Dr. O’Neill was appointed WEF’s Executive Director in January 2014. She had previously worked with the Federation for more than 20 years in a variety of positions, having had responsibility for oversight of WEF’s technical, international, and communications programs, and also having served as the organization’s chief technical officer before becoming deputy executive director in late 2011.
Before joining WEF, Dr. O’Neill worked as an academic and in environmental consulting in the U.S. and in Europe. She has a B.S. in soil science from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (U.K.) and a Ph.D. in soil science from the University of Aberdeen (U.K.). Dr. O’Neill undertook a postdoctoral traineeship in environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Demands, Challenges and Opportunities of Our Water Systems
Many of our systems are past their useful lives and we have not been able to invest in them in the way we would like. So we have an opportunity for infrastructure renewal. We also have demands on our infrastructure from population growth, generally, and population shifts, so we have need for expanded infrastructure…We also have the “out of sight, out of mind” situation with water infrastructure much more than other kinds of infrastructure. For us, much of the value in those assets is actually underground, and it can be relatively easy not to think about that, particularly if generally one turns the tap on, the water coming through is clean and safe to drink.
Who Pays for Water?
In some communities, there is an affordability challenge. What we see, particularly on the clean-water side, is that in the 1970s when our systems were being built up, there was a federal investment; there were construction grants, there was enormous growth, but there has been a decline in that investment at the federal level. I believe the figure used to be at 63% federal invested; that’s gone down to 9% these days. So it’s the local communities that are actually paying the cost of these systems, and they need to understand the value and the importance of the systems to the quality of life, and to the economic vitality of their communities.
Showing Communities That Water Is Worth the Investment
We need to tell our story of the value of investment in infrastructure and the importance of water. I do think that it resonates with people…I also think that we’re making sure that we are showing that we manage our systems well, and we are talking about solutions that can help in terms of some of the tools in the federal toolbox that can support investments in infrastructure through the state revolving fund program or through new tools making preferential loan rates available to communities. I think it makes sense to people when they hear about the challenges of these older systems, the value that water provides to them personally and to their communities in terms of return on investment and quality of life.
Water Environment Federation: Supporting Front-Line Water Professionals
We’re a not-for-profit professional society for environmental scientists and engineers and others who work in the water field. We were founded in 1928 by some forward-looking US state organizations who realized that, to serve the membership, they really wanted to make national and even international connections. And we were founded to publish a journal, which we still publish, and to organize a conference, which has grown to be the largest annual water quality conference in the world. It’s called WEFTEC. We see ourselves as supporting, connecting water professionals who are on the front lines of treating and recycling water and generally protecting the water environment.