The AI Interview: Tom Kunetz, President, Water Environment Federation

W.E.F. President Tom Kunetz addresses the water workforce, technology, and the annual WEFTEC conference

American Infrastructure Magazine: What has the guiding focus been for Water Environment Federation (W.E.F.) this year?

Tom Kunetz: In the water sector, there are a number of issues we’re dealing with, like aging infrastructure, emerging contaminants, and water resiliency, but the overarching thing that connects all of these is a water workforce that can tackle these issues.

We are facing the baby boomer retirement coming up soon and large numbers of people leaving the workforce. So, probably the overarching thing we’ve been focusing on is getting that talented workforce of the future – that next generation that’s going to be talented, diverse, and creative – that’s going to be able to step up and tackle all of those big problems.

 

AI: How can programs like the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP) help improve our stormwater management systems?

TK: As you know, our climate is changing from what we’ve become accustomed to, and some parts of the country are getting very intense rainstorms. So, green infrastructure coupled with grey infrastructure is going to be helping and be a big part of the solution. But green infrastructure is not just a pile of grass. It’s a living technology and it needs to be properly designed, constructed, and maintained. So what the NGICP is doing is providing that high level of training so that they have the proper implementation of that technology so that it has the greatest chance of success.

The other great thing about the NGICP program is that it’s also a job builder. It provides entry-level job opportunities for folks who actually step up and do something in their communities with jobs in building, designing, and maintaining infrastructure.

 

AI: What kinds of advocacy efforts are the W.E.F. involved in to help improve water security?

TK: First of all, we can’t understate the importance of water security, because water security is national security. There are a number of threats to water security like climate change, overdevelopment, and even the politics of water.

WEF is in support of water reuse projects, and what we call super purpose water. That means taking effluent from a water resource recovery facility and treating it to the proper level for its intended use, like agriculture irrigation or industrial cooling, manufacturing, and then at the highest level, drinking water.

WEF also supports action towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG6, which is about water and sanitation. We also support source water protection, which is trying to prevent contaminants from coming into the water in the first place wherever they’re coming from, such as being washed off from our land or being dumped into storage rain — so storage water protection in all its forms.

 

AI: How is technology transforming the way we address water infrastructure issues?

TK: One of the most exciting advances in technology right now is the advent of what we call “intelligent water.” And that’s the use and capture of large amounts of data with algorithms and putting that to use in what we call big data analysis. The goal is to improve our environmental outcomes while at the same time reducing costs and reducing energy demands.

What’s interesting, I think, when we talk about technology is that the technology that solves many of our problems is there. Often, the barrier to the adoption of these technologies are actually human barriers — things like a slowness to adapt to change, or lack of public education and confidence, and of course there’s always funding.

 

AI: On that note, how can we address the funding solution with the lack of federal action?

TK: The thing about funding is that we have to think about this in a long-term sense, and not just with the immediacy of what’s happening right now. We need to recognize that we are the recipients of our predecessors who invested in major infrastructure project decades ago, like our massive highway system.

We have an obligation to the future generation to be investing in infrastructure systems, not just for today, but for the security of our nation long into the future.

 

AI: In your eyes, what are the greatest threats to our water infrastructure systems right now? What do you think we should do to address these impending challenges?

TK: Interestingly, I think the biggest threat to water infrastructure right now is that much of the infrastructure is hidden from public view. So what’s out of sight is out of mind and it doesn’t get the same amount of attention or urgency that visible infrastructure gets. So to address that, one of the things WEF has done is to be more proactive in promoting to the public the importance of infrastructure.

We have a campaign called “Water’s Worth It.” This campaign seems very simple, but it’s very robust in that it addresses the water infrastructure issue at many levels. For example, it addresses to elected officials that we need to invest in rebuilding the national water infrastructure because water is our economic future. And to the typical citizen, this message, “Water’s Worth it,” is that clean water and sanitation provide for our daily health. It’s also a message to water professionals of why we get up every day and go to work, because of water. That is our effort and our passion.

 

AI: What does W.E.F. have in the works that is particularly exciting?

TK: The annual WEFTEC conference is a fantastic place to connect people; connect people with technology, connect people with ideas, and connect people with each other.

One of the exciting things that we have been developing is a program called reNEW , the “N-E-W” stands for nutrients, energy, and water. The idea of this program is to measure these resources that we can recover from our water resource recovery facility, primarily the nutrients, energy, and water. If we can measure it, then we can manage it, set goals, and we can take action and demonstrate our achievements to increasing the amount of resources that we are recovering from what has traditionally been known as wastewater.

Another really exciting thing that ties in with this whole sense of resource recovery is that we will be debuting a trailer from a documentary called Brave Blue World. WEF is a major sponsor of this documentary. It’s going to be showing, across the world, the work that water professionals are doing along the lines of improving water security, water resiliency, and resource recovery.

The full documentary comes out in November, but we’re going to debut a three-minute trailer for it at WEFTEC at the opening general session on [September 21].

 

AI: Are there any other pressing industry issues you would like to address?

TK: I want to add on to the topic of developing the water workforce of the future. WEF has been working very hard this year on increasing diversity and inclusion, to increase the number of women and people of color in the water workforce. It’s because we believe diversity brings different perspectives and life experiences, which enables for more creative solutions for our problems.

So we have a number of actions towards that, for example, the program InFLOW (Introducing Future Leaders to Opportunities in Water).

InFLOW is a program reaching out to university students of color to get them introduced to the exciting jobs in the water sector.

It’s a program we just created last year. It’s a scholarship program. Normally, university students don’t have the money to travel to WEFTEC, and even if we gave them free admission, they still don’t have the money for lodging and transportation. So we got sponsors to provide the money to give full scholarships, and then reached out to students at historically black universities and colleges. We had them come out, they got a free ride. We had a whole program set up, introduced them to all the things going on at WEFTEC, had panel discussions with African American water leaders, so they could see there are people who look like them in the industry, introduced them to people and technology.

It was so eye-opening for them. None of these students had any thoughts about entering jobs in water. They all thought about going into construction, or transportation, and they didn’t realize that there was this whole exciting field in water. It was so successful. We had 16 students last year, and this year we have 50 students from eight different universities, so the program is just taking off like wildfire.

And the sponsors love it because they know that their money is going to something worthwhile, because the sponsors have the opportunity to meet with the students. Then, that’s the sponsor’s way to say, “Hey, here’s my card. Come look me up when you’re ready to graduate. Give me your resume; I want to hire you.”

We do this at WEFTEC nationally, but we’re also encouraging this concept to be pushed down to the state level. So, when our member associations at the state level have their own annual conferences, we hope for them to do it locally and reach out, so they can mimic the InFLOW program locally.

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