Nov. 15, 2010

10 minutes with Howard Neukrug

HOWARD NEUKRUG talks with the BC Water News team about the critical issues facing the 2-year-old Clean Water America Alliance and the first time he knew he was an environmentalist.

Name: Howard Neukrug

Title: Chairman of the Clean Water America Alliance's Urban Water Sustainability Council and Deputy Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department. Organizer of the Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference in Philadelphia, Dec. 6-7.

Background: Responsible for Philadelphia's Planning and Environmental Services, which oversees the department’s growing environmental, energy and sustainability programs, as well as its more traditional strategic and capital planning and asset management systems.

He was founder of Philadelphia’s Office of Watersheds and the creator of its “Clean Water, Green Cities” program, which integrates land-based urban sustainability goals with the goals for clean, safe, attractive and accessible rivers and streams.

He has served as an advisor to the EPA, the State of Pennsylvania, the Delaware River Basin Commission on issues of environmental policy and regulation, water and wastewater utility planning and management, drinking water quality and treatment, urban planning and sustainability. His service on nonprofit boards includes the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, the Tookany-Tacony Frankford Watersheds Partnership, and the Schuylkill Action Network.

A professional engineer, he is a graduate in Civil and Urban Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently teaching the course "How to Use Water, Science and Politics to Create a More Sustainable Philadelphia."

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Describe the work of the Clean Water America Alliance and your role in the organization.
Howard Neukrug: The Alliance seeks to advance sustainable urban water policy. Its creation was based on the shift that is taking place within the water sector. In Philadelphia, as well as all over the United States, there is a sense that we as water managers are at the crossroads of transformational change. Challenges posed by climate, growing populations, energy production, economic pressures and regulations require a more holistic, integrated approach. A whole new mindset and ethic about water, its use, its management and its worth, are needed to meet the challenges ahead. Collaboration becomes essential between new groups of stakeholders that haven’t necessarily worked together before if we are to implement integrated watershed management systems that serve the triple bottom line (economic, environmental and social) for a more secure future. Thus, an alliance is needed.

Within the Alliance, I chair the Urban Water Sustainability Council. It includes the vanguard of urban water and sustainability leaders and forward-thinking environmental organizations and water managers from some of the largest cities in America, who are urgently charging ahead in green infrastructure. The ambitious scales at which cities must shift to green infrastructure require that we share experience and identify roadblocks. When we identify roadblocks, we will need to work together for policy changes.

What are the most critical issues currently facing the Alliance?
Howard: During the last year, the Alliance has conducted a series of national dialogues that have advanced the discussion about water’s worth, it’s management as “One Water” (one resource whether it be drinking water, wastewater, groundwater, water for energy, reuse, etc.), and about the elements of a national water plan.  Based on these discussions, the Alliance is now positioned to draft a national water policy blueprint. We hope to begin circulating it by the end of the year. The plan will not necessarily be an appeal for a federal water policy, but rather areas in which federal assistance, cooperation and encouragement would be productive, particularly in promoting better integration of water management and more effective partnerships. Of course, another big part of this plan is eliminating roadblocks and creating incentives for green infrastructure for water.

How has the economic environment impacted the Alliance’s work?
Howard: Naturally, it is difficult for any nonprofit in hard economic times. This is even more true for an organization in its infancy, such as the Alliance, which was only started in 2008.  Nonetheless, we appear to be developing a niche with green infrastructure for water. In the past three months alone, we have received three foundation grants. Although small, they have put our foot in the door with major foundations and continue to build our reputation for developing training, discussion forums and being a go-to organization for identifying the best green infrastructure models in the nation. These grants, along with a base of support from utilities and corporations should give us the power needed to grow as an umbrella organization that can move toward our goal of driving sustainable water policy and practice.

How do you see the regulatory landscape affecting the water/wastewater industry?
Howard: The structure and values of our industry have largely been shaped by regulatory policies implemented in response to the environmental legislation of the 1970s. Much good has come from that. Our drinking water is cleaner and safer, and our rivers and streams are returning to conditions undreamed of just 30 years ago.

But the “water rulebook” created by those regulations no longer makes sense. Our industry is segmented among those who protect our water supplies, those who provide drinking water treatment and distribution, and the stormwater collection and wastewater collection and disposal agencies. In each of these business segments, our priorities, our funding, our values and our ethics are each judged by rules written in a different era for different sets of conditions and expected outcomes. And the rules don’t allow us to easily impact land use and development practices, which affect our water and our industry more than anything.

A “one water, one planet" perspective is essential if we are ever going to figure out how to use limited federal and local funding in a manner that truly creates a sustainable society. There are potentially many billions of dollars hiding in regulatory and industry reform to support our practices.

What can utilities do to address the gap between funds and tightening regulations?
Howard: Limited funding will continue to be a burden for our industry as we seek to upgrade and improve services while protecting our ratepayers. 

Concepts being discussed today at the Alliance and throughout Washington, Philadelphia and many other cities around the world are based on a recognition that these programs must not overburden our ratepayers, but also must support the sustainability of their communities. The use of green stormwater infrastructure can provide the basis for not only fulfilling water compliance issues, but also improving a community’s quality of life by providing the triple bottom line benefits associated with green stormwater infrastructure.

We also need to think of our water services in a bundled fashion, like the phone, internet and cable industries.There are a lot of savings to be had through a broader and more coordinated approach to our water issues, looking more regionally and considering our ability to leverage other capital work ongoing for transportation, housing and other utility systems. As our business grows into one that encompasses improvements to our rivers and streams, watershed protection and green, land-based infrastructure programs, we have a lot of fellow agencies and partners to share in the investment capital and provide maintenance to systems that in the past may have seemed outside the core mission of our industry.

Do you see emerging technologies helping agencies achieve regulatory goals and lower treatment costs?
Howard: Yes! The seemingly water-rich regions of the East are finally beginning to make use of the lessons learned from our more arid neighbors to the west; the practice of “wasting the rain” is finally changing. We have come so far away from the basics of water conservation that a new emergent industry is forming to create the perfect “street tree pit." Even the rain barrel is being re-invented! New technologies and practices are being formed to better identify lost water in our distribution systems.

The nexus between water and energy is getting us to re-look at our wastewater facilities as true resource recovery centers with vast potentials such as integration of energy recovery — from waste gas to waste heat. A lot is about to change in our industry and emerging technologies will be key to our future success.

What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?
Howard: These are tough times. Large numbers of new and soon-to-be retirees. Tight budgets.  Unclear financial markets. Infrastructure needing more and more attention and renewal. A city that is ready to explode with possibilities, but constrained by the current worldwide market conditions. I guess it comes down to the unknowns. From climate change to regulatory requirements, we are in a time of change but unclear of the future road we will travel.

What are the biggest opportunities?
Howard: Here are three: First, our kids. We have been hiring these young professionals — some call them Generation Y’ers — who are coming in smart and ready to change the world. All they ask from us is a salary and a mentor to point them in the right direction. Second, our mayors and sustainability directors. There is a big audience out there to help us figure out how water and cities fit together in the 21st century and how policies and practices by a water utility can encourage growth and sustainability of a city and a greening of the environment. And third, our cause. The Alliance and other industry groups, our leaders in Washington and throughout the water industry are "getting it." More and more folks are working together to create a synergy of effort and understanding the true triple bottom line of improvements.

How did you get started in the environmental industry?
Howard: I started as a civil engineer looking to follow in my father’s footsteps in the construction industry in New York City. While studying at UPenn, I was required to take three classes in something called "environmental engineering." The year was 1978 so there was not a lot of reading material. From there, I got involved in advanced water treatment systems and then planning and utility management — all at the Philadelphia Water Department. The real breakthrough came in 2000 when I formed the city’s first Office of Watersheds and my friends in the drinking water industry called me a flaming liberal. That’s when I knew I was an environmentalist.

What do you love about what you do?
Howard: I love challenging really smart people to look at a problem from different angles. I love talking to landscape architects, planners, artists, young professionals, developers, politicians, environmentalists,  and — yes — engineers.  Everyone has a different perspective and they are all right. The best solution usually takes a lot of discussion.

What is the one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
Howard: I love talking to strangers about changing the world.

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