With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Julie Nahrgang is executive director of the Water Environment Association of Texas (WEAT). She coordinates the association’s legislative activities, and focuses on educating lawmakers and the public about water issues in the state.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What does your role as executive director at the Water Environment Association of Texas look like?
Julie Nahrgang: I oversee regulatory changes and policies that impact our industry, and keep our members aware of these as well as oversee our public communication and outreach strategies, specifically to educate the public.
Trib+Water: What are the association’s legislative objectives at the Texas Capitol this session?
Nahrgang: We are attempting to educate both our lawmakers and communities across Texas of the benefits of biosolid land application, which is the highly treated and regulated sludge that is often mixed with compost and has been turned into a different product. Some folks in Austin know it as "dillo dirt." Our overarching goal is viewing what was once a valueless or worthless waste into a valued resource.
Trib+Water: What does educating the public on these issues look like for the association, and are there certain bills you are closely following this session?
Nahrgang: We hold a biennial conference that’s meant to both educate our lawmakers and our members before each legislative session in November. It’s called the Water Environment Horizon Conference, and it gives a sneak peek into what the water professionals in Texas feel are our most pressing issues.
Along with biosolids, we are looking at bills that impact basin cycle permitting. That’s how discharge permits are impacted by a five-year basin cycle, and we are looking at ways to streamline the permitting process at the TCEQ for those permits.
We are also tracking bills that impact funding for water quality studies and funding or studies done on the viability of water reuse facilities. We are keeping an eye on HB 1250, which would prohibit the land application of biosolids in Ellis County.
We are also watching HB 4221, which would require research recovery facilities to do a 10-year asset management assessment. We like the idea of our utilities conducting this asset management analysis to get the current condition of their infrastructure.
Trib+Water: What are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered in trying to accomplish your association’s goals?
Nahrgang: An issue we face is educating the public on the value of water itself. Access to clean water and sanitation is essential to public life, and it's undervalued and taken for granted by many Texans. We like to ask our members, depending on where we are in the state, what would Austin be without Barton Springs or Lady Bird Lake? The infrastructure is underground, and the water goes down the drain, so it's often out of sight, out of mind.
We are also undergoing public communication and outreach efforts to educate the public on the notion that the water that goes down your drain is not a waste, but a resource. The facilities that clean this water are no longer referred to as wastewater treatment plants, but water resource recovery facilities. There is only one water; we are not making more of it.
As far as concrete communications, we are educating the public on what's flushable and what our resource recovery systems are designed to handle. They're not designed to handle "flushable wipes," and even though they go down the drain and are flushed, they wreak havoc at the headworks of collection systems.
Flushing wipes is the No. 1 cause for system failures across the state. Behind that is fats, oils and grease — when someone sends their cooking oil down the drain, it really gunks up the headworks.
Trib+Water: Moving forward, what are some of your plans as executive director for the association?
Nahrgang: The first plan is to work with our drinking water partners to co-host the largest regional water conference in the U.S. It's Texas Water, and it's here in Austin April 9-13 at the Austin Convention Center. We will have new and innovative water quality treatment technologies on display, and educate our members on new treatment techniques. That's the first thing on our plate, and it's a really important conference to the industry in Texas.
We also support a number of STEM and STEAM events at high schools. We consistently give resource recovery facility tours. We foster and produce river cleanup programs, where our members and folks in the community come out and clean trash and debris from rivers, streams and lakes and also remove invasive species and plants.
Trib+Water: Is there anything you'd like to add to today's conversation?
Nahrgang: Our members and water professionals across Texas are truth-doers to the environment and protect public environmental health daily. Water is one of our most precious resources, and how we work to ensure access to the water supply — both for drinking and recreation today and into the future — is one of the most important conversations facing Texans today.