The future of the water industry depends on the aspirational vision of the next generation of utility leaders. To encourage this vision, a novel session held at American Water Summit in Philadelphia paired young water professionals with senior water leaders to help young leaders crystalize their thinking around the vision of an ideal water utility in the Year 2040 and develop a roadmap on how to achieve that vision. The goal of the session was not only to encourage young leaders, but also to create long-term mentoring relationships between generations of water professionals. After a private morning session where mentors and mentees collaborated to refine the mentee’s vision of the ideal 2040 water utility, mentees presented their vision to the audience. The result was an exciting session with plenty of energy and hope for the future. Following are a few highlights.
From Dana and Raul Gonzalez of Hampton Roads Sanitation District (Mentor: George Bailey, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District)
Dana and Raul focused on the benefits of direct potable reuse (DPR) and identified multiple related opportunities for their ideal 2040 water utility to capture including:
1) Using the cost savings from DPR to fund needed upgrades for aging infrastructure
2) Strengthening partnerships with industry, NGOs and regulators to increase water reuse project and overall utility effectiveness
3) Pursuing changes in regulations to create more sensible site specific regulations
4) Overcoming public perception of DPR by focusing on the quality of water versus its history
5) More closely integrating water and wastewater utilities by merging resources and adapting regulations to make water usage more fluid
From Stephanie Chiorian and Abby Sullivan of Philadelphia Water Department (Mentor: Patrick Cairo, PCairo Management Consulting, LLC) In Stephanie and Abby’s ideal utility, climate change adaptation is integral to every aspect of the utility’s operation and financial planning. As Abby said, “Climate change is water change. If you are a water professional and are not thinking about this, you aren’t doing your job.” Given that the impact of climate change is not yet fully known and that adaptation is an iterative process, Stephanie and Abby’s vision of an ideal water utility did not have a specific year attached. Rather, they stressed that change will be ongoing for utilities of the future and that leadership mindset must be open and constantly evolving. Changing employee mindset through education about climate change and the need to integrate adaptive thinking in all aspects of utility operation will also be essential.
From Serge Haddad of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (Mentor: George Hawkins, Moonshot, LLC) Serge’s utility of 2040 has shifted from today’s Anthropocene, human centric, approach to water management to a more sustainable, eco-centric approach where utilities focus on making the most of available resources and working on the local level. Serge’s 2040 utility takes a one water approach, maximizing local resources through greater stormwater capture, greater water reuse, groundwater and conservation. Key to this approach is the understanding that when choosing a strategy to solve a specific problem, the ripple affect of that action is taken into account. Also, given the likelihood of earthquakes in Los Angeles, Serge’s 2040 utility is proactive and prepared. Technology such as earthquake resistance ductile pipes that bend instead of break are installed in strategic locations such as hospitals and schools, and pressure monitoring to detect drops in pressure, identifying leaks before they become breaks, is standard. And critically, Serge’s 2040 utility understands the importance of inspiring its staff and ensuring, through specialized training, that employees are constantly aware that what they do day to day matters to customers.
From Aisha Nang of Houston Water (Mentor: Adel Hagekhali, City of Los Angeles) Aisha described her ideal 2040 water utility and gave it a name, Jetson Water. One of Jetson Water’s hallmarks is its mastery of collaboration. An example of this collaboration
is Jetson Water being part of a regional emergency preparedness hub where utilities partner together and assist each other during climate change and security emergencies. In the year 2040 there is greater public understanding of water’s value and the imperative for access to safe drinking water. This shift in thinking has created excitement among youth to become water professionals. As Aisha explained, when something goes wrong, “Water professionals are considered first line heroes”. In addition to attracting top talent due to water professionals’ hero status, Jetson Water uses the latest technology, creating a cutting edge industry and exciting work culture. Drones sample and test water remotely and leaks are fixed through use of virtual reality technology. Another shift in water utility thinking by 2040 is understanding that a successful utility must balance environmental
and community needs, so Jetson Water produces zero waste and operates from a one water management perspective.
From Tera Fong of DC Water (Mentor: Carla Reid, Washington Suburban) Tera wrapped up the session with an inspiring description of the four key traits her ideal 2040 water utility possesses. Her utility of the future is resilient, smart, collaborative and
engaged. The resilient utility of 2040 clearly understands risks and acts to mitigate them. It protects its assets and operations through back up supply chains and is self-reliant via renewable energy. It is networked within its watershed, working together with other organizations to identify and address source water issues. The smart utility of 2040 doesn’t just collect data. It uses data effectively to manage operations, predict problems to prevent failures and streamline human systems. The collaborative utility of 2040 creates procurement partnerships with other utilities to secure greater savings on equipment and services. It uses the collective wisdom of the group to set standards and act regionally for more impact. These collaborative efforts have allowed water utilities to provide social assistance for water to low income households in the same way LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) provides assistance for heat. And finally, the engaged utility of 2040 has a workforce that is excited, is acquiring new skills to adapt to automation, and has the right people in the right places to create an effective and dynamic work culture. With the inspirational visions these young leaders presented, the future of water utilities is bright indeed.