Money, People, and Water Appreciation
When these come together, communities may be able to manage yet another crisis
I believe we are in the early days of a new
and different water crisis. This one is rooted
in concerns for replacing infrastructure
and staffing which, ultimately, can’t be
done without dramatically raising water
and sewer rates.
Water treatment, storage, distribution, collection,
and disposal infrastructure is failing
on many fronts. Many facilities have been in
the ground and on-line for more than 25 years
and at best, are leaking and creaking. At worst,
system components have completely deteriorated
and need replacement.
The money is a problem
Frankly, I have been shocked by the physical
and operating conditions of plants in both small
and large communities. Many systems I visit
seem to be operating, from a mechanical perspective,
on a day-to-day basis.
Replacing these systems is fiscally problematic
because the approximate cost of a 1-
million-gallon-per-day wastewater treatment
facility serving about 10,000 people is $10 million.
That amount does not include the collection
system, pump stations, and annual
operating costs that add millions of dollars
more in local expense. The billions of dollars
provided through the Clean Water Act are not
so readily available from the federal government
But there is more to worry about. Someone
has to manage these facilities, old and new, to
comply with strict state and federal standards.
Who will do this?
Consider these random staffing problems I
am aware of:
• A Florida city wasn’t able to fill an entrylevel
technician position after a one-year search.
• A California pretreatment facility took five
months to fill a position.
• A second Florida utility seeking staff
waited four months before receiving its first
This problem is not isolated to the southeastern
or western coasts. Lately, many articles
and talks have been devoted to the staffing crisis.
The American Water Works Association and
the Water Environment Federation have figures
on employment needs and the impact of losing
qualified staff to retirement. I won’t dwell on
these numbers, but I will expand on the causal
side of the issue.
Ken Kerri, Ph.D., esteemed engineering professor
at California State University (Sacramento),
told me that “it just seems that current
students are not that interested. The sizzle is in
business, banking, medicine, law, and the like.”
Bottom line: The utility engineering and
operations field lacks glamour and perceived
financial returns. This is not encouraging, particularly
as we consider the need to replace
up to 50 percent of the utility workforce in the
next 10 years.
Who would work
in the water sector?
Why aren’t more people interested in the field?
Well, the money is not talking. Staff compensation
levels ranging from $9 to $18 per
hour for experienced personnel is still the
norm in many parts of the country. Yet, operations
personnel are required to demonstrate
their competence in mathematics, basic microbiology,
chemistry, instrumentation, SCADA
systems, data management, computer use,
public safety, chemical management, security,
and environmental permits on a state examination.
(SCADA is supervisory control and
data acquisition.) They also are expected to
respond to late-night calls, any night of the
year. Many utilities offer inadequate compensation,
especially when compared to other
service and technical trades that don’t require
subject proficiency or midnight repairs of
Staff image issues compound the recruitment
problem. Sophisticated biological nutrient
removal facilities have upped the technical
knowledge ante by magnitudes. In most cases,
compensation offers to fill these positions is
inadequate or unreasonable. We strive to be
professionals, yet city administrators and
townsfolk refer to staff as operators—as in
operator I, II, III. Staff members are informed
that if they truly apply themselves, they can
become an “operator IV or V.” If this is our
best recruiting mantra, the number of vacancies
is only going to get bigger.
Assuming we clear up the image and compensation
issues, we still face an additional
obstacle in the path to real change. Staff must
be certified or licensed to operate and manage
water utility systems. While the spirit and
intent of this licensing program is not in question,
a tangled web of individual state programs
unintentionally inhibits staff entry, retention,
and movement to other states within the profession.
What started some 30 years ago as an
effort to define water knowledge proficiency
on a national basis has turned into a “whose
state program is better” territorial competition.
I’ve heard some defensive arguments to the
logic, but they don’t hold water.
States should seriously consider, once again,
a common national base of competency. The
Association of Boards of Certification (ABC)
was created more than 25 years ago to achieve
this goal through the team effort of state certification
officers. They came close. Years later,
one might fairly conclude that something
Examination questions may be technically
out of date or irrelevant to changing technology.
For example, questions regarding membranes,
biological nitrogen and phosphorus
removal systems, process control approaches,
high-flow management strategies, colorimetric
testing and calibration procedures, basic instrument
maintenance, and chlorine-alternative disinfection
questions must be developed and
added to examinations to maintain their validity
in the wastewater area. Similar changes and
innovation in the test areas of collection systems,
water treatment, and distribution systems also
must be made.
Reciprocity barriers hinder the already
depleted supply of qualified operators from
moving and adding value to a community utility
in a different state. Examination takers, most
of them family bread winners, may lose a nominal
salary raise or a position of advancement,
because they failed a state test by one or two
points. It would be unfortunate if those two
points could be traced back to unclear, invalid,
unreliable, or irrelevant multiple choice test questions.
I do not believe that I am alone in this
opinion. During a presentation at the 24th
National Operators Training Conference in
June, I made a point that the certification program
needed a serious overhaul. The audience
spontaneously applauded. The proficiency needed
to manage an activated sludge facility in Oregon
is identical to that in Kansas or Florida. The
decentralization of certification programs should
be halted for the good of the greater order.
In order to stimulate employee interest in
this sector and keep costs of facility operation,
repair, and replacement from soaring, utility
work must be viewed as a profession that is prestigious,
contributes to society, and makes a difference
in public health and the environment.
Here’s a prescription for immediate starters:
• System owners must embrace the future.
Terms that project staff value to society such
as “water technician” or “environmental specialist”
should replace the water and wastewater
operator vocabulary. A positive professional culture must be created and maintained.
• Staffing compensation must be increased
to levels that attract competent, reliable technicians
of new or upgraded facilities.
• Innovative recruiting must stimulate engineering
graduates to operate these new highly
technical facilities that are being designed and
• Public education programs must be
improved dramatically. They need to be elevated
beyond the brochure displays at the local festival
• More urban community colleges must
begin offering two-year water technology degree
programs. Curriculums must match new treatment
and delivery sophistication.
• Professional associations must reassess how
they project the profession and engage actively
in changing terminology that publicly supports
the need for an image makeover. Their current
efforts are not good enough.
• State agencies must review their exam programs
and embrace common reciprocity
approaches as the pool of available workers
dwindles and the search for qualified personnel
transcends state boundaries.
• Utilities must create and use technical tiger
teams that transcend traditional staff separation
between water and wastewater departments.
I won’t let the townsfolk off the hook here,
either. What does a family of four’s movie matinee
have in common with your monthly water
utility bill? Answer: in most cities, the cost is
about the same. In many places, this traditional
mall event costs more than the entire monthly
water utility bill.
I don’t hear much griping about the cost of
three hours of entertainment. But try to raise
the local rate of water by half a penny per gallon
and sparks start to fly. It’s upsetting to hear
that citizens are up in arms because of a proposed
$5 to $10 increase in the monthly local
water/sewer rates. I also find it odd that we don’t
notice a penny difference in the price of gas
yet rail at the thought of a similar increase in the
cost of the second most essential human substance
on the planet.
Water is a product
Apparently, people need to understand that
the fee for water is not a tax. Water is a product
sold on store shelves, at a retail markup of
at least 750 times the wholesale rate offered by
most utilities. The simple math: the wholesale
utility cost runs about a penny a gallon. The
retail rate of 95 cents for a 16-ounce bottle is
equivalent to $7.60 a gallon. I agree that bottled
water has carrying convenience quality. I
buy it myself sometimes. But I don’t complain
about my home water bill, and I support justified
increases. We have been raised to believe
that multiple, clean-water taps and flushing
toilets in our homes are inalienable rights of
being U.S. citizens. I suggest we also start
believing that the cost of this luxury is about
to go up.
In closing, I offer a simple test to challenge
your local water care factor.
1. Do you know the location of your local
water or wastewater facility?
2. Have you ever visited either one of them
in the spirit of family and community education?
If the answer is no, than you should find out
and go. Visit a system with your children and
learn about this life-giving and undervalued
product you are buying. As a result, you will
begin to pay more attention to personal water
conservation and become more attentive to local
issues and their resolution. As my friend and
environmental mentor Dan Campbell once said
in chiding an audience—do something to make
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.