Theresa Connor, who is heading up the Water Environment Research Foundation's efforts in the arena of Integrated Water Management, recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell Vice President Sarah Reeves to talk about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, and how volleyball relates to the water sector.

NOV. 11, 2014

How did you get your start and what advice would you offer to someone starting in the water industry today?
Even before I went to engineering school or I knew I wanted to go to engineering school, I worked on the survey crews for a small, local engineering firm in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a good fit because I have a farming background, and they needed someone who could traverse fences and deal with cows while they were doing the first statewide GIS aerial mapping. At that time, it took an entire van of equipment to go GPS locating, and now you can just do it with your cell phone. So I was fortunate that I got started at the very entry levels, doing the field work. This helped me when I went into consulting, and worked with the plant and field crews a lot. I would encourage anyone who is starting out to take every advantage to do that grunt work and embrace it and learn the fundamentals because I think it really enabled me to make better decisions.

You were the Director of Environmental Utilities for Sarasota County for about 13 years. What would you say was your greatest accomplishment in that role?
The Integrated Water initiative. In Sarasota County we were in critical need of a long-term water supply, we were facing a water shortage, and we were also facing large issues with impaired waters and the whole numeric nutrient criteria focus that was going on in Florida at the time. What we were able to do is take an integrated approach, creating a long-term water supply plan while we were addressing impaired waters and restoring the health of one of the most impacted estuaries in that community. By developing the water management system, where we were storing excess water that had been ditched and drained to an estuary and was causing problems there, we were able to develop a 15 million gallon-a-day water supply. That reservoir is going to be built over time because it isnít needed right away, and in the meantime it can also be used as a cover for the landfill.

By really looking broadly at the challenges and what we faced, and bringing multiple perspectives together, we were able to develop projects that really delivered a lot of bang for the buck to the community. It was really difficult to get the natural resources and the solid waste and the stormwater and the water supply folks in agreement and in coherence while navigating the various regulations and financing and community aspects of these kind of projects, so when you sit back and look at it now, you say, ďWow, we did that.Ē

Then, about a year ago, you joined WERF. What attracted you to WERF?
Oh my gosh, the staff and the subscribers and the volunteers at WERF are just amazing. You know, you get to work with some incredibly talented people every day who consistently motivate and educate me on these topics. And for me, I got the chance to work on the Integrated Water Management challenge, which is a passion of mine. There is so much opportunity for advancement in the water sector by working together and taking this approach, and including the unusual suspects, because we are working with the ag and the textile industries as well, so the ability to work on this topic at this level, the national and international level, is kind of like a dream come true.

Since joining WERF, tell me about your biggest ďah-haĒ moment.
I knew it before but what has really been solidified in my mind is the power of the local governments. Thatís really where our greatest capacity is to lead our water sector. You just canít look to the federal government for all your solutions. I think they are a part of the solution, but I think the real leadership will come at the local level. That creates opportunities and potential and is pretty exciting.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for WERF?
For one, I think the research industry kind of has to be relentless in its efforts to be relevant to the future and current challenges of the water industry.

WERF has been instrumental in helping the water industry really advance from a collect, treat and dispose system, to a collect, treat and recover system. We are recovering nutrients, recovering energy and recovering high-quality water. There is still a great deal of research thatís needed at plants to optimize these resource recovery options, but I think that one of the greatest challenges and opportunities is moving outside the plants and the pipes to look at partnerships. The science is really critical because the decisions are getting more complex, so you have to understand the variability and the context of your decisions.

What do you think are the greatest challenges on the horizon for wastewater and stormwater utilities over the next 30 years?
I guess I would say three. One, I think we have to transition the utility service from being an invisible service. Iíve had a number of operational managers tell me that as long as the community doesnít know they are there, they are doing their job. I think we need to challenge that thinking and make the utility service something the community really values and has confidence in and trusts. I think we have to become visible to our communities, which means they need to understand us and we need to understand them. One of the first things I would suggest is we need to look at the vocabulary we use, because even the words ďstormwaterĒ and ďwastewaterĒ are harsh. We need to use terms that people can relate to more.

Secondly, I think we need to shift our thinking from this being a disposal issue. As an industry, what if we could imagine a world without waste? Would we approach our work differently? Would we approach our system planning and design differently? Because thatís how the natural systems work, so we need to see wastewater and stormwater as important resources for our communities and our natural systems.

I think the third challenge is the need to be more adaptable with our system planning and design, because we plan and design with a static world in mind. Our world is changing, at least our climate is changing, and so the future is more uncertain. We can spend all of our time arguing over what the predictions say, or we can figure out how to make our systems adaptable.

Tell me about what you think are the most exciting advancements WERF is working on now to meet those future challenges.
Well, weíve really had two, and they go hand in hand. We are working on the LIFT program, which is a WEF/WERF partnership, to advance the adoption of innovation and new technology and it is evaluating new technologies and pilot testing them. That program just generates a lot of excitement and itís great to see people getting involved and taking part.

The other one is a bit less sexy but very much needed. Itís really looking at the institutional issues or barriers in moving toward an Integrated Water Management paradigm. Innovation is the kind of bling that we are all attracted to, but we get frustrated when we canít get there, and the institutional issues are the barriers we need to get around to advance these technologies.

Here's an analogy: I play a lot of volleyball and everyone likes the big hits and blocks, but no one likes to focus on the daily exercise regime you need to make those big hits and blocks. So for the water sector, the technology is really like that bling or that big hit you want to make, but the institutional issues are those daily regimes you need to do in order to get to the big hits.

Regarding this ďOne WaterĒ approach, or Integrated Water Management, how do you think this might help address challenges that WERF members might face in the future?
Well I think that it depends on the member, because our challenges are going to vary. The only silver bullet approaches that I know of for meeting our challenges are creativity and resourcefulness.

There is no silver bullet technology that I see being developed, but I think there is no doubt that most of us will not be able to meet our communityís water challenges without working in partnerships. The complexity of the issues is just becoming too great. Now that you can carry your phone and your calendar and your music and your camera and your computer and your GPS system all in one device, our society is expecting more integration.

While I was Utility Director, at community meetings the audience would always ask about water supply and flood protection and wetland issues because they wanted to know how it related. They donít see it as something different. At times, the speaker and the audience left frustrated because the speaker couldnít get their points across, and the audience felt like they werenít listened to and their questions werenít answered. I think our water system doesnít recognize our boundaries and our communities donít respect the artificial boundaries that the industry has made. So for us to be successful, we need to start responding to that, and really look at integrated approaches.

What do you see as the greatest opportunities for Integrated Water Management?
I think Integrated Water initiatives will make the most progress where there are the largest water crises because otherwise there is not always a sense of urgency in overcoming the barriers. As the dry areas get drier, the need to break down the barriers for adequate supplies is really essential. There is a need to find novel solutions, which will take an integrated approach. Honestly, discharges from our water reclamation plants are one of the largest sources of high-quality water in the U.S. for potential potable and non-potable uses. In some areas, we canít afford to overlook this resource as a waste discharge.

Beyond that, I think there is great opportunity to work with the community planners to integrate water issues into our community planning process and discussions. In general, the planning professions have a strong understanding of the transportation industry issues, but not always the water issues. Building a shared understanding between these two professions, so that water is integrated into that process, and not an afterthought for community development, will be critical.

What hurdles do think will be the hardest to overcome in making One Water a reality, more globally? And then, how would avoid or resolve that issue, if you were queen for a day?
I want to be queen for like two or three days!

I think a shared vision is essential for the integrated water initiative to succeed. This is where I think vocabulary gets in our way, because we are all so busy and steeped in our own vocabulary of acronyms and terms that it can make the discussions just so difficult and frustrating. Itís almost like we needed Google to develop a translator for Integrated Water discussions. Iím not criticizing anyone because itís one of my own weaknesses, so this is what I would change about myself too.

So if I were queen for a day, I guess I would ask that we all speak with the intention of being understood, instead of just speaking and expecting people to understand us. Either that or I would ask for the ability to implant chips into peopleís brains so that we could get to that shared vision quicker.

What opportunities are there for subscribers to get involved with WERF?
We are always looking for volunteers. WERF loves to have subscribers involved and I think we get so much from not only the man hours, but the insight the subscribers bring to their research teams. Itís just essential.

What are your thoughts on WERFís next chapter?
Itís kind of a wide open road at this point, I think we have a very strong foundation to build upon, our very successful 25-year history. Iím excited about the opportunities and Iím confident that our board will consider the options in their usual thoughtful manner, but I will wait to see whatís really determined to be the next chapter.

Speaking of chapters and to round this out on a personal note, what are you reading these days?
Besides reading research reports, and the opponents on the volleyball court, I always have a few books in play. I just finished David Sedlackís "Water 4.0," which is really good at making the case for decentralized systems and Iím hoping to steal some of his concepts. Now Iím finishing "The Founding Gardeners." Having just moved to the D.C. area, you really canít go to Mount Vernon or Monticello without realizing how much food security has always played an issue in policy making. And I always have a Christopher Buckley book available for comic relief for when things just get a little too out of hand. I think I read "Thank You for Smoking" at least twice a year, for therapy. Itís like my self-help book.

 



Name: Theresa Connor

Title: Water Environment Research Foundation Research Program Director

Background: She joined WERF nearly a year ago after 13 years at Sarasota County, Fla., where she served as the Water Resources General Manager and Utility Director managing the water, wastewater, reclaimed water, stormwater, and solid waste utilities and natural resources program.

Prior to Sarasota, she was a consultant in the Midwest assisting communities with operational plans for their combined sewer systems and other wet weather issues.

Connor has a Masters of Environmental Engineering from Iowa State University and a MBA from Webster University.

She has served as the president of the Florida Stormwater Association and the Sarasota County Science and Environment Council.

At WERF, Connor is managing the Stormwater and Decentralized Systems challenge areas and the Sustainable Integrated Water Management challenge that includes looking at Institutional Issues to Green Gray Infrastructure, Land Use planning considerations, Green Infrastructure Issues and On-Site Water Systems.



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