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Q&A with Water Environment Federation (WEF) Executive Director Eileen O’Neill

Q&A with Eileen O'Neill, Executive Director of Water Environment Federation (WEF)

Q&A with Water Environment Federation (WEF) Executive Director Eileen O’Neill

With WEFTEC 2016 coming up next month in New Orleans, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) Executive Director, Eileen O’Neill; an industry leader who is extremely passionate about her work with the water sector and enthusiastic about the events scheduled at WEFTEC from September 24th through the 28th.

Matthews: You recently attended Water Week in Washington D.C. What was the goal for WEF attending Water Week this past April?

O’Neill: Our goal there was to be a part of a number of organizations coming together to get our messages out about investments in infrastructure and other important issues to the profession. Participating in Water Week was valuable for getting everyone together to work toward providing a collective voice and we had worked to align our messages. It was important to be there with a number of partners to represent the profession and the water sector up on Capitol Hill. The water sector has to interact with various government agencies, and Water Week brought several organizations, including the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), Water Research Foundation (WRF), the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), WateReuse, and the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WEMA), together as we interacted in the country’s capital. This event was also a great avenue for our local members to come and have some support for their interactions with these different agencies and up on the Hill. Water Week really allowed us to have some productive coordination between the various organizations. A large part of the message was focused on infrastructure and innovative financing to help support communities investing in infrastructure.

Matthews: So will we see more of a political agenda for WEFTEC?

O’Neill: We always like to cover policy issues at WEFTEC, and we have sessions where we have presenters from the EPA; often they are higher level officials that give participants in-depth briefings and perspectives, but I don’t know that we have a “political” agenda per say. It is critical that we convey the water sector’s and the water professionals points of view, and WEFTEC provides the sector that opportunity to get some press attention to our issues. One new thing this year is we are working with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment and Reuse Foundation, and WateReuse, to showcase our first Recognition of Utilities of the Future. This is an example of the kinds of things we can do at WEFTEC – we can showcase some of the progressive things that are being done by the sector and the benefits that come to communities. We want the water sector to be able to have conversations with policy makers and regulators about how they can better enable that kind of transition and progress that is being made in this sector. So I wouldn’t say it’s a political agenda, but WEFTEC does provide a great platform to draw attention to issues and to have some useful conversations that will have greater impact on our communities overall.

Matthews: Where do you see improvements in water infrastructure happening?

O’Neill: With the right leadership and the right local political support, we see the opportunity to actually revolutionize the sector from a “waste treatment sector” to one that is actually recovering and reusing water in more efficient, less wasteful ways. There are fantastic examples of investments that have been made in innovation. My office is just outside of Washington D.C. and I can see parts of DC Water’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility from my window. DC Water and Alexandria Renew, the local agency that treats the waste water that comes from our building in Alexandria, and are both shining examples of utilities that are seizing the opportunities to invest in infrastructure. They are making investments that provide additional value to the local communities by working to recover resources – in terms of recovering energy and using that to power their systems, recovering nutrients, recovering organic matter that can be used as soil amendments, and recovering clean water – which we all know is fundamental to a healthy community.. We see these opportunities for utilities to invest in projects that can really have an impact in terms of transforming the water sector.

We are also very involved in green infrastructure because of the obvious environmental benefits and the different kinds of jobs that can be added to communities. We’re quite focused on that in terms of what kinds of professionals will be required to manage these different kinds of infrastructures, including green infrastructure. It’s really an exciting time to be in the water sector. WEF will play a big role in educating the pump industry, so we have to encourage the industry to participate in these efforts. This is why it is so important for all these organizations to get aligned and on message. The exciting point about being at WEFTEC 2016 is that so many facets of the sector will be represented there, and participants will have the opportunity to tap into all that expertise and perspective.

Matthews: What are the “must see” sessions at WEFTEC this year?

O’Neill: There are several tours scheduled Monday through Wednesday that are all worth participating in, but one thing that has become very popular at WEFTEC are our mobile sessions. We actually use the exhibit floor as an educational tool. We have some of the sharpest technical minds in the sector out there on the exhibit floor. Our technology providers bring their best people to WEFTEC, so we’re tapping into that by bringing structured educational sessions to the show floor. Participants can use the WEFTEC Mobile App to move through the conference, locate the specific subject matter experts they want to interact with, and get updates on what is happening real-time at the conference. WEFTEC offers so much, but it’s an event where you have to pick and choose what you’re going to do because it’s the largest annual water event, so you can’t do it all. Participants really have to pace themselves because it’s such an enormous event with so many sessions and so many opportunities.

If people are looking to start their week off right, I highly recommend attending the Monday morning opening session, which will focus on innovation in terms of policy issues and softer issues around managing water, and then the international thought leaders’ session right after, which brings in some international perspectives on urban water management.

Another fun part of WEFTEC is the “Mix with Members” session on Sunday evening. Our exhibit companies are members, and we’ve been working to increase member value and participant value for WEFTEC. We know it’s the world’s biggest annual water conference and exhibition, but we’re looking not just to be the biggest, but to be the best – in terms of value to the sector and to the value of our members and participants. In an effort to enhance member benefits, we started the Mix with Members reception last year, where different, more specialized communities could get together. For example, if one was interested in management specifically, or biosolids, or women in industry, they could go and network with folks there at the mixer. So I encourage our exhibitors to go there because it’s a different way to connect with other WEF members and customers on Sunday evening and start their week off there.

Matthews: What will make this WEFTEC better than the ones before it?

O’Neill: WEFTEC adds value to our members and customers but also adds value to the water sector because it is an opportunity to get some great attention. Last year, we had a “Beer Challenge Smackdown” (laughs). It was a lot of fun! I can’t remember who challenged who, but two of our leading utilities, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District and Clean Water Services in Portland, Oregon, were involved in brew competitions where brews made using treated effluent faced off in a taste test in WEFTEC’s Innovation Pavilion. The challenge was a lot of fun and created a lot of buzz, which then resulted in a feature on morning television in Chicago about water reuse and the fact that we’re all drinking reused water. The competition will be bigger this year, so that is something to look out for.

Another great event is the “Jammin’ 4 Water” concert on Saturday night. It isn’t actually our event; a group of our members got together a few years ago and organized a concert where they raise money for various water charities. We are proud to have this event at WEFTEC. It shows what a community we have of people that really care about what they do and care about water. Another example it that our young professionals and students always participate in a service project in the city that hosts WEFTEC. It’s going to be bigger than ever this year. We are strongly coordinated with the City of New Orleans and their goal of green infrastructure and education in schools. We try to provide opportunities for people to feel part of a community and to give back to our host location.

Matthews: What makes you most proud?

O’Neill: I’m incredibly proud of the ability of WEF to bring the entire sector together. WEFTEC wouldn’t happen without hundreds of dedicated volunteers who plan this conference and all these numerous facets of it all year round. The sense of ownership that they have for the event is truly inspiring. When I read feedback from attendees, people really seem to feel that WEFTEC is their event, and that wouldn’t happen without outstanding staff who put in a great deal of passion. So I’m only reflecting the passion and dedication that I experience with our staff and our volunteers. I’m most proud of that incredible partnership that comes together to make WEFTEC the event what it is – like I said, we want to provide not just the biggest event in the world, but one that provides the most value to water professionals and to the sector. I hear from people that they “get a shot in the arm” by coming together and thinking about what the ‘big picture’ issues are for our sector. It’s no coincidence that our theme for WEFTEC 2016 is “creating the future of water”. We have to seize the opportunity to serve communities better by rethinking how we manage water, and WEFTEC can help us do just that.

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