October 28, 2009
10 minutes with Christie True
CHRISTIE TRUE has been at the forefront of wastewater treatment in the Pacific Northwest
for 25 years. She graciously answers a few questions from Steffran Neff of Brown and Caldwell.
Name: Christie True
Title: Director, King County (Wash.) Wastewater Treatment Division
Background: Christie has served as director of King County's Wastewater Treatment Division since 2007. She is a 25-year employee of the county and previously served as the manager of the Wastewater Treatment Division's Major Capital Improvement Program. She has successfully overseen a $250 million annual budget that includes construction on the county's $1.8 billion Brightwater Treatment Plant. WTD provides wastewater collection and treatment to 17 cities, 17 sewer districts and more than 1.5 million residents in three counties in Washington State.
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What drew you to a career in wastewater treatment?
Christie True: I had a biology teacher in high school that had the class study water quality and sampling. As part of the class, I studied a creek downstream of a wastewater treatment plant. This experience got me interested in environmental science and water/wastewater treatment. My degree is in Environmental Science from Huxley College, which is the environmental studies school within Western Washington University. While at Huxley I had an internship at the Post Point Treatment Plant in Bellingham. After college I continued to work there for four years and then went to work at Metro’s environmental lab. Metro merged with King County in the 1990s and I have worked in the wastewater program the entire time.
Did you career evolve as you thought
True: Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have said “I will be the director of the wastewater treatment division.” I just took advantage of opportunities as they arrived and grew into the people management side of the business.
How has the industry changed since
True: First, I think it has gotten more diverse both in gender and ethnicity. Second, I have seen the industry become more technology driven. In the beginning we didn’t have many computer systems, now we have control systems in place to manage operations and collect real-time data. Another big switch is the “waste to resources” concept (creating biosolids, reclaimed water and energy from the wastewater treatment process). This is much more prevalent now. Finally, the industry has to be more financially self-sufficient now. In the beginning there was a lot of state and federal money to rely on. Now we are on our own in maintaining and making the necessary upgrades to our infrastructure.
Do you see challenges with maintaining the industry workforce?
True: There were a lot of people getting into wastewater treatment in the '70s on the heals of the Clean Water Act. There was a lot of interest then and therefore there are a lot of people in their 50s currently making up the work force today.
What would bring people back
in the field?
True: Wastewater is a “green” industry. Young people are interested in green jobs. We should be out talking about the industry that way. We need
to get out to different audiences and also promote the study of the environment and science in schools. We look for opportunities to educate the public. We bring approximately 3,000 kids a year through the treatment plants, basically opening up the door to help kids understand how their “poop gets treated.”
Where do you see the industry moving forward? What are the opportunities
True: We as an industry have been successful at convincing people to stay away from sewage so that people were happy that the waste was taken away; out of sight, out of mind. Now we need to rethink our message and get the public engaged around “waste as a resource."
The other area I see moving forward is Asset Management. Everyone is currently doing something related to better utility asset management. The industry is aware of financial constraints and looming refurbishment and replacement needs. It is a big challenge. Utilities will make themselves financially sound to meet the upcoming needs through good Asset Management.
What do you like to do in your free time?
True: I like to be busy. My philosophy is “work hard, play hard.” I travel, garden, and herd sheep with my dogs. I don’t actually own sheep, but train and take my dogs, an
Australian shepherd and a Border collie, out to farms to herd sheep.
Herding sheep? Have you been able
to pull that into your leadership style?
True: Actually, yes. I have a book, “The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People" by Dr. Kevin Leman and William Pentak. It has provided me useful ideas on how I can be a better leader through the metaphor of being a shepherd.
What would be one thing that you would hope to have as your legacy?
True: I love this question. The one thing I really want to leave is a legacy of strong leaders in the organization. I hope this legacy is sustained as a priority. I feel that if you have good leaders you can get everything else. You can have the best employees in the world, but without strong leadership you cannot reach the highest levels of performance.