Embracing Water Resource Recovery with Water Environment Federation’s Dr. Eileen O’Neill

August 3, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Wharton IGEL GE water innovation edition of Green Is Good here in beautiful downtown San Francisco. We are so honored to have with us today Dr. Eileen O’Neill. She is the Executive Director of the Water Environment Federation. Welcome to Green Is Good, Dr. Eileen O’Neill. Eileen O’Neill: Thank you, John. John Shegerian: Eileen, you’re going to speaking later today on a panel. Before we get talking about your thoughts and everything on why water, why today, why California? I’d love you to share a little bit about your journey. How did you get to this position? Was this something that was always on your heart and mind growing up as a young lady, or is this something that happened to you along the way, you learned about the importance of water and our problems with regards to water and you got involved during your journey? Eileen O’Neill: Well, thanks, John. No, I came into water through the Federation. I’m actually an environmental scientist by training. John Shegerian: Oh. Eileen O’Neill: And grew up in the U.K. and was a professor and a consultant there and also a consultant here. I was more working on broader environmental issues but had the good fortune – for a variety of reasons – to join the not-for-profit – the Water Environment Federation – and got into water about 20 years ago and have never looked back. I feel extraordinarily privileged to work in water and to work with water professionals because my organization is sort of like the AMA for water environment engineers and scientists. It’s a professional organization. Water people are different. They have such passion for what they do and such a culture of service so to be able to work with them is really a privilege, and I cannot think of a more exciting time to work in water than right now. So I feel very privileged to be where I am now. John Shegerian: That’s so nice. And before we get talking about today’s events, specifically, share with our listeners and our viewers what you do and what the water environment federation is – WEF. And for our viewers and listeners out there, to learn about more of what they do and Eileen’s great work with her colleagues, please go to www.WEF.org. What is the Water Environment Federation exactly? Eileen O’Neill: Well, the Water Environment Federation – as I said – we’re a professional society for primarily engineers and scientists who work on broad water issues. We were started in 1928 by state organizations and very quickly went international. We had the very glamorous title of being the Federation of Sewage Works Association in 1928, and as you can imagine, that would not be a great name to have today. But the reason we were founded was the recognition that to address our water issues you really need a broad perspective. We were founded to publish a research journal and to organize a conference, and we still do those things today, but our conference has grown to be the largest annual water conference and exhibition in the world and it’s called “WEF Tech.” We still do those things. We also offer a very important platform for water professionals of all stripes – people who work for GE, people who work for EPA, people who work for San Francisco public utilities – to come together first and foremost as professionals to talk about the consensus of the profession on what the most important issues are and how to deal with them and what are appropriate practices. And I would say the other thing that we do now that was not initially thought of when the organization was founded was we work on policy issues and educating the public, and I think that’s a sign that these water issues are so big and so challenging that we can’t just talk to ourselves as professionals, we have to get the policy makers and the public on board if we are going to manage water effectively. John Shegerian: So it’s for scientists, engineers, professionals, policy, everyone can be members of WEF if they so choose. Eileen O’Neill: Yes. And I think that’s one of our strengths and what we try to bring to defining what’s an effective approach or what our stance should be is we always try to get that diversity of perspective. As I said you could work for GE. Our person who is going to be presenting next year works for Coca-Cola. You can be a regulator. But people bring to that their commitment to bring the best in technical practice and the consensus for the profession on policy issues and we think that is the strength of the organization. John Shegerian: And where is your annual conference, the one that is the world’s largest? Eileen O’Neill: It moves between New Orleans and Chicago because it is so large. I know you’re talking to people about equipment. John Shegerian: Right. Eileen O’Neill: And this is some heavy duty equipment. I’m a scientist, and when I first joined the Federation and went to my first WEF Tech, I was just blown away by the enormous pieces of equipment. So our strength of being the largest conference in the world is also a little bit of our challenge in that we need a lot of space, we need a lot of load-bearing capacity so we are limited. John Shegerian: Because you actually show the equipment there that is state-of-the-art, so it is a trade show in many ways. Eileen O’Neill: It is a trade show, a technical exchange, an educational form and initially we picked – for business reasons and for limitations of size – Chicago and New Orleans. But it has ended up being two great locations and very diverse locations to talk about water and the importance of water. You think about the challenges of New Orleans, you think about the water opportunities and what water means to Chicago, they have ended up being great locations to bring global professionals to to talk about water. John Shegerian: That is so wonderful. And that is an annual event, and what month is that typically in? Eileen O’Neill: It’s typically late September or early October. This year it’s in Chicago so we’re expecting it to be especially big because of the amount of population around Chicago and the ability for driving traffic and also what a great international destination. John Shegerian: And how many days is it for? Eileen O’Neill: It is three days of the trade show. John Shegerian: Wow. Eileen O’Neill: But the educational workshops, the technical sessions go for about five days and we will have 1,000 companies and probably over 24,000 attendees at the event. It’s really big. John Shegerian: Wonderful. That’s wonderful and that’s amazing. And again, for our listeners, we’ve got Dr. Eileen O’Neill. She is the Executive Director of the Water Environment Federation – WEF. You can learn more about Eileen’s work with her colleagues at www.WEF.org. Eileen, we’re here today at Wharton IGEL GE and we’re talking about water, innovation, technology. We are here in San Francisco, California, a couple miles away from Silicon Valley. Why water, why now, why right here? What is the importance of all these convergents of the necessity and the sense of urgency that we have to not only talk about it but to act on the talk now? Are we in more dire straits than ever when it comes to water here in California and around the world? And what can we do? Share a little of the problem and the hope. Eileen O’Neill: Certainly. What a fantastic setting to be talking about water. I think the world is watching what is happening in California and what approaches are being taken. So I think California has the opportunity to lead the way. However – and what we’re seeing here in California – are challenges that will ultimately be faced throughout the world given the challenges of growing populations, urbanization, the challenges of climate change so it is a very challenging time to be in water. The opportunity that we have is that it also puts focus on water. And finally we are learning and California is learning, and if you start a conversation with your cab driver or with members of the public here in California, you see an unusual level of awareness not just about water challenges but some of the details of the challenges and the opportunities. So it does give us the possibility of looking at managing water differently. And as you and I were chatting as we warmed up. John Shegerian: Yeah. Eileen O’Neill: It is not a technology problem. We know how to manage water better. We have taken a rather fragmented approach to managing water but if we seize the opportunity to think about a more holistic approach to managing water and we think specifically – obviously being on the water environment side, on the what used to be called “wastewater” side of the house…. John Shegerian: Right. Eileen O’Neill: We do not in my organization consider “wastewater” to be a waste. We consider it to be a resource. A source of water that can be used again. A source that nutrients can be recovered from. A source of embedded energy that renewable energy can be extracted from. So it is a time of challenge but also opportunity. And let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s use the opportunity to increase public awareness and the public’s trust to allow us to take some of these more innovative approaches. John Shegerian: So the innovation exists you’re saying. The technology is there. We need to message more and get it out there which is why you are here and these other great leaders are here today speaking about this important issue of water and technology and innovation. But then where are the push-backs coming? Are they social and political? Are we not just getting people at the table to create public/private partnerships that then can afford these solutions to the communities around the United States and around the world? Where are the challenges? Eileen O’Neill: Well, obviously, when you’re dealing with issues of public health then one really does need to make sure that we answer all of the questions, say, with recycled water if we’re looking to go to a potable reuse situation. But also there is a lot of money involved. You’ve probably heard that our systems are old and some communities have not been able to raise rates to invest so there is a need to connect more with the public and have them understand and be willing to raise the rates to invest. Also I think – you mentioned public/private partnerships – some of these issues require regional solutions and at least on the westward side we have not had a tradition in this country of private investments. So there are a number of institutional barriers, but we are also a relatively risk averse profession. Obviously, we’re dealing with issues of public health and protection of the environment, and we at the Federation are leading some of those conversations about risk management and conversations with regulators about perhaps providing what we would call a little bit of space to innovate. So it’s about what is an appropriate level of risk and who should bear the risk, and then also perhaps a little bit of space within our permits and our other regulatory constraints in terms of the ability for utilities to innovate. John Shegerian: Well, I look forward to our panel later today. I’ll leave you with the last words if you have any last thoughts for our listeners and our viewers before we sign off here on Green Is Good. What would you like to share before we do our panel later today? Eileen O’Neill: I think just that this is an incredibly exciting time to be in water, that we face some incredible challenges – not just here in California and in the U.S but also around the world – but we know how to solve those challenges. It’s an opportunity to innovate, to look at – particularly on the wastewater side – wastewater as a resource. As I said, we do not use the term “wastewater,” we do not use the term “wastewater treatment,” we use the term “water resource recovery” because we believe we operate water resource recovery facilities and that kind of an approach can be an important contribution to solving some of the water challenges. John Shegerian: Thank you so much. And for our listeners and our viewers out there – Water Environment Federation – to learn more about what Eileen and her colleagues are doing and all those innovators and scientists and engineers, please go to www.WEF.org. Eileen O’Neill, you are truly living proof that Green Is Good.