EPA water chief says these people are unsung heroes among us

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SNOWBIRD — A leading U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator called water plant operators the “silent everyday unsung heroes” who are on the front lines for protecting public health.

While police officers, firefighters and teachers are routinely praised for their value in the public service sector, the skilled workers who provide clean drinking water at the tap and treat wastewater often go unnoticed, said Dave Ross, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

“We can drop billions of dollars into brick and mortar, but if we don’t have a trained workforce it won’t matter,” Ross said Thursday during a discussion at the BusinessH20 Water Innovation Summit at Snowbird.

Ross lamented what he says will be a 30 to 40% decrease in skilled labor in the United States over the coming years as the aging workforce retires.

“Without this sector, we don’t have society as we know it,” he said.

Afterward, he told KSL his own employment for four years at a wastewater treatment plant schooled him more in water issues than any doctorate program ever could.

“These are great people who care passionately about their jobs.”

Technology, however, is developing so rapidly in the water infrastructure world it is a challenge for training to keep pace, he added.

Ross said he hopes EPA and others in the water world can partner with the Department of Defense to take advantage of the skill sets in retiring military personnel as a way to tap into “human capital.”

“My base starts with the workforce,” he said.

Ross also advised one of the deputy managers at the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District to explore a new EPA funding program that helps offset the costs of big infrastructure projects, potentially easing the hit to individual pocketbooks.

We can drop billions of dollars into brick and mortar, but if we don’t have a trained workforce it won’t matter.

The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act is in its third year and has a $6 billion budget this year, Ross said, adding it will leverage about $12 billion in new projects.

“You have to be credit-worthy and shovel ready,” he added. “It’s wildly creative.”

In 2018, San Diego obtained a $614 million loan under the program for a state of the art water purification plant to deliver 30 million gallons of clean drinking water by 2023.

The low interest program is projected to save San Diego $184 million compared to a typical bond issuance, and reduce water discharges to the ocean.

Ross headlined the half-day summit put on by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The summit highlighted the innovative achievements on water management in Israel, including its No. 1 spot globally for its rate of recycling water — 85% to 90%, compared to the next country that has achieved ambitious water recycling rates — Spain at 20 percent.

Other summit topics focused on innovations in agriculture water management and the impact of “smart cities” on water resources.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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