Roles of the Water Worker

As a new decade dawns, the water sector faces several urgent challenges, according to members of the Water Environment Federation House of Delegates (HOD; WEF, Alexandria, Va.). At WEFTEC 2019 in September, the HOD hosted a debate to examine the most pressing of these challenges. Within this forum, delegates focused their attention on climate change, workforce development, communications, and legislation, respectively. Among these discussions, common challenges emerged related to shifting beliefs, awareness, and perception about the water sector — both internally and externally. 

With these challenges identified, opportunities emerge for water sector individuals to make positive change. Successful water workers already exhibit technical proficiency in their disciplines; taking on additional roles as recruiters, scientists, communicators, and advocates will help lead the sector today and into the future. 

The Recruiter 

“The fundamental and most pressing element facing our water industry is the need to develop, recruit, and train people interested in a career in operations,” said James Barsanti, Director of Water and Wastewater for the City of Framingham, Mass. Barsanti is a delegate from the New England Water Environment Association. 

The water sector needs to “inspire the next generation of workers to bring our water industry forward with innovative and cost-effective solutions,” he said. 

But numbers alone aren’t enough, Barsanti explained. Water jobs are “a vocation that requires a special type of person, one who is willing to develop, hone, and dedicate his or her skills on a daily basis to effectively and reliably operating and maintaining constantly changing and complex drinking water and clean water systems.” 

He continued, water workers “must also be ready and willing to react on demand as a first responder during unplanned and unexpected events and emergencies on a 24/7/365 basis, similar to our colleagues in public safety and the health industry.” 

Ultimately, he said, each member of the water sector needed to dedicate part of their daily efforts to workforce development and the sector is stepping up efforts to recruit and retain talent. 

Some examples of these effort include the following: 

  • Develop outreach at all educational levels from elementary through college to challenge and inspire young people to consider how important water is to our planet and our daily lives and to consider any of its many vocations as a career path. 
  • Target vocational high schools and colleges that provide training for such vital trades as mechanical, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and computer technology that are the basic skills needed by water and wastewater operators; 
  • Emphasize existing programs to connect water sector members with local and state labor boards to create awareness of job opportunities with veterans who are completing their service and are ready to enter the workforce. Veterans are highly trained, competent, and mission focused; they make ideal candidates to transfer those skills to the water sector. 
  • Foster programs that help develop, recruit, and train people interested in a career in the water sector and especially in operations. Barsanti pointed to BAYWORK from the San Francisco area, which is this type of program and is comprised of 33 agencies working together. The BAYWORK program provides a tremendous template for others to use as a model to develop and tailor their own program. 

The Scientist 

Water workers are on the front lines. They interact with the public and need to serve as scientific authorities on water issues, according to Dave Galbraith, Electrical Manager for Sansom Equipment (Nova Scotia, Canada). Galbraith is a delegate from the Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association. 

People doubt or do not understand the existence of climate change, and they doubt its severity, Galbraith said. In some cases, misinformation has increased confusion and hobbled education needed to begin moving toward a solution. 

“Some politicians want you to think [climate change is] a myth — like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus,” he said. Combating these misinformed or intentionally misleading statements will require the sector to provide clear and logical information. 

Water sector workers need to understand and trust the science to educate the public, Galbraith said. 

“The water on this earth doesn’t leave the planet, it just moves around in very strange ways,” Galbraith said. “Human activities are having an adverse effect on the water cycle and we are creating this issue of climate change.” 

He explained that these changes — drought one year, flooding the next, and rarely the light and steady rains that used to prevail — are inflicting a beating on infrastructure. He pointed to the increasingly frequent examples of hurricanes wreaking havoc on New Orleans, the Carolina, and the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coasts. 

“Climate change is not about what any person believes,” Galbraith said. “It’s what is actually happening.”   

The Communicator 

Water workers also need to step outside the sector and share simple conversations with the public. This communication goes beyond sharing the science to include understanding the public’s situation, said Steve Drangsholt, NW Infrastructure Market Sales Leader in the Boise, Idaho, office for Brown and Caldwell (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Drangsholt is a delegate from the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association. 

Water sector workers must recognize customers are everyday people bombarded with advertising. 

The water sector needs to keep its audience in mind and “stop communicating like it’s for us; it’s for them,” he said. “We have to compete with all the other messages being blasted at our communities, so it needs to be simple, focused, and action oriented.” 

Drangsholt said water scientists, technologists, and operators are very good at talking among their peers. However, using jargon to share these messages widely has created a barrier to engagement, Drangsholt argued.  

“Our messaging too often reflects technology, equipment, and abstract concepts that are tough for the general public to understand,” Drangsholt said. “If we have any hope of transforming our communities to be resistant and resilient, we must communicate to people. It’s about Patricia not about pipes. It’s about Michael, not about microbes.” 

Connecting with the public, will mean considering what they see, how they see it, and what it means to them, Drangsholt said. 

“You don’t buy a Coke product because it shows you the chemical formula of the syrup added to water,” he explained. “You buy a Coke because you want to smile like the people drinking a Coke on screen or in print.” 

He explained that communication is a discipline just like project management, design, and other technical disciplines and called for the water sector to put the same emphasis on these skills are technical ones. Drangsholt issues three challenges for the water sector. First, he urged individuals to take a communications training and put the skills to use to work. Second, he appealed to conference planners to include more of this type of training in water sector events. Third, he implored the water sector to reframe how it views the public. 

“The worst thing we can do is call our customers ‘ratepayers,’” Drangsholt said. “Our customers are our community, not a source of income. Don’t reduce their value to dollars signs.” 

The Advocate 

Water workers also need to raise their voices individually to elected leaders, according to Susan Sullivan, Executive Director at New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (Lowell, Mass.). Sullivan is a delegate-at-large. 

“I believe our advocacy efforts need to change,” she said. “We need to be more visible to the public and our elected officials. They need to be more aware of our clean water circumstances and the fiscal resources necessary to improve these situations.” 

She explained that being seen and heard by the public and legislators spur action. She pointed to the hot topics of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and lead contamination in the Flint, Mich., drinking water supply to illustrate her point. 

“Both issues received public attention and federal money because the public was unwavering in its opinion that these environmental circumstances were unacceptable,” Sullivan said. “The water workforce needs to be more visible to the public and our elected officials.” 

The Clean Water Act, which became law 47 years ago, has been successful at protecting public health and improving environmental impacts. Now, Sullivan said, it’s time for a change. She explained her perspective that the U.S. needs a new Clean Water Act to address 21st century challenges. “The old one has been extraordinary – but we need an upgrade,” she said. 

“Numerous threats remain, including climate change resiliency, aging infrastructure and rising cost, nutrients, contaminants of emerging concern and nonpoint source pollution,” she said. So far, though, clean water advocates have not found a champion for CWA revision or reauthorization. Sullivan believes the reason is that this need has not been elevated in importance. 

She said, “our most pressing threat to water in the next decade is clean water advocates past communication practices and acceptance of the status quo.” 

Sullivan called on the 35,000 individual members of WEF to act: “Who do you think these officials appreciate hearing from? Some national organization that typically wants something or their local constituents who elected them?” 

“I challenge all of you to individually contact the person you voted for — hired — to represent you in your congressional district,” she said. “Tell them we need a new Clean Water Act – one that considers water-quality-based watershed solutions (point and nonpoint source); diverse funding opportunities; and coordination of drinking water, clean water and stormwater efforts.”