Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Future of Making Water Clean Again (Wastewater Treatment) in Ohio

On March 6, 2015, the Ohio Water Environment Association held its annual Government and Regulatory Affairs Workshop. It is a great event I enjoy attending every year because we hear directly from the top regulators in Ohio regarding their priorities and from others about hot topics. This year, the recurring theme was that it is time to act. This could be illustrated through the closing slide of the Ohio EPA (OEPA) Division of Surface Water Chief, Karl Gebhardt, which simply stated:

"Rhetoric is no substitute for action."
-Teddy Roosevelt

Fully an hour-and-a-half was provided to OEPA Director, Craig Butler, and OEPA Division of Surface Water Chief, Karl Gebhardt. Their two presentations focused on OEPA's restructuring to put "the right people in the right seats" and embrace "Lean Ohio," which is intended to make government simpler, better, faster, and less costly. The Director spoke a lot about OEPA restructuring to have two doors into which the regulated community such as wastewater treatment organizations would enter: one is for technical assistance and the other is for regulation and enforcement. They want to entice as many organizations as possible to enter through the technical assistance door (carrot) because the regulation/enforcement route is much less pleasant (stick). (My words, not theirs.)

Director Butler stated that 2014 was The Year of Water due to the events that happened in Toledo and elsewhere, and the OEPA 2015 priorities focused on water. Regarding Lake Erie, he stated that "the first flush is like a hypodermic needle into the watershed" regarding non-point source pollution. OEPA is working with the farming community to help reduce nutrient loading coming from farm fields. They are equally focused on the impacts septic systems and wastewater treatment plants have on receiving waters. They believe through improvements by all parties, positive steps will be made. Regarding Lake Erie, Director Butler said, "It's taken us a generation to get into this problem, and it will take us a long time to get out."

It appears that Ohio is committed to improving water quality and realizes that our economic future will be significantly impacted by water. To illustrate this, the OEPA Division of Surface Water Chief compared the economic potential of other countries to Ohio and the Great Lakes by stating:

"They have the oil, but we have water."
-Karl Gebhardt

The theme of acting now to help improve our future was further reinforced by David Rutter from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in his presentation about a study performed regarding the potential impacts to the region due to increased climate variability/extremes. He talked about implementing "No Regrets" strategies. "No Regrets" strategies are strategies people have no regrets implementing even if the primary reason they are implementing them does not come to pass. For example, buying Ohio wind energy reduces carbon footprint and also invests in Ohio's economy. By investing in Ohio's economy, people have "no regrets" in purchasing power that might be more expensive. Another example would be utilities purchasing properties along water courses, razing the buildings, and building "stormwater parks." Even if flooding does not get worse and those properties are not flooded in the future, the public benefits of the parks would be worth the investment.

There were several other important talks at the Government Affairs Workshop that could be topics of other blogs. They will not be described here because I do not want to dilute the importance of the message in this blog: The time to act is now. Utilities and jurisdictions should start independently making steps forward, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because they will be required to do it anyway in the near future. Acting now allows for utilities and jurisdictions to be in charge of their own destiny.