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The AI Interview: Walt Marlowe, Executive Director of the Water Environment Federation

WEF executive director explains why protected clean water is more important now than ever

American Infrastructure: The Coronavirus has highlighted the need for clean sources of water. What role does the water quality sector play as we combat the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak?

Walt Marlowe: It’s absolutely critical to provide sanitary water, and then to clean, reuse, and return water to the environment. Imagine a hospital right now without clean water and wastewater capability. Imagine everyone at home without potable water and functioning water systems. Imagine food service providers unable to prepare food without clean water and wastewaters. Life as we know simply could not function without water systems.

AI: What actions has the Water Environment Federation taken to engage in social distancing protocols, and to support its members during these times?

WM: WEF staff transitioned to a test telework environment on March 13. That quickly changed to mandatory telework on March 17. We cancelled the in-person portions of four conferences and replaced much of the learning and action with digital programing. We’ve ramped up the information around Coronavirus on our website for members, and we are including technical content to non-members, especially around the personal protective equipment. We are also very proud to have launched AccessWater.org, a new digital platform with more than 20,000 fact sheets, conference papers, and other documents.

AI: In your view, what should public official be doing in regards to maintaining high water quality?

WM: First, public officials need to remind communities not to flush materials that block pipes and endanger the health of our frontline workers who have to respond and unclog things. Second, our public leaders should remind the public of the critical nature of our water systems and acknowledge the water workers. Too often the public and our politicians take this critical infrastructure for granted. For example, earlier this month it was very disappointing to see several state-level agencies originally omit the water workforce as a group of essential employees. Fortunately, most of those states have corrected that omission. Third, we need an appropriate level of funding to support our critical water systems. The latest ASCE Infrastructure Report Card that gives a grade of D+ to our wastewater infrastructure and a D to our drinking water. That’s just truly unacceptable. It’s expected that more than 56 million new users are going to be connected to centralized water treatment systems over the next two decades, so we’re looking at at least $271 billion to meet some of those demands. This is a perfect time for this kind of an investment with low interest rates and it can play a huge role in revitalizing the economy.

AI: What is the next step for the water quality sector after the public health risk has been mitigated?

WM: There is a huge issue of affordability for rate-payers. We need to make sure that our systems are able to charge rate-payers for the value they’re receiving, while simultaneously recognizing that the affordability issue crates a real challenge. That brings us back to our basic challenges of, first, everyone needs to appreciate the value of water. It’s difficult to understand why people will gladly pay hundreds of their cellphone and cable bills, but they balk at the idea of paying $30-50 a month for clean water and wastewater services. And second, back to our public leaders, they need to provide financial assistance for the disadvantaged rate-payer directly, or to the utility. We all can see how economic inequality is causing so many challenges in America. Water and wastewater services are not exempted from this challenge, so public funding is a key component of the financial sustainability of our infrastructure.

AI: What does WEF have in store for the coming future?

WM: We’re looking to continue to be a trusted source of information for the water community during Coronavirus. Our website has a special page of resources, and we update it everyday on the best information for the wastewater infrastructure professionals and also for the public regarding Coronavirus. We’ve organized a blue ribbon panel on biological hazards and precautions for wastewater personnel that is going to be working to ensure that WEF continues to provide current, evidence-based information, provide appropriate input to community entities like the CDC, OSHA, and WHO. Another thing for the future, we’re continuing to prepare for WEFTEC 2020 to be held October 3-7 in New Orleans. There’s of course a lot of uncertainty around how soon we’ll be able to travel and get back to holding in-person events. We’re developing a hybrid event to include in-person events in New Orleans, but also virtual education, exhibition, and networking opportunities. Plus, we’re also prepared to go to 100% virtual WEFTEC 2020 if circumstances dictate.

AI: What is your message to the water sector and the infrastructure industry at large during this time of economic uncertainty?

WM: My main message to the infrastructure industry at large is a big thank you! Infrastructure is such an enabler, it’s critical to our health, it’s critical to our ability to interact, it’s critical to our ability to create economic value, so I think a really big thank you needs to go out to all the frontline infrastructure workers who are out there during this pandemic and ensuring that the basic systems that protect our health and prosperity continue to function. Our industry functions so well despite lack of day-to-day recognition and often without adequate funding resources. It’s really a testament to the highly skilled and dedicated individuals who contribute to the design, the build, the operation, and maintenance of our infrastructure. So again, thank you to all the people in our industry.