59: Clean Water, Women of Water, and Beer: A Water Nerd Trifecta with Julie Nahrgang

Julie Nahrgang is the Executive Director of the Water Environment Association of Texas and Texas Association of Clean Water Agencies. Julie has worked and volunteered with WEAT since 2009. She received a Bachelor’s of Science in Economics and a Bachelor’s of Arts in Sociology from Trinity University in San Antonio and received a Lifetime Honorary Studentship to the Student Union at the London School of Economics. She has worked with nonprofits since 2003 as an organizer, manager, program developer, legislative liaison, and currently as an Executive Director. As such, Julie oversees all of the legislative and regulatory changes pertaining to the clean water sector. She monitors bills, testified for and against wastewater related legislation, and represents WEAT and TACWA in a number of TCEQ and TWDB stakeholder areas.

She is active with a number of community nonprofits and water aid organizations including the Gazelle Foundation.

Top Takeaways:

  1. We talk about workforce and the many initiatives WEAT and WEF are doing to tackle the issue, but Julie also raised a thoughtful point on how important language is to how we brand ourselves and market ourselves to the next gen of water professionals.
  2. The Pure Water Brew Alliance is such an important and unique way to open the conversation about reuse water with not only our customers but with the local entrepreneurs in our communities.
  3. Julie gives us some behind the scenes intel on WEATs rebranding, her team’s process and WHY it was so important to them to do so.
  4. We end with a discussion on building diversity in the water workforce, some of the great steps already being taken, and how we have to build our allies across demographics to truly build the movement towards change in the right direction.

Shownotes:

[4:16] “Water chose me.” Julie’s water story.

[6:03] What’s the biggest benefit to a career in wastewater that we aren’t communicating well enough? WEAT/TAWWA Operator Springboard Program, workforce, and innovation in resource recovery)

[6:53] Hiring and maintaining a skilled workforce is foundational to the mandate and mission of protecting human health and the environment.

[7:19] Brookings Institute publication, 2018

  • The national median age of the workforce across all sectors is about 42 years old.
  • The median age of plant operators is 46 years old.
  • Plant operators will retire in greater numbers in one fell swoop

The US Government Accountability Office:

  • Estimates 37% of all water utility workers and 31% of all wastewater utility workers will retire in the next decade.

[8:46] Tout the benefits of a career in the water sector:

  • Nationally there is a lower educational barrier to entry with comparatively higher wage rate in the 10th and 25% percentile meaning the vast majority of jobs in our sector pay a more livable wage than other sectors.
  • We offer careers that are somewhat buffered from external shocks. Everyone will always need clean water services.
  • Be a part of something bigger than yourself. We are THE enterprise. You’re protecting human health and the environment.

[11:35] The evolution of the semantics around wastewater treatment, it’s no longer waste, it’s resource recovery plants. The folks that work there aren’t wastewater operators, they’re clean water workers.

[12:19] A power plant isn’t called a coal plant, it’s called a power plant because of what it produces. Our plants produce clean water and they recover resources so we need to be intentional about the language we use because it also goes back to how we market ourselves and these careers.

[14:16] Operator Springboard Program, WEAT/WEF, developed in the YP group at the WEF level by some Texas. Three-pronged approach, high school curriculum program, paid operator internship program, and veterans apprenticeship program.

[15:35] Prepares high school kids to take their class D upon graduation and graduate with that license to make them employable. They also have a direct relationship with the city of Houston to create a direct pipeline of work opportunities.

[16:22] They’ve begun creating those relationships, had a group of high schoolers tour the exhibit floor at Texas Water and it was very well received by students.

[18:39] The Water Academy at Tarrant County College, a partnership with TCC and Trinity River Authority. It offers classes, educational opportunities and paid internship opportunities.  

[20:05] Tyler Community College will offer continuing education courses, build the relationship while they also build a similar water academy there.

Communication and clean water:

[23:10] It used to be that if we were cleaning the water we were doing our job and no one needed to say anything about it. If we’re having to clean water we’re therefore saying that people make the water dirty, and yet there is a stigma around talking about it.

[26:02] There has been the move towards destigmatizing the clean water industry, talking about the infrastructure and communicating to the public. We’ve come to understand that we have to do this if we hope to get anywhere in regards to policy and funding.

Across the globe, it’s been recognized that offering sanitation services is a defining factor of being a developed nation, and yet in the US, we’ve only just started to get on board with communicating that publicly as a vital public service to human health.

The sector is undervalued because it’s NOT talked about and because of the stigma around the work they do.

[31:41] Pure Water Brew Alliance is really the perfect threefold demonstration tool for those 21 and above so communicate the incredible technology available that allows for direct potable reuse as a safe water supply source, the one water ethic in that all water is just one water, and a little about resource recovery plants and the delicate treatment process.

[38:16] Rebranding a member association. The clean water sector is innovative and doing rad things. They wanted a mark and a website that reflected that not only because that’s what they are but because that’s how they want to market themselves to members.

[40:45] One piece of advice is to be imaginative…you don’t have to have Texas in your logo just because you always have or because everyone else in your space does. Create a mark that represents where you want to go or that differentiates your organization.

[43:44] Women, diversity in water. Julie feels encouraged by the fact that the question of how to build more diversity in the workforce is being asked across the sector, not just within certain groups. Learn about the InFlow program of WEF…the outreach program from the clean water side to historically black universities and colleges. 

[47:04] Women side…we can support each other by making sure many different voices are being heard on conference panels, we can support each other through industry events, etc.

Resources:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sponsor:

This episode is powered by Rogue Water, the public communication company founded by the H2duO, Stephanie Zavala and Arianne Shipley. Rogue Water is dedicated to revolutionizing the water industry—one person, one story, one experience at a time. We are award-winning communication professionals with a decade of experience working in water utilities moving the needle forward in communication, outreach, and education to build stronger relationships between the water sector and the public it serves. These relationships serve as the foundation needed to make the necessary changes that create a sustainable water future for all. Are you ready to go Rogue?


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