I’ve been trying to decide on the best thing about GMWEA’s Spring Conference, which is coming up on May 20 and 21, from 8:15 a.m. to 12:30, online. And I can’t. There’s just so much informative, entertaining, and important stuff going on.
Maybe it’s the talk by Haley Pero, outreach specialist from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s office. Haley has been deeply involved in water quality issues, and for this appearance she agreed to talk about forthcoming federal funding for water quality infrastructure. We asked her to detail how much money is coming, where it’ll hit the ground in Vermont, and how municipalities can get in line for it. Not to be missed!
But then there’s Jeff Wennberg’s keynote address. Jeff retired in January after 35 years as DEC commissioner, mayor of Rutland, and head of Rutland’s DPW. I’ve worked with Jeff on various projects since 2004, and he really knows his stuff – the big picture AND the little details. His decades-long perspective on the water quality sector, a look back and a well-informed look into the future, is sure to be invaluable. Plus he’s a terrific speaker with a great sense of humor.
Of course, nobody should miss our annual Service Excellence Awards presentations. Nominations from around the state arrived starting in January and, given 2020’s trials and tribulations, our awards committee had to choose among some true heroes in the drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater fields. Operators, facilities, companies, and lab techs will all be honored, and everybody in the water quality community simply should BE THERE!
Then again, there are five hours of technical sessions, overflowing with TCHs. Topics range from basic skills to emerging technologies, and all are taught by top-notch experts. On Thursday, there’ll be sessions on Water Well Rehabilitation and Basic Math for Operators, and a session on a New Primary Bio-filter Technology that could change the game for facilities with small footprints. On Friday, there’ll be sessions on Affordable Telemetry for Small Systems and Water Corrosion Control.
The sponsor presentations will be great, too. Personally, I don’t want to miss DigSafe’s live how-to introduction to Exactix, a new web-based platform that allows excavators to create and manage their own DigSafe tickets online. And our fabulous new board candidates will introduce themselves. . .
Or maybe the best thing is that all this costs only $25 (for both days!), for GMWEA members.
All the details, including online registration and payment, are on our website at www.gmwea.org.
BIG THANKS are due our sponsors for this event, whose support allows GMWEA to present programs like this affordably: Ti-Sales, Surpass Chemical, Resource Management Inc., E.J. Prescott, Endyne Laboratory Services, DigSafe, and Champlin Associates. Be sure to check out their products, services, projects, and new technologies!
Jeff Wennberg claims he has retired. You can’t blame his colleagues for being skeptical.
A glance at his resume suggests why. He’s spent 35 years in environmental administration and public service, including serving as mayor of Rutland, commissioner of Vermont’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation, board member and president of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, chair of the environmental policy committee for the National League of Cities, chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee for US EPA, and served on many other government and non-profit organizations, and, until recently, as commissioner of Rutland’s Department of Public Works.
Jeff is a big-picture thinker who has a wonk’s fascination with technology. He operates with a refreshingly independent take on policy matters spiced with a sardonic sense of humor. And, fortunately for GMWEA, a long and deep commitment to water quality. (He’s been a member of GMWEA’s Government Affairs Committee for many years.)
Q: You earned a BS in Physics and an MS in Industrial Management. Why the switch to public service?
JW: When I served on the Rutland’s School Board, I discovered that public service gave me a greater sense of personal satisfaction than my private sector job. When it came time to move on, I sought out public sector work and landed a job with Congressman Jim Jeffords. Jeffords was a mentor of mine, along with Governor Richard Snelling and Jack Daley, mayor of Rutland.
Public servants can take pride in their work, knowing that they are making a real difference in peoples’ lives. Just look at our drinking water and wastewater personnel – these people take their jobs seriously and have enormous pride in the work they do. . . we’re lucky to have so many such motived, devoted people here in Vermont.
Q: And yet they’re largely unappreciated! People expect water to flow when they turn the tap, toilets to empty when they flush. They don’t recognize the infrastructure and human expertise and devotion that makes it happen!
JW: Exactly. But I say to my guys that when the people you serve DON’T notice – THAT is the definition of success. . . As DEC commissioner, and in Rutland, I always saw part of my job was to sing their praises – to communicate the degree of devotion and professionalism these people possess.
Q: Which you do very effectively. You show an impressive ability to convey complex, often technical ideas in accessible ways. Is that a native gift of gab, or a learned skill?
JW: It’s crucial to be able to translate to non-technical people the heart of a complex idea. For example, as commissioner of Vermont DEC, my very first invitation for a public speech was at a GMWEA conference. I wanted let them know where I was coming from as the new commissioner without getting into policy minutia.
Q: So, what did you tell those GMWEA members?
JW: I was very clear about where the rubber meets the road. I was already known for being outspoken in criticism of regulators, and I shared with the GMWEA audience what I said to the DEC staff: “When does environmental protection take place? It’s not when laws are made, it’s not when money is allocated, it’s not when rules are written or when the regulators are hired — not one pollutant is removed. The environment is protected when an alarm goes off at the wastewater treatment plant at 2 a.m. and the operator has the knowledge, the resources, and the authority to do the right thing.”
“The environment is protected when an alarm goes off at the wastewater treatment plant at 2 a.m. and the operator has the knowledge, the resources, and the authority to do the right thing.”
Q: You seem to be willing to be a maverick in policy perspectives — to take some heat if needed.
JW: I tell people, You gotta be willing to wear a ‘kick me’ sign, and wear it proudly! Good ideas often take heat if they challenge the status quo. I am willing to be someone who inflames if that’s what’s needed. Sometimes being a lightning rod is the way to get attention, which is always necessary if you want to change minds.
Q: One example might be your view on combined sewer systems. Rutland has had its problems with CSOs, yet you’re willing to tack against the prevailing winds of sentiment on that.
JW: Well, despite overflows, combined systems are demonstrably better than systems lacking stormwater treatment. Combined systems take in stormwater all year, removing pollutants every day EXCEPT for the comparatively brief overflows.
The Rutland plant processes about 1.7 billion gallons a year – about 650 to 750 million of which are stormwater. We showed that despite overflows, the net phosphorous removal was enormous. In 2017, 3 million gallons of wastewater bypassed the system during CSOs, allowing 73 pounds of phosphorus to be released. But 1,278 pounds were removed that same year by processing stormwater through the treatment plant. We need to look at the whole picture if we are going to successfully protect water quality.
So what’s next for Jeff Wennberg?
Jeff says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family – his wife of 43 years, two adult children, and three grand-kids. He still serves on GMWEA’s Government Affairs Committee and the Vt. Citizens Advisory Committee on the Lake Champlain’s Future. He’ll probably do some consulting – “but only if it’s fun.” And he plans to do some writing: “As everybody knows, I love to tell stories.” Like Abe Lincoln, he has a penchant for illustrating his thoughts with one-liner sayings or humorous stories — so he’s working on a collection of instructive anecdotes that offer advice based on his long professional experience.
“I say to my guys that when the people you serve DON’T notice — THAT is the definition of success.”
Editor: Jeff, thanks so much for your good work over so many years. Sorry, but people DID notice — and yet you still meet the definition of success. Best wishes in all your future endeavors!
The recent publication of GMWEA’s first “Don’t Flush It!” brochure sparked a lively discussion about food scraps among wastewater and solid waste management professionals. Should be they be flushed or processed in in-sink disposal units — and thus allowed into septic tanks or municipal wastewater systems?
The brochure, “Cloggers!”, identifies materials that typical households flush or pour into their septic/sewer systems – fats, oils, and greases, along with solid items – that clog tanks, pumps, and pipes.
Food scraps proved to be the most nuanced of these materials, due
to two, contradictory, characteristics:
1. They are valuable! They contain sequestered nutritional value, energy, and money, and their value can still be recovered even after the scraps leave your kitchen. (The average American household throws away about $1,600 worth of food every year!)
2. They are problematic! Stored
improperly, they can grow pathogens, stink, attract pests, and generate greenhouse gases; flushed,
they contribute to clogs in private septic systems and municipal wastewater plants.
The issue is especially urgent in that Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling & Composting Law, bans the disposal of food in landfills as of July 1, 2020.
What are we to think? Chittenden Solid Waste recently offered this view:
“. . . Don’t look at your garbage disposal for answers—Just ask the folks who manage wastewater treatment plants and witness the repercussions of putting the wrong things down the drain.
“’Organic overload is a concern in septic tanks as well as in wastewater treatment systems,’ says Jim Jutras, Water Quality Superintendent at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Essex, Vt. ‘Another concern is “hydraulic overload,” where home septic systems and municipal systems . . . accumulate material that can cause trouble, such as “flushable” wipes, grease, and food scraps. This can result in costly repairs or sewage overflows.’
“Some residences don’t have their own system, but do connect directly to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, via pump stations, which require regular maintenance due to the increase in food scraps and ‘flushables’ that can hang up in the pump and cause backups and sewer overflows.
“. . . The bottom line: Drains and garbage disposals are not the solution for handling your food scraps. Public and private water systems, especially older ones, are not designed to handle much more than human waste from your toilet, rinse water from the kitchen sink, or bath/shower water. Even items marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause problems.”
However, Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works in Rutland, offers this cautionary “minority report”:
“One-half of the dwelling units in Rutland City are rental units. The vast majority are multi-family homes and most of those do not have the homeowner residing in the home. In nearly all of these cases there is no yard to speak of (Rutland is only 7 square miles and 85% developed). The idea that absentee landlords are going to persuade renters to use composters in the apartment or on-site is totally unrealistic. Compliance with mandatory on-site composting will be 20% to 25% City-wide at best.”
Wennberg’s concern for compliance rates – and
for petroleum used in transporting food waste to centralized composting or
biodigestion facilities – is validated by past Vermont experiences in Zero
Waste and post-consumer food-waste value optimization.
What’s a householder to do?Fortunately, there are ways to avoid flushing food waste and to soften the edges of our hard choices. Again, thanks are due to CSWD for articulating some alternatives.
1. Store food better – buy smart and fine-tune your fridge
2. Donate food – plan your consumption, give excess to Vermont’s many hunger-fighting programs
3. Feed animals – get to know your local chicken and pig farmers
4. Digest it – compost it yourself, or find a neighbor
5. Recover energy – not yet an option in Vermont, but rather a systemic goal to strive for.
On May 5, Vermont Public Radio released a new podcast in its series “Brave Little State,” focusing on the challenges of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). The feature stemmed from a question offered by Winooski resident Mike Brown, who asked “Why do we have pollution in Lake Champlain, and what can we do about it?”
His question triggered a month-long investigation by reporters Angela Evancie and Taylor Dobbs and resulted in a 28-minute program that describes CSOs – what they are, what causes them, and why they’re so hard to manage – and explores the problem of aging water/wastewater infrastructure.
Led by Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works for Rutland City, the team visited one of Rutland’s four CSO outflow stations to learn more about the technologies and practices affecting combined stormwater/wastewater systems. The Rutland system was expanded to limit overflows to about two heavy precipitation events per year. However, due to changing weather patterns and the growth of the region’s developed landscape, stormwater volume has increased dramatically. The system now experiences 20 to 30 CSO events per year.
Wennberg, who would prefer to see no more than one every five years, emphasized that his department watches weather reports with extreme vigilance – and, often, extreme anxiety. Even so, he defended combined sewers as doing a superb job, saying that overflows constitute only a tiny proportion of the enormous amount of urban stormwater these systems treat.
Wennberg believes a three-pronged approach is needed to reduce CSOs: “green” infrastructure that encourages infiltration; “grey” infrastructure in the form of large, temporary holding tanks; and “data” infrastructure — technologies capable of rapidly-adaptive responses to unpredictable flow volumes.
As all operators know, it all comes down to “Who’s going to pay for it, and how soon?” Wennberg said. That question brought the reporters to the Statehouse, where they interviewed Rep. David Deen, chair of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. Deen explained that declining federal funding has limited the state’s ability to pay for water quality management improvements.
He also said that the state’s “best bang for the buck” would be investment in reducing runoff from agricultural lands and paved surfaces, which contribute the majority of phosphorous pollution. Dobbs reiterated that CSOs from municipal systems contribute only 4% of Lake Champlain’s phosphorous load.