In Review: The First Annual Utility Management Forum

Ontario's water utility industry ‎is very diverse and WEAO's first Utility Management Forum has provided a great opportunity for water professionals to listen, discuss and learn about ongoing challenges. The keynote speakers from Canada and the US were exceptional. The attendees I spoke with, including my staff noted it was a worthwhile and valuable event to attend.

John Presta, Durham Region

Senior Utility leaders came together on October 19th, 2015, at the first Utility Management Forum held in Ontario.  This one-day forum was organized by the newly formed Utility Management Committee of the WEAO to exchange ideas and have peer-to-peer discussions on the common challenges facing Ontario utilities.  The Forum drew both panelists and facilitators from regional and area municipalities, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC), and the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA).  

Directly aligning with the WEAO’s mission, this Forum was created to connect water environment professionals to come up with collaborative solutions, leveraging their knowledge and encouraging innovation; and it did just that.

Kicking off the day were two of the keynote speakers, Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) based out of Washington, DC and Thomas Kunetz, Trustee of the Water Environment Foundation (WEF) and Assistant Director of one of the largest wastewater utilities in the US, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).  

With expert knowledge of U.S. legislation including legislation governing the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes, Adam Krantz provided an overview of U.S. initiatives and the general trend among U.S. wastewater agencies and legislators to reposition sewage and stormwater works as resource recovery facilities.

Thomas Kunetz shared the innovative and creative ideas being developed in Chicago in collaboration with educational institutions and industry resulting in a greater influence on government.  He delved into the resource recovery initiatives undertaken by the MWRD in the areas of water, energy and nutrient recovery and demonstrated Canadian and U.S. wastewater agencies, with their shared mission and goals, can learn a lot from each other.  Referring to resource recovery from wastewater, Kunetz says, “It’s a hard sell when the economics don’t always favour recovery. But continuing on our current path is not sustainable.  As utility leaders, it is our responsibility to become champions for the transformation to a zero-waste society.” With anecdotal stories of recycling in ‘the old days’, as well as current resource recovery opportunities, Kunetz clearly engaged the audience and left them thinking of the possibilities for improving the global environment and their bottom line.  With keynote speakers setting the stage and getting the ‘juices flowing’, the participants then attended their chosen sessions to discuss topics such as the ‘Value of Water’, ‘Customer Service and Public Engagement’, ‘Technology and Innovation’, ‘Data’, and others.  The format of these sessions proved very effective; the size of the audience and layout of the panelists and attendees enabled participation in a comfortable way resulting in a true exchange of information and sharing of ideas.  
 

 “One of the highlights for me was listening to the great interchange of perspectives between participants during the panel discussions. Everyone has something to share.”

- Thomas Kunetz, WEF


To end the first half of the day, the MOECC held a special “Approvals” session to talk about the modernization of obtaining approvals.  “The goal of modernization is to provide greater transparency and create easier, more flexible and efficient approvals for municipalities.” said Walter Yee of the MOECC.  “As adaptive and mitigation strategies for climate change continue to put pressure on municipal infrastructure, there will be an increased need to ensure wastewater approvals address these challenges while protecting the Great Lakes.”

Afternoon keynotes Carl Yates (General Manager, Halifax Water) and Lynn Patterson (RBC Blue Water Program) began the second half of the day.  

Yates, hoping to provide participants with an impetus for change in their own backyard, runs the only water and wastewater regulated utility in Canada; not as it relates to water compliance (which is done by the Nova Scotia Environment) but as an arms’ length utility that is run like a business, complete with governing board.  As an integrated water, wastewater and stormwater utility, it sets rates, rules and regulations that are approved by a Utility and Review Board. (NSUARB).  This gives Carl a unique perspective and flexibility to take on initiatives and take some risks to optimize his utility where a lot of other utilities would struggle. As he presented a sustainable funding approach for service delivery, he noted “Solutions start with good governance and the recognition that utilities must take the long view for sustainability.”  The Cost of Service aligns costs with those who derive the benefits. In the US, designated regions get their rates from the municipalities.  This is something Ontario could potentially look at adopting.

The final keynote speaker, Lynn Patterson of the RBC Blue Water Project which measures the public perception of water issues, demonstrated how the private sector can get involved and fulfill their corporate environmental responsibility.  

All in all, the day was jam-packed with brainstorming and solution oriented discussions which kept attendees engaged to the very end.  The first UMF was a great success thanks to the efforts of the UMF Committee (Bill Serjeantson, Cordell Samuels, Brett Bloxam, Simon Hopton, Nancy Kodousek, Chris Manzon, John Presta, Frank Quarisa, Nick Reid, David Szeptycki, and Olga Vrentzos), our sponsors (OCWA, Cole Engineering, EMA, Eramosa, Fluks Aqua and XCG) and the forum co-ordination team (Michele Cole, Julie Vincent and Rob Anderson).  With a year to plan, the Committee fully expects next year’s Utility Management Forum to be bigger and better.