U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler delivered the keynote presentation to kick off Opening Session at the 2019 WaterPro Conference in Nashville, Tennessee with more than 2,100 in attendance.
Administrator Wheeler addressed NRWA members about the agency’s goals both domestically and internationally to elevate the importance of water issues and commended Rural Water on the differences they are making in the water and wastewater industry.
“On infrastructure we estimate that more than 700 billion dollars are needed to modernize the United States water infrastructure over the next 20 years,” Wheeler stated.
When the EPA was founded almost 50 years ago, 40 percent of our water systems failed to meet EPA’s standards every single day. Wheeler proudly went on to inform the audience that of the 50,000 community water systems across the country, 91 percent of these systems serve communities of less than 10,000.
He continued with updates on the EPA programs that water and wastewater systems can utilize to improve their infrastructure and water technologies as well as the three key areas EPA is focused on assisting with are regulatory certainty, workforce development and financial assistance.
“Regulations need to keep pace with science and realities on the ground,” Wheeler stressed. “PFAS is a major concern right now, and EPA is working to develop new technologies and treatment options to remove PFAS from drinking water and to remediate soil.” Along with this research and development, they are looking into the ricks of PFAS in bio-solids, monitoring options and developing a PFAS risk communication tool box that includes materials that states, tribes and local partners can use to effectively communicate with the public.
“In the United States we have come to rely on safe drinking water at the turn of a tap. It can be easy to take this blessing for granted. But the strength of local economies and public health depend on the dedicated support of drinking water, wastewater and storm water systems. More specifically the depend on the people who operate them, the water workforce,” Wheeler commented.
One third of water operators will be eligible to retire in the next ten years. The water workforce protects the investments in our water infrastructure. A major challenge right now is developing and retaining new water and wastewater operators, and right now technology is outpacing the training. EPA is working with their federal counterparts to support water workforce training and development.
“We appreciate your work on this effort, especially the National Rural Water Association’s Apprenticeship Program,” Wheeler said.
In closing, Wheeler announced a new grant program to be offered, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act) authorizes a new EPA grant program specifically designed to help disadvantaged communities to improve their drinking water. The first round for applications for this grant will be opened later this month.
“Every day you and your colleagues provide clean and safe water to millions of Americans. There are few callings as noble and as significant as that,” Wheeler said, “you deserve greater recognition and least of all you deserve our thanks.”
Other highlights of the Opening Session included NRWA President Kent Watson reviewed NRWA’s accomplishments this past year, including a plan to purchase a fully equipped emergency response trailer and one-ton truck for NRWA to assist in emergency response efforts across the country. Watson highlighted the continuing success of the NRWA Affinity Partners and the growing NRWA Apprenticeship Program.
NRWA CEO Sam Wade praised the attendees, because the everyday efforts of utility professionals are what makes Rural Water successful.
Nicholas Hines, the first apprentice to complete the NRWA Apprenticeship Program, was also recognized during the Opening Session. The Apprenticeship Program is focused on helping emerging leaders become the next generation of professionals to improve the water and wastewater industry.
“This program is turning jobs into careers for apprentices across the country,” Hines said.
Between one of the highest attendance in conference history and the participation of high government officials from EPA and USDA, this WaterPro Conference was considered a huge success and plans have started for next year’s WaterPro Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.