Melissa Meeker, executive director at WateReuse Association, recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell Vice President Cindy Paulson to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the organization and the future of reuse in the United States. In the coming weeks, BC Water News will be interviewing leaders from each of the research organizations to gain their perspectives on Integrated Water Management.
SEPT. 23, 2014

You've been a leader in the water industry for many years. How did you get your start?
I actually started in marine biology and fisheries biology, so that was an interesting way to start but I quickly realized that without getting my PhD, I wouldn't be able to buy groceries. So I switched to environmental and water policy, and regulatory side.

Now that you've been in your new position as executive director for WateReuse for several months, what have you found to be most exciting in this new role?
Meeting new people. Each individual I meet has so much to offer — a little nuance or a new little tidbit, a new piece of history, or a new creative idea. That's really been the best part to me, starting to build those relationships that, frankly, could change our industry as a whole in this collaborative way.

What is your vision for the next chapter of WateReuse?
I see our next chapter as having three key areas of focus. The first is reuse leadership, helping to drive and create good policies on a national and state level. Also focusing funding on implementing of alternative water supply developments — things that create new water.

The second is leading the development of educational and outreach tools that address the public perception challenges. I think that’s going to be a huge focus for us going forward.

The third, of course, is driving the applied research that ensures reuse is a safe, reliable, cost-effective resource.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities?
I think our biggest challenge and opportunity is building alliances, and working together with the ultimate goal of wide acceptance and implementation of reuse.

When you consider the One Water realm, reuse clearly has a spot whether you're talking about domestic or industrial or stormwater — any kind of reuse. It's all been reused several times anyway! And we just need to think collectively about how we can best implement projects that are cost-effective but also provide for a local need.

How do you see reuse water contributing to future water supply in the U.S.?
Does reuse have a role in future water supplies? I would say it's essential to future water supplies. One of our biggest challenges is to overcome the public perception, which is why we have started to put a very strong focus on public awareness and educational outreach.

You said that reuse is essential. How do you actually see reuse water contributing to the U.S. water supply in the future?
When you look at the history of water, we have the same amount of water now that we did when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It doesn't fly in from the sky, from the atmosphere — we have our water cycle and it's reused. It just goes around and around in that cycle. As we begin to recognize and publicly acknowledge that we can't afford to use water just once and dispose of it, then reuse really becomes new water for the system.

When you look at Western water laws, it's all about conveying water from one spot to another, but reuse is actually giving you new acre-feet locally. I think that new water supply is going to help us. Conservation is obviously a critical action we must take, but that has to be followed by actually increasing the water supply. And that’s reuse.

What do you think will lead to some of the greatest advances specific to potable reuse over the near term?
When you look at all of the research organizations, we're all focused on the resiliency, redundancy, and reliability of our treatment processes. I think that research is going to go a long way.

I think we have some opportunities to borrow ideas from other industries. When you think about real-time monitoring of a system, there are certain facilities that we know are monitored as much as you can — like a nuclear facility for example. If you can modify and apply some of those technologies to what we're trying to do in the treatment process I think that would go a long way toward furthering the progress.

But I think the biggest thing we can do is address our public perception issues and get people to actually value water for what it's really worth. When people value water and begin to think of it as a piece of sustainability, which they have grasped wholeheartedly, people will understand the need for reuse.

Water is a local issue. Some places will do potable reuse, some places will focus on agriculture, some places may do environmental restoration. Water is just so local, but we still need to get people to value it and that's one of our biggest hurdles right now.

What do you see as the greatest opportunities in Integrated Water Management?
As our water challenges become more apparent, we'll have no choice but to look at things in an integrated way. When you say reuse, you could be referring to domestic wastewater, stormwater, rain catchment water, or industrial process water — using that over and over again.

The reality is, our water challenge in each area is different and we've got to begin to think about how the system, different processes, and the needs of the community fit together in a more integrated way. It's essential that we do it. It's going to happen.

We have a responsibility as an industry to make sure that when we design or talk about a project that we think about how it fits in the entire system.

What is your perspective on the challenges to IWM?
It's just like anything else where you're getting people and agencies to think about something besides themselves and the way they've always done things. People demand change and improvement until they realize that change is difficult and then they don't want to do it.

It's challenging the way our systems are set up with one agency doing drinking water and one agency doing wastewater, with stormwater fitting in as another issue. We also have water quality and quantity issues. We need to step back and look at it from a much higher level because it’s really hard when you're just trying to put out the fire of today.

It’s getting people to think about things differently. The first challenge of that is just getting people to sit down and have an open dialogue where you can brainstorm and think about things differently. We're all so focused on our individual missions but we've got to convene people who can be leaders and get them to talk about a way to make the future better.

Any ideas about how research associations might collaborate around IWM?
You’re always going to have research driven by the needs of your clients and customers. Our subscribers have certain interests in certain things that they're trying to do on a day-to-day basis. How does the research organization step back from that?

Maybe it's that we get together and talk about things and we set aside a portion of our research dollars to focus on bigger policy issues and work jointly on those initiatives. But I don't think we'll ever do away with specific projects that our subscribers are asking for and need.

That's an area where it might be a different kind of group that pulls those research agencies in to think about the bigger picture. Maybe that's a good role for the EPA on the innovation blueprint, for example, to sit us all down together and talk about the future.

From my perspective, the research organizations need to figure out the similarities and the differences that we're currently focused on as organizations. How do we better coordinate to ensure that our research is not competing with each other, but actually building upon each other? The ultimate goal is not for an association or research foundation to be the biggest with the most projects. The ultimate goal is to further the industry and to use our water resources sustainably.

It is about how can we, as organizations, better work together and cooperate to meet that goal so that we're meeting the interests of our individual subscribers and members while also advancing the water industry in the direction of sustainability.

Looking forward, what is your vision for the future of WateReuse and what would you most like to accomplish while in your leadership there?
It's a wider acceptance of reuse. That drives our research to answer safety questions for the public. It drives our advocacy and outreach campaigns for increasing public awareness. It drives us to pull together leaders to have serious discussions about what the future should look like. In the end, it's sustainable water resources.

I would love to see an aspirational goal come out of the administration, something where states could take that goal and use it to model their legislation. And I would like to see public perception get to the point where the public acknowledges that water is important and it has value.

How can your subscribers help to advance IWM?
If we're going to change the future we need to keep doing demonstration projects, we need to keep having those policy discussions. And we need to have General Managers sharing their stories among GMs, talking to their counterparts in the region on ways that they can work together and get out of their comfort zones. And we need them to set the research agenda so that as the foundations go forward they can understand the priorities and we can work together to make that happen.

I really think that future funding is going to look at multi-use projects, which gets back to integrated water management. For example, can a reservoir serve multiple purposes and help the region or community as a whole address their water supply needs? Whether that's environmental, human or industrial.

What are your plans for WEFTEC?
One of the things that has been a challenge for us is that the public doesn't understand how reuse fits into their life right now. They understand the water cycle because they learned it in the third grade but they don't understand the urban water cycle and how the system actually works. As I stare out at the Potomac River, there's a nice portion of that coming from upstream that's wastewater. And then it goes downstream and it's picked up by somebody else. These systems that we all deal with, it's that very common but unacknowledged reuse of water that we're really trying to highlight.

So how do we get that message out there? One of the ideas that we had was to really celebrate water and celebrate views in our system as we're dealing with them today in ways that people don't think about. So we're planning this event the day before WEFTEC starts, on Sunday, called the "One Water Gala." We're going to bring in avocados, lettuce, artichokes, beef, dairy products, wine and beer from Oregon. The entire meal will focus on products that have been touched in one way or another by reuse, by reclaimed water.

The focus will be on having those farmers talk about how they took a chance, frankly, with taking reused water when they may not have had a choice. The vintners will be talking about how reused water has really saved their crop. Celebrating these products will begin to expose the issue to the public and help them understand the benefits. I'm really excited about it and we've gotten some great feedback about the gala.

Before the gala, there will also be a media workshop. We can plan the best project in the world, but an uninformed, confused, or scared public can kill that project in no time. One of the things that we also thought would be very important at WEFTEC is reaching out to media around the country and giving them that baseline knowledge of the urban water cycle, of facts behind reuse so that they're not caught flat-footed when an innovative project is proposed.

One of the best ways that we can help our members is by helping educate their media so that when they do come out with a great project, at least the media and public is able to understand the complexities of the system and why the water is important.


Name: Melissa Meeker

Title: Executive director at WateReuse Association

Background: Meeker is a seasoned water executive with more than 20 years of experience in both the public and private sectors, with a broad range of expertise that includes regulatory issues, policy development, and executive management.

She previously served as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District and as deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with responsibility for overseeing statewide water and environmental restoration policy.

Meeker has a master's degree in environmental resource management from Florida Institute of Technology.

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