Feb. 10, 2010

Transcending Tradition

NACWA Winter Conference: Solving industry challenges in the new normal


BC Water News Team

More than 150 water industry leaders from across the country convened Feb. 2–5 in Austin, Texas, for the 2010 NACWA Winter Conference.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies was founded 40 years ago for a simple reason. A few visionary leaders came together around a single mission — development, passage and funding of the Clean Water Act. At the NACWA Winter Conference in Austin, Feb. 2–5, a reflection on this original mission offered a striking contrast to the complex and diverse issues that confront utility managers today.

This year’s conference — Transcending Tradition … The Expanding Role and Relationship of the Clean Water Utility — gave attendees insight, tools and resources to help them address these “new normal” or 21st century challenges. “The landscape today is incredibly more complicated than when our organization started,” NACWA Executive Director Ken Kirk said. “The level of sophistication of our members has grown, but the sheer number of challenges has as well — from affordability to climate change.”

More than 150 attendees, representing utilities across the nation, heard from about 25 speakers on topics that included regionalization, resource recovery and development of new revenue streams, public/private partnerships, climate change and effective utility management. “The goal is to provide eye-openers to those utilities that haven’t had the opportunity to explore these topics yet,” said Chris Hornback, NACWA senior director of regulatory affairs.

Excellence awards

The conference recognized several utilities for their excellence in utility management and successful implementation of programs that address the range of management challenges facing public wastewater utilities. Excellence in Management Awards went to El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board, Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Jacksonville Electric Water and Sewer, Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and Orange County Sanitation District.

About 10 committee meetings drew packed rooms to dissect and debate issues, many of which are driven by pending and proposed regulation and legislation. Discussion topics included the proposed solid waste definitions and potential impacts, Chesapeake Bay legislation, the sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) rule, and climate and energy bills, just to name a few. These meetings allowed members to provide input into timely issues and shape NACWA’s advocacy efforts.

As many of the program speakers highlighted, the new challenges that utility managers face today put a premium on innovation and new thinking, collaboration, communication, decision making, and effective leadership and management.

Effecting change

In an environment heavy on change, Chip Heath fittingly gave the keynote address and kick-off discussion. The co-author, with his brother Dan, of Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard spoke candidly, saying, “People hate change!” Heath went on to note many situations, such as starting a new marriage, when people willingly embrace change. The difference? A strong emotional connection that makes people want to change.

Heath talked about the internal battle people have when faced with change situations: There is the emotional and analytical tug of war, which he described with an analogy of an elephant (emotional and unpredictable) and a rider (analytical and a planner). He gave participants the simple steps to “shrink change” and discussed how to capitalize on the “bright spots,” which are the incremental successes that build momentum, collaboration and support.

Other speakers, many of whom were utility directors and key company leaders, had many “bright spots” to offer as well.

Successes applying EUM

Keynote speaker was Brown and Caldwell CEO Craig Goehring.

Randy Brown, City of Pompano Beach utility department director, spoke of his utility’s experience implementing the Effective Utility Management (EUM) model, a 10-attribute framework for utilities. The EUM, recognized as a leading model, was developed through a historic collaboration between six major water sector organizations and the U.S. EPA. Brown said his staff’s initial reaction was that this is “just another plan.”

After some prioritizing and assessment of the 10 attributes, however, the staff began to apply the principles. A once-skeptical staff has become energized and driven by the EUM, he said. “Once we got it started, the implementation and process was infectious,” Brown said. He offered a simple way for managers to take the first step with the EUM: “Ask yourself what would be the most important output of the EUM for my utility?”

Keynote speaker Craig Goehring, CEO of Brown and Caldwell, explored how the principles behind EUM are vital to meeting 21st century challenges. “The EUM is the direction for the rider and a key ingredient to getting results in the new normal,” he said. He also provided insight into achieving organizational readiness and effective decision-making to accomplish needed changes. “The new normal puts a premium on breaking down silos,” Goehring said.

He spoke of ways to build and integrate cross-functional teams to meet the challenges, and he credited the Clean Water America Alliance and the call for an Integrated National Water Policy as a leading example of stakeholders working together on water industry challenges.

Regional solutions needed

Throughout the conference, much discussion centered on the collaboration needed within the industry to bridge gaps and achieve common goals, such as regional and watershed-based approaches. “If we are going to make progress on our environmental goals, we have to seriously work toward watershed approaches that break down silos,” Kirk said. “We can’t afford anything more.”

Jeffrey Theerman, executive director of Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, was part of a panel discussion on the benefits of regionalization, such as achieving economies of scale, consistent services, and tackling issues that “need regional solutions,” such as water quality. Although he highlighted many of the benefits of regionalization, Theerman was honest about the lessons learned. “I firmly believe regionalization is a good idea,” he said. “It may not be only way to solve a problem, though.”

He offered this advice: “How much economy of scale is enough? Will annexation help? Consider expansion of services vs. expansion of service areas. What position will regulators take?”

All panel members who participated in the discussion emphasized coordination with regulators as a key to regionalization success.

J. Joseph Burgess, president and CEO of Insituform Technologies Inc., discussed the positive trend he sees toward regional and watershed approaches, as well as alternative project delivery, while noting the important role that clean water agencies play — and must continue to play — throughout these changing times as “purveyors of common sense.”

Creating revenue from waste

Additional conference “bright spots” included discussions of resource recovery and creation of new revenue streams.

Faced with rising energy costs, declining revenues and tough economic conditions, Srinivas Jalla, Gwinnett County’s Sustainable Initiative Manager, highlighted how they used a business case evaluation to short-list resource recovery solutions. Jalla provided details as to how cogeneration and a new FOG/HSW facility will provide Gwinnett County with a new revenue stream, reduce its operating costs, including impact of energy prices, and maximize use of existing facilities.

Other presentations focused on “waste as a resource,” including a presentation on mining phosphorus from biosolids as world phosphorus supplies, vital to fertilizing crops and pastureland, diminish at an alarming rate. Reusing wastewater for potable and nonpotable purposes also was discussed as a burgeoning area for municipalities, especially in water-poor regions.

Adapting to climate change

  Confronting Climate Change: An Early Analysis of Water and Wastewater Adaptation Costs

Another featured discussion was on climate change and its effects on water and wastewater utilities. One presentation focused on the findings of a NACWA and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies report, Confronting Climate Change: An Early Analysis of Water and Wastewater Adaptation Costs. The report says that during the next 50 years, as much as $944 billion will be needed for water and wastewater facilities to adapt to climate change.

Speakers described that climate change “will essentially cause the heaviest rains to be heavier and the lighter rains to get lighter.” The impacts and adaptation strategies, such as more storage and conveyance capacity for peaks to water reuse and new reservoirs for lows, were highlighted and are available in the report.

“Climate change is a long-term problem that needs attention today,” said NACWA Director Cynthia Finley. “We’d like to see an increase in interest and an ability to include adaptation planning in overall (water and wastewater) plans.”

More to come

The winter conference was a kickoff to NACWA’s 40th celebration. Even with the many challenges ahead, Kirk pointed out that “one thing does not change, and that is the incredible focus and determination of our members.”

The conference committees will meet again in April at NACWA’s National Environmental Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. The 2010 Summer Conference — Sustainable Resource Management: Lessons from Clean Water’s Past & Present — will be July 20-23 in San Francisco.

The 2012 Winter Conference will take place in Tucson, Ariz., and the 2012 Summer Conference will be in Philadelphia.

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