Green infrastructure and future water leaders: An interview with Jeff Eger

This feature news is part of Singapore International Water Week’s (SIWW) series of one-on-one interviews with global water industry leaders, Conversations with Water Leaders. In this edition, Jeff Eger, executive director of Water Environment Federation (WEF), speaks with OOSKAnews correspondent, Renee Martin-Nagle, on how green infrastructure have contributed to water solutions with respect to stormwater and ways to attract young people to join the ranks of water professionals.

With 17 years of utility management experience, Jeff Eger shares more on WEF’s new strategic direction in 2012, infrastructure issues, challenges facing the US water utility industry and more.

Together with NACWA (National Association of Clean Water Agencies) and WERF (Water Environment Research Foundation), WEF recently published “The Water Resources Utility of the Future.” Are there cities that can serve as examples for utilising green infrastructure in their water utility planning?

The MDGs have made some progress in certain areas like education and extreme poverty, in large part due to progress in this part of the world, in Asia. There have also been some improvements in water supply, but some goals are lagging, and the most seriously lagging is sanitation. At the present rate we will have to wait anywhere from 50 to 75 years until we achieve the goals we set in the year 2000.  Therefore, [UN] Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked me to lead an effort to speed up implementation of the sanitation goals. If you improve sanitation, you reduce child mortality, you improve maternal health, you increase gender equality, you get better educational facilities, particularly for girls, and you reduce extreme poverty, so it has a multiplication effect. I think what I have seen here today in Singapore is exactly what I want to see – we need to take a systemic approach to water and sanitation and see that everything is inter-related.  Otherwise, we lose so much.

How would you like for the future of water utilities to be defined?

We want the industry to get away from saying that we are wastewater treatment plants and say that we are water resource recovery facilities, because we can reclaim not just water but other components such as biosolids. I must admit that we always talk about Singapore as the leading example in the world about what can be done.

It sounds like you’re on the cutting edge.

We launched a new strategic direction in 2012 with three critical objectives. One was to enhance, champion and support innovation. We launched that at WEFTEC (WEF Technical Exhibition and Conference), which is the largest annual water show in the world. We had an innovation pavilion last year for entrepreneurs and start-ups in the water industry and then brought in venture capitalists to match them together. We’ll do it again this year.   We want to provide education through our specialty conferences, WEFTEC programming and other venues on the cutting edge issues, and that supports our second critical objective: to enrich global water expertise. The third critical objective was to be a strong advocate for the value of water.

We want the industry to get away from saying that we are wastewater treatment plants and say that we are water resource recovery facilities, because we can reclaim not just water but other components such as biosolids. I must admit that we always talk about Singapore as the leading example in the world about what can be done.

Water professionals know how critical the resource is, but many people, especially in the US, don’t know because it’s too easy to turn on the tap.

It’s taken for granted. I ran a utility for 17 years. If you raise the rates by a few dollars a month, people can act like you’re raising it a hundred dollars a month. We’ve been a quiet utility — we’re not visible because we’re underground. The water professionals have done a stellar job over the decades — people turn on their faucets and they get water. We’ve done a really good job of being invisible.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the US water industry today? 

I would put the challenges in the category of resources — resources in the form of money for innovations and to take care of what we have — and resources in the form of people.  As we look to implement technology, it may well take a skill set that doesn’t exist among water professionals. In this country, our work force is aging, and there’s a great concern about replacing them, especially the operators’ positions.

What are some of the infrastructure issues and solutions?

You can put a system in the ground, brand-new, cheaper than you can repair one today, so efficient repair is an issue. If there’s a break on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, DC], they have to get through a foot of asphalt to find the line. A great example is the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel implemented a rate increase to replace their buried infrastructure in a coordinated manner. If a street needs to be repaved, they look at what’s under that street — water lines, fiber-optics, sewer lines — and if those things need to be repaired, they do it all at one time.

How is green infrastructure contributing to solutions?

Another area of innovation is this growing trend for green infrastructure to address water quality challenges. We now recognise that stormwater is the leading contributor to water pollution. So there’s a growing acceptance of dealing with stormwater where it falls instead of channeling into the nearest body of water, by using porous pavements, more vegetation, with bio-filtration swales, with green roofs. It’s really exciting to see how far we’ve come in a short period of time. Germany has been a real leader in dealing with stormwater issues. At WEFTEC we will have seminars and exhibits on green infrastructure. We see it as a need, and I think you’ll see an increase in the services we will provide to support and enhance the green infrastructure movement. 

One of the critical issues seems to be how to attract young people to go into the industry. 

That’s why I think this whole area of innovation will make us interesting and people will say, “Wow! I didn’t realise you could take sludge and turn it in to energy, or could farm nutrients out of sewage.” If we are able to help our facilities to become truly resource recovery facilities, the public will view us differently. The hope is that people will be willing to support it with the investments that are needed.

I understand that you initiated a programme for students when you were a utility director.

When I had the utility in the greater Cincinnati-northern Kentucky area, we took over all the stormwater systems.  People paid for stormwater permits according to how much impervious surface they had.  Schools don’t have ponds, and were going to get hit with charges for stormwater. So we worked with the schools to develop a water quality curriculum that matched the core curriculum for the state. If the school system would teach it in their fourth grade classes, then they got a 25 per cent credit on their stormwater bill. When we built our headquarters, we had a vegetated roof, we had wetlands, we had biofiltration swales and porous asphalt, and we had a learning lab that the kids could come to on a field trip, so that what they learned in the classroom they could actually see on-site. There were about a dozen stages they would go through. We partnered with the local bus system to get the kids there through public transportation. We trained the parents to do the demonstration. My office was on the corner, and I knew we had made a difference when I would look out the window and see a little kid with a mom and dad, taking them by the hand and showing them what they had learned earlier that day.

What are the other ways you’re encouraging young people to join the ranks of water professionals?

We are also partnering with the American Water Works Association on a Work for Water programme at www.workforwater.org, which provides resources for students and job seekers exploring green careers as well as recruiting utilities. Last year we launched our Water Leadership Institute to engage [young] people. We had an on-line application process that attracted people from around the world. We are trying to find a contemporary way to build a community among people who may not always be able to come to a conference or a meeting. We did almost everything over the internet. There was a dialogue; there were questions posed; there were lessons.  We asked them to come together at a couple of events, and then they meet at graduation at WEFTEC.  Relationships and networks develop. Now we’re in our second year and we’re using our alumni from our first year to keep the dialogue alive. We have about 35-40 people in this year’s class.

You’re partnering with so many organisations.

Let’s take the Stockholm Water Institute. We are a founder with them of the Stockholm Water Prize, which is a very prestigious annual award that’s presented annually at their meeting. Many of our members are very involved in supporting Water for People, which is our charity of choice. We also collaborate with the European Water Association and the Japanese Sewerage Works Association — we have a meeting every three years that rotates among us. The International Water Association is an association primarily of academia, and we have an annual conference with them.

When we built our headquarters, we had a vegetated roof, we had wetlands, we had biofiltration swales and porous asphalt, and we had a learning lab that the kids could come to on a field trip

 

You have manufacturer members. How are you enabling them to showcase their products and technologies?

We are very involved with the Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade at the US Department of Commerce, Francisco Sanchez, and their environmental export initiative. At some shows like Singapore’s show [the Singapore International Water Week], we will rent pavilions and bring in manufacturers to these countries. We get the space, bring in the booths and market it for them, so that all they have to do is come and demonstrate their wares. It’s been a very successful programme for us to get international exposure for some of our WEF manufacturer members. 

With climate change there’s a new emphasis being put on water. 

There’s no question that with climate change and increasing storms, there’s a new focus on water.  How do we make our operations more resilient to storms? Climate change is forcing us to become a leader on those topics.  We can’t ignore it — it is occurring — and how do we deal with it in a smarter manner? 

What final message would you like to leave with our readers?

Having been in this field for so many years, I’m very, very proud to be a member of water professionals who are real public servants — quiet and unrecognised but with a real dedication to clean water and public health and protecting the environment. This younger generation gets it, and they may change the world. They are saying that they don’t want us to be the quiet industry anymore.

Thanks for reading to the end of this story!

We would be grateful if you would consider joining as a member of The EB Circle. This helps to keep our stories and resources free for all, and it also supports independent journalism dedicated to sustainable development. For a small donation of S$60 a year, your help would make such a big difference.

Find out more and join The EB Circle

blog comments powered by Disqus

Most popular

View all news

Industry Spotlight

View all

Feature Series

View all
Asia Pacific’s Hub For Collaboration On Sustainable Development
An Eco-Business initiative
The SDG Co