An Interview with #UMF2015 Keynote Speaker Tom Kunetz

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Thomas Kunetz

"It’s an engineer’s dream. Sometimes, we work on a scale so large, we don’t have the luxury of copying what’s been done elsewhere. And that presents its challenges, but also presents opportunities to  really grow one’s knowledge, experience and problem solving skills."

Utility Management Forum 2015
October 19th, 2015

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Thomas Kunetz is a member of the 2014-2015 Board of Trustees for the Water Environment Federation. He is the Assistant Director of Engineering for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, leading the district’s efforts on key strategic engineering initiatives, including energy neutrality. He has 30 years of experience in the field of environmental engineering, in both the public and private sectors, focusing on design wastewater treatment facilities, improving the water environment, and protection of public health. We caught up with Tom, to ask him about his experience working in the Water Utility Sector and about his keynote address at The Utility Management Forum on October 19th, 2015. 

Join Tom and Utility Managers from across Ontario at #UMF2015! Register here. 

How did you end up working in the water utility sector?

Both of my degrees are in environmental engineering with an emphasis on water and wastewater, so from the very beginning my passion was with the water environment. After working as a wastewater design engineer for two consulting engineering firms, I was lucky enough to land  an opportunity to apply my design experience at MWRD Chicago, one of the largest wastewater utilities in the world. Here, I could work on design projects that were on a scale at least in order of magnitude larger than most other wastewater facilities. It’s an engineer’s dream. Sometimes, we work on a scale so large, we don’t have the luxury of copying what’s been done elsewhere. And that presents its challenges, but also presents opportunities to  really grow one’s knowledge, experience and problem solving skills.

What are the biggest challenges you face at the WEF? What are the biggest opportunities you see for your organization?

To serve our members, WEF needs to maintain our relevance to water professionals. This means we need to be ready to supply the programming and educational products needed for the next big challenges facing our industry. Water scarcity, water resiliency, intense stormwater management—these are the current issues facing our industry that weren’t priorities just a few years ago. But these challenges provide opportunities  for WEF. With over 33,000 members, WEF is able to tap into the subject matter experts on the emerging issues and provide the knowledge transfer to the professionals who need it. WEF connects professionals in the water sector, enabling them to collaborate to solve the new problems, by advancing the development and adoption of innovative technologies and approaches needed for the next generation of challenges.

How have you seen the water utility sector change over the course of your career? Where do you imagine we’ll be 20 years from now?

The biggest change I have seen is a recognition of the value of water—in its many forms—in our lives. Sewage is undergoing an image transformation, finally being recognized not as a unwanted waste but as a collection of valuable resources. Going into the future, that recognition will transform the whole industry. I predict that our current approach of flushing clean, potable water into drainage pipes to wash away wastewater—an approach based on a 2,000 year-old model--will be abandoned. It’s simply not sustainable. I don’t believe that the transformation will be complete in 20 years, but there will be significant progress.

What is the single most important issue or challenge facing the water utility sector today? What can be done to begin solving this issue?

Climate change. Climate change is quickly and irretrievably changing our industry and our lives. We see the effects of climate change in intense storms, overwhelming our stormwater management infrastructure. We see it in the vanishing water supply from sustained droughts. Climate change is pervasive, affecting all areas of our civilization that eventually relate back to water. For example, as urban areas become warmer for longer periods of the year, more energy is needed for cooling. The production of energy requires water for steam, water for cooling, water to extract natural gas via fracking. And the food industry will require the diversion of huge quantities of water to irrigate parched lands that were once fertile.

What is the focus of your Keynote Address at The Utility Management Forum? What do you hope Utility Leaders will take away from your Keynote?

I will be making the case for resource recovery from wastewater. Nutrients, energy, water—these are resources that should be recovered and reused, not discarded and wasted. It’s a hard sell when the economics don’t always favour recovery. But continuing on our current path is not sustainable.  I want the utility leaders to become the champions for the transformation to a zero-waste society.