In advance of this year’s WEFTEC conference, Eileen O’Neill, executive director of the Water Environment Federation, took time to talk about the challenges that the federation faces, what participants can expect at this year’s conference, and their time-saving WEFTEC app.

SEPT. 29, 2014

The opening general session at WEFTEC 2014 will focus on "Embracing Change in a Disruptive Age." Tell us about the changes WEF is facing and the steps you are taking to innovate and lead differently compared to the past.
Since WEF exists to serve the water profession and sector, many of the changes we need to address or react to are actually those faced by our members. I am thinking of things like financial pressures and multiple priorities, such as the need to meet increasingly stringent regulations and also the need to replace or upgrade aging infrastructure, while at the same time responding to climate change and population growth and shifts. Of course, WEF's role is to ensure that we provide the best educational offerings and forums for professionals to identify and share best practices to meet these challenges and changes.

As an organization in the information business and with a model that historically has relied on the ability of our member experts to contribute their time and expertise, WEF is also facing operational and strategic changes. In the future, WEF will be honing its focus and identifying where and how we can best contribute. This will require us to apply business approaches while maintaining the sense of volunteer ownership that makes us so much more than a business. Fortunately, by using business analytics and data, we can foster greater understanding of where we are going, what we need to do to get there, and how we will know when we have arrived.

Certainly, while things have changed since I joined WEF more than 20 years ago, water professionals still place high value on information developed through WEF's robust consensus and peer-review process, and we'll continue to find new models to develop and synthesize high-quality, globally informed technical information. We also need to continue to offer new, high-quality engagement opportunities, like those available at WEFTEC.

Thinking about your members and the water sector in general, what do you see as the big changes or innovations needed in the near future?
I see the sector increasingly moving to recover energy and other resources from wastewater; also the lines are continuing to blur between different kinds of water resources surface water, stormwater, wastewater and so forth. Clearly, the role of the water utility in many communities is changing, and I expect to see water increasingly recognized for the key role it plays in community vitality and health. As a result, I look forward to seeing utilities becoming more visible partners with the communities they serve.

We will also see more hybrid systems — rather than the either/or of centralized vs. decentralized approaches. All of this will require an unprecedented level of engagement with elected leaders, customers and other stakeholders. We will also see increasing collaboration between utilities and also between the public and private sectors. WEF is especially pleased to be working with WERF (the Water Environment Research Foundation) to foster collaboration between utilities and also to decrease barriers to innovation.

Finally, I expect us to be taking the long view with respect to our systems; considering how long they may be in place and also the changes that may occur during their working life. We will be having more conversations, I think, about resilient and flexible designs.

What would you most like BC Water News readers to know about this year's WEFTEC?
WEFTEC has long been North America's largest and, I would argue, most important water event in terms of access to and quality of water knowledge and thinking. Over the last few years, it has become an event with global significance. Last year, we had a record number of registrants and also a record number of participants from outside the United States. We think this is a benefit to our domestic as well as our international participants.

This year, we will again be showcasing thought leadership from around the world, as well as the best in technology, and we expect to break past records for the size of the exhibition. While we are proud to be the biggest annual water quality conference and exhibition in the world, our goal is also to provide the best value in terms of impact and customer experience.

Those who have not visited New Orleans recently, I think, will find the local discussions around water and resilience very interesting. We believe New Orleans is a great place to have conversations about water, to build our skills and to think about the future of water management. While we are reaching across the country and indeed around the world to bring the best and brightest to New Orleans, we are also connecting with our host city, and its water challenges and opportunities.

If you are reading BC Water News, you are probably someone who would have an incredible learning and growth experience at WEFTEC.

WEFTEC is a big conference with a lot of action and activities to choose from. What advice would you give attendees about how best to use their time?

I'd suggest they check out the WEFTEC Mobile App, where they can browse sessions, workshops and events by topic, speaker and date; build a WEFTEC onsite schedule; see the latest WEFTEC 2014 programming and news updates; plan visits with WEFTEC exhibitors, and more. WEFTEC Mobile is a great way to help attendees get the most from their WEFTEC experience.

WEF recently announced a dues increase for 2015, specifically citing a "gap between WEF's dues and the actual value of membership benefits." Where should BC Water News readers go for additional information on this topic, and what comment do you have about why WEF is taking this step?
Historically, WEF member dues have been very low compared to other national and international associations for water professionals, and they'll still be comparatively low after the increase. We needed to close the gap in order to meet our commitment to the water quality profession and provide new services sought by our members. The monies raised by the dues increase will be directly invested in additional services and programs.

What attracted you to the water industry?
Actually, I found the water sector through WEF. I am an environmental scientist by training with a background in fate and transport, and was working in corporate environmental support and with Superfund projects before coming to what was then the Water Pollution Control Federation, or WPCF.

I was familiar with the organization from my grad school days and was intrigued when I saw the ad for someone to work on the Federation's industrial program. Once I got here, I was soon hooked. If I had to put my finger on one thing that has kept me at WEF and working in the water field, it's the people. Water professionals are different and it's been a pleasure and a privilege to spend so much of my career working among them.

What advice do you have for young professionals?
Get active in WEF or your local member association, where you can connect with and learn from some of the brightest minds in water and participate in shaping our vision for water. Being active in WEF or one of its associations can also provide the opportunity to work on your soft skills.

I have talked a lot about water challenges and opportunities, but typically the technical solution is the easier (if not the easy) part. As much as technical know-how, our future water leaders will need unprecedented communication and collaboration skills.

As Sue Murphy, CEO of the Water Corporation of Western Australia, puts it, water managers need to "listen more" rather than leading with the solutions first. This can be a challenge for engineers who think in terms of providing a solution.

What do you do for fun or in your spare time?
I love to travel, preferably with my family. In fact, I am just back from an incredible trip to Vietnam with my husband and eldest daughter. My parents were originally from Dublin, and my extended family, including my mother and siblings, are all still in London or Ireland, so I make fairly frequent trips across the Atlantic. I also like to work out, read and garden.

For additional information about WEF dues, readers can call the members service team (703) 684-2400, Ext. 7052, for Jessica LaFever, Manager Membership/Customer Relations; Ext. 7420 for Wade Riess, Senior Director Membership/Customer Relations, or check with their local WEF Member Association.


Eileen O'Neill

Name: Eileen O'Neill

Title: Executive Director, Water Environment Federation

Background: WEF is an international organization of more than 36,000 water quality professionals headquartered in Alexandria, Va.

Most recently WEF's deputy executive director, O'Neill has worked with the federation for more than 20 years in a variety of positions, including with responsibility for oversight of WEF's technical, international, and communications programs. She also served as the organization's chief technical officer before becoming deputy executive director in late 2011.

Before joining WEF, she worked as an academic and in environmental consulting in the United States and in Europe.

She has a B.S. in Soil Science from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (U.K.) and a Ph.D. in Soil Science from the University of Aberdeen (U.K.). She undertook a postdoctoral traineeship in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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