Wastewater treatment: critical, yet neglected infrastructure

The people that run water and wastewater facilities and the equipment on which we rely everyday for clean drinking water, as well as to clean and process wastewater to prevent pollution of our streams, rivers and oceans, are unappreciated, and often, not very-well understood by the general public.

This “below-the-radar” awareness contributes to the industry’s challenge in attracting new talent — particularly young talent, for what can be a rewarding and lucrative career.

It’s not a sexy job, but it is one with monstrous challenges, especially in light of society’s limited investment in these critical parts of our nation’s infrastructure. I spend a lot of time in water and wastewater plants that were constructed in response to and with funding authorized under the Clean Water Act in 1972, and in far too many cases, minimal investments have been made to keep these plants state-of-the-art.

In many cases, I’ve witnessed motors and pumps performing essential functions that have been in operation continuously for decades, with no replacement in inventory, let alone readily available in the event of a catastrophic failure.

When these systems do eventually fail, they put our nation's precious water resources at risk, as well as our health and safety. The United States was once revered for rising to the challenge of cleaning up pollution and providing safe drinking water for everyone, but we have neglected the people and the infrastructure on which we rely to fulfill this commitment, one which I fear we don’t fully understand or appreciate until it begins to fail, and our societal expectations aren’t met. I realize this isn’t such a happy story, but it’s one that gives me pause on a regular basis.

I hope that we can change our priorities as a nation to begin repairing and rebuilding the critical infrastructure that we’ve been neglecting for far too long.