Water History Can Strengthen AWWA Sections

Publisher’s Note: This article in slightly different form appeared in a recent electronic newsletter (“Section Direction”) produced by the American Water Works Association for the officers and top volunteers of its Sections.

by Michael J. McGuire

What is the biggest human resources problem facing the water and wastewater communities these days? A large cohort of the workforce is retiring. The first baby boomers reached 65 last year. Many local and state government retirement programs (for the moment) allow early retirement and a lot of folks have already left the water workforce. How can we turn this problem into an asset? I have a suggestion that every AWWA Section can benefit from.

Where do the retired members of the American Water Works Association or any other professional organization go? Many of them drop their membership if they are trying to economize (There are reduced rates for retirees—check it out). They cannot afford to go to conferences. A few have achieved Life Member status (30 years of membership and age 65), but no one asks them to help out anymore with Section activities. In truth, some volunteer at AWWA to help out at conferences and some teach in the Section continuing education program. But these dedicated people are only a small fraction of the retirees.

What do retirees do? National studies have shown that besides not planning for the financial part of retirement, the vast majority of retirees have not planned how they will spend their time. How much golf can a person play? How many paperback novels can a person read? (After reading hundreds of these, don’t they all seem the same?) Gardening is great and playing with grandchildren is wonderful, but can these activities fill a day? Sure, some people are volunteering their time (for example, Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity), but many retired people find themselves stuck in front of a TV for far too long during a typical day.

History is one thing that retirees do get interested in–history of the Civil War, sports cars, their town, the USA, the world, etc. Sometimes the interest in history motivates retirees to rent an RV and hit the Patriot Trail in New England or other similar unguided tours into U.S. history. The interest in family history—genealogy—has skyrocketed recently. Several recent surveys have estimated that more than 80% of American adults are interested in learning more about their family histories. If you log onto ancestry.com, you will be transported into a fascinating new world, but be advised—it can become addictive. For older folks, the interest in history is understandable. After three score and five years, we start to see the world from a broader perspective, and we start asking questions, such as: Why? How did that happen? Who was responsible for that? What does it mean? Who influenced that person?

AWWA Sections can tap this rapidly growing membership category (and keep retiring members from leaving the organization) by promoting an interest in water history. Water history? You say you don’t know anything about water history? I know that is not true. If you have worked 20, 30, 40 years in the water business, you have lived water history, and in some cases, you made water history. One of the most entertaining things I used to do at a retirement party for any long-time employee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was sit with the old-timers and listen to their stories of the early days. Jane Krafka (a friend from MWDSC) called it “rebuilding the aqueduct”—all the way from the Colorado River to Lake Mathews.

So how does a Section get its older members to become more interested in the section and to leverage the link with water history? One option is to form a Retired Professionals Committee. The committee could take on a number of projects. At the California-Nevada Section there is a fairly large archive of old photos and documents. Members could help organize such collections and add materials to them. I am sure that there are a bunch of other older members who have interesting papers and books that could add to a section archive.

The New Jersey Section is the only one that I am aware of that has a Retired Professionals Committee. They have been active in video taping retired members of AWWA for their Living History project. That is another worthy activity. I wish I had oral history videos of Gene Bowers and Hal Pearson who preceded me at Metropolitan. Both of them went back to the first days of water production by the District.  I participated in one of the New Jersey Section history tapings and the facilities were very professional. The have partnered with a high school in the northern part of the state, so that they can use the studio, camera equipment and trained audio and video technicians (high school students).

A session of the annual Section conference could be devoted to speakers relating important historical happenings in the member water utilities, companies and consulting firms.

Finally, the Retired Professionals Committee could be paired with the Young Professionals Committee in a section. The old retired gals and guys could act as mentors to the younger folks. I thought about getting involved with a YP scavenger hunt at a CA NV Section meeting a few years ago, but I decided not to go because I was not sure that it would be appropriate. Heather Collins was a bit annoyed with me, but that was how I felt. If there was a organized link between the two committees, all of the mixed signals would be removed.

How did I develop and interest in water history? I have always been interested in history. In my high school library one day, I ran across a copy of The Colditz Story, which was the tale of an escape from a WWII prisoner of war camp. Ever since, I have read hundreds of books and watched dozens of films about the history of that conflict. I am also married to an art historian who specializes in 17th century Baroque painting. As a result, I have been in every obscure Baroque church in Rome, and I have seen some of the most spectacular art in the world.

In 2005, Marcia Lacey (the editor of the Journal American Water Works Association) asked me to write a history of disinfection, which set me on the path to discover more about water history. Since then, I have written a book, The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, which will be published by AWWA in spring 2013. I started blogging about water history topics on this blog (safedrinkingwaterdotcom) and I started another blog called This Day in Water History. After I kept getting encouragement from water professionals on the Linkedin business networking site, I started a group called, you guessed it, Water History. All of these activities started with an email on November 30, 2005. It’s funny where life leads us.

I offer the above as suggestions to turn an aging water professional population into a winner for AWWA sections. Try one or more of these ideas and let me know how it works out. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Linkedin, Pinterest…never mind. Water history has led me into the depths and bowels of social media.

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About safedrinkingwaterdotcom

McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs
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3 Responses to Water History Can Strengthen AWWA Sections

  1. Dr. Jim Gates says:

    Hi Mike: I can see your thirst to develop the history within water districts without recanting tired stories. Fresh looks at old circumstances are refreshing to read. All of the people I know who have retired, say they have lasting activities to keep them busy everyday, but mostly these activities are repetative and may tend to be a drag. One case, is a friend wanted to join a major gym where swimming and weight lifting plus several other activites are available after you join. He goes everyday Monday through Friday to “workout” from 8-11 each morning. This has restricted my friend who does not have time to take a simple walk along the beach or other variations to his routine. I know, establishing a healthy routine is extremely good, but I believe a person could remain a little open to seek variety.

    I was fortunate to meet many of the people you mentioned in this piece, including Jane Krafka, Gene Bowers, and Hal Pearson. Dr. Pearson hired me in 1965 as a lab assistant, a name that had been called “flunky” just one-year before. I did not know this until speaking with a crusty superintendant from Iron Mountain who came into LaVerne about four years later. Dr. Pearson always was gracious and fatherly to me along with Lee Striecher. Mr. Bowers chose to see things a little differently.

    I graduated from Cal Poly just in time to fill-in for other chemists who retired in 1971. Hal Sundberg, the research chemist , was a real cut-up by stating his research was really “forgeting where things were then looking around to re-search for them”. The old Weymouth lab had an awful air system since when we performed the gravimetric method in determining the sulfate content in the Colorado River water, the entire lab turned smoky and we could not open any windows to clear it. Dr. Pearson took this incident into account when designing the “new” lab.

    The very water quality instruments that are on display in the new lab as “historical instrumentation” were the very ones I worked on from 1965 to 1972. We all thought we should actually throw some out the window, but thought our jobs might be at stake.

    I retired to teach full-time and now embarking upon finishing this activity beginning in January, 2013. I am getting interested in surf-fishing and am asking my kids to think “fishing” for this upcoming Christmas. Fishing may not last very long, but it is an activitiy if performed thoughtfully, could carry me for many years into the future.

    If any AWWA activity is fairly close (within 15-miles) I will be anxious to volunteer.Good luck with forming the Retired Professionals Committee.

  2. Jim–Thanks for the memories. MWD was a heck of a fine place to work back then. The people were terrific. I will certainly keep you in mind for any retired old foggey activities. 😉

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