“Getting the Message Out, Wastewater Funding Matters!”
By James Kerrigan
What is the one thing that we all have to deal with? We always hear the old saying, learn to do more with less. It seems budgets keep getting tighter and it is not a trend that appears to be going away, especially in this industry. Everywhere you look these days you hear about government needing to invest in infrastructure, and yet when one thinks of infrastructure, you don’t think of the sewers and the role we all play in this most critical industry. To the general public, wastewater is a second thought something that is not spoken about daily, and when the public thinks of infrastructure what springs to mind are the highly visible roads, bridges, schools, airports, and electrical systems. Perhaps the most exposure sewers have seen in recent times is from the home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, under the streets of New York, and no matter how popular that show was we still know it still didn’t do this mighty entity (sewers) justice. Think of some examples, like Chicago where it was recognized that if a city doesn’t have a good sewage treatment system it will literally poison itself, and the huge effort that was made to build the sanitary and ship canal to protect Lake Michigan, the city’s water supply from pollution.
When I say I am a civil engineer, the first thing that comes to peoples mind (after they think it means I am polite) is that I work on “roads, bridges, and stuff”; the things people see. They don’t think of the huge network of underground infrastructure, and why should they if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. But once the sewer backs up, the water gets shut off, they realize quickly how important these things are to our lifestyle. But as soon as things go back to normal, we’re forgotten. The old saying you don’t miss it until its gone cannot be more true to our line of work.
So why is that? We are obviously not doing a good enough job of getting the word out about what we do and why it is important. We all see water shortages and poor sanitation in poor countries, and as populations grow, the need for sanitation grows also, and the need for our line of work is becoming more and more crucial.
Why is it important to get the word out now for us here in the Midwest? I could bore you to death, but here are a few reasons I feel are important as someone who is not native to this country, and whose homeland has been making strides recently towards where we in the Midwest have been for decades.
If we are to make ourselves known and to gain recognition we need, we have to begin the transition away from being an afterthought utility, and become an example of how to do something with nothing. We’ve all heard the phrase “Water Resource Recovery Facilities” as a way of better explaining what we do. While this sounds like a buzz word, and as someone who hates making a name for something so it has a cool acronym, it does have some meaning. It hints at the opportunity we have using the material that flows through our facilities every day.
We need to demonstrate that wastewater is a resource rich in potential opportunities, and with the current state government we have a great opportunity to get the more out of our facilities while doing our job of protecting the environment; doing it better, more efficiently, and showing our leadership in the three R’s of reduce, reuse, recycle.
The problem is how do we do what we need to do and how do we get the funding needed.
The recent infrastructure bill is an obvious place to look for funding. $85 million in the capital bill was directed toward IEPA with the goal for this funding to deal with unsewered areas. Other funds have been directed toward the SRF loan fund. These investments are a direct result of wastewater professionals and IEPA staff making the case for funding needed wastewater projects. But we can’t stop there because this is clearly not enough. Making the use of those funds a success will help in continuing to push for more wastewater funding for other projects.
So, where do we get funding traditionally? Raise rates? Nobody likes that, but this is does generate a steady, ongoing source of money. Low interest loans? Yes, the typical route, but not always the best option depending on the project. Bonds, use reserves? – It depends on how fiscally responsible our predecessors were.
But look also at where we have opportunity for some funding from the resource that we see every day. There are numerous avenues that some of us already have tapped and are having success, and others that are not. Think of all the topics that are presented at every wastewater conference; biogas utilization, nutrient harvesting, fertilizer, cogeneration, irrigation, tipping fees, etc., the list goes on. We’ve all heard these and we need to look into these as options for our own facilities. Yes it may take time to get pay back, but the wastewater will keep flowing. These projects also have the benefit of allowing us to tell our story to our communities – making us less “out of sight, out of mind.”
Where can we increase efficiencies in our facilities? We all see the ComED energy efficiency programs that are out there, and is there still grant funding for the use of high efficiency equipment? We need to do some searching to see what is available but also sometimes the answers are presented to us. When and where should we start do you ask?
Let me answer that question with a question. Do you, or do you know someone that likes BEER? The CSWEA IL Section Biosolids, Energy, and Environmental Recovery (B.E.E.R.) seminar is later this month and provides the perfect setting to learn from others on what worked for them. After that the CSWEA annual conference is another opportunity to learn and share what we know or want to know.
Who can provide this knowledge? The call for abstracts for the annual conference is open, and this is the obvious place to allow you to share your experiences, good and bad. To me the bad experiences are what we learn most from, and we need to share those with others so that we all benefit.
Lastly to highlight one event that epitomized this concept was the IL Section Operations Seminar last month at the Fox River WRD. This was a great success, and if you were not there you missed out. Some fantastic knowledge shared on operations, data collection, and how everyone from management to engineers to operators can use the same data differently to suit their needs. The seminar was an example of an interactive, low pressure environment where ideas and knowledge flowed, and showed how two way learning, with information coming from both the audience the presenters benefited everyone there. I know for a fact that a couple of the presenters actually learned more about their own topic during the seminar because of the audience input.
As always stay tuned to CSWEA’s website for the next upcoming events, including the next section meeting in December. http://cswea.org/illinois/events/upcoming-events/
Go n-eiri an bother leat!