, municipal administrators at all levels, regulators, and legislators, working together to ensure public access to safe, affordable water. In time, the sensational news from Flint will fade and we will be back to the slow process of governing. It will then fall back to us in the water industry to ensure the lessons learned are not forgotten.

About the Author: Bill Decker is vice president and general manager of the equipment and services group for Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc. (Loves Park, Ill.). He is a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association’s Board of Directors and is vice chair of its Marketing and Member Services Committee.

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