The American Water Works Association (AWWA) provides advocacy, education, and tools to support new and experienced managers in the water industry. The California-Nevada Section of AWWA (CA-NV AWWA), one of AWWA’s 43 constituent sections, works to solve water problems for utilities and water organizations in a region that struggles with droughts, water affordability, and wildfires. In this interview, Sue Mosburg, the executive director of CA-NV AWWA, tells us about her organization’s efforts to support the water industry through trying times.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Sue Mosburg: I started working in water when I was a senior in high school. My first job was as a lake ranger’s assistant at the City of San Diego’s drinking water reservoirs. I enjoyed that job for 9 years before going to work for San Diego’s safety training program. I then worked for a drinking water system in the San Diego region. I became involved with AWWA at the local level when operator certification programs became a new requirement in the 1990s. I became an active leader in AWWA and moved up through the volunteer structure. About a year and a half ago, CA-NV AWWA was looking for an executive director. I was ready to retire from public agency service at the water system, but not ready to leave the industry. I applied for the position and got it. I started in the executive director role in January 2020.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about CA-NV AWWA.
Sue Mosburg: AWWA, our parent organization, is the largest nonprofit scientific and educational association in the world. CA-NV AWWA is also a nonprofit association. Our mission mirrors AWWA’s: We support water professionals and provide training services and certification activities. We celebrated our 100th anniversary last year. We provide the services network needed to bring the local drinking water community together. Our focus is on education, knowledge transfer, and advocacy.
Municipal Water Leader: Is AWWA made up of different regional sections like yours?
Sue Mosburg: AWWA is made up of 43 different sections based in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. AWWA also has members across the globe, including, for example, a large number of members in Japan, and has some satellite organizations, such as India AWWA. AWWA has about 50,000 members. CA-NV AWWA represents 10 percent of the total membership.
Each section works independently to put on educational courses and networking activities and to support the local needs of its membership. The association’s headquarters tends to focus more on the overarching elements. The association has manuals of practice and technical committees that deal with topics that affect the entire membership and focuses on advocacy at the national U.S. level. If there are regional issues, such as water supply issues in California that have to do with the state’s unique blend of wholesalers and retailers, they will be dealt with by a local section. The local section will interact with state regulators and advocate on state issues.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are AWWA’s members?
Sue Mosburg: Individuals and organizations. Our organizational members include water and wastewater systems, utilities, manufacturers, service providers, and consulting firms. Many individuals at member organizations also hold their own individual memberships. They include engineers, water system operators, managers, scientists, environmentalists, and academics. Our membership includes both the regulated and the regulators. Most stakeholder groups are represented in our membership, including customers.
CA-NV AWWA’s membership unites and educates the larger community of water utilities, engineers, water system operators and managers, scientists, environmentalists, consultants, manufacturers, commercial businesses, academics, regulators, and others who provide safe and reliable water in a manner that ensures public health while also providing safe and sufficient water for all.
Municipal Water Leader: What does it mean for AWWA to be a standard-setting organization?
Sue Mosburg: AWWA started publishing what we call consensus documents around 1908. Today, there are more than 180 officially documented AWWA standards, addressing all facets of water supply, treatment, delivery, distribution, operational issues, and management. Those documents reflect the state of the industry and set the best practices and standards with which many organizations comply. They are created through a formal standard-setting process. The AWWA standards council is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and it follows ANSI methodology to vet stakeholders and put together a group of stakeholders that represent the totality of the industry. At this point in time, over 1,600 volunteers serve as subject-matter experts for the AWWA standards council. The standards that AWWA pushes out don’t take precedence over applicable laws, regulations, or government codes. They are intended to represent the industry’s consensus of satisfactory service, and in some cases, to benchmark the industry’s best practices. AWWA is seen as an authoritative technical resource, but that is because it draws from all those voices.
At the section level, our standards are a little less formal, although we also rely on subject-matter experts to vet our programs. Although CA-NV AWWA doesn’t adhere to the full complexity of ANSI standards, we adhere to their intent and still try to get stakeholder knowledge. We have several disciplines in our certification program, including backflow and cross-connection control, advanced water treatment, and water use efficiency. We brought stakeholder groups together to develop all those programs and to maintain them following best-in-practice accreditation standards. We are moving toward being an ANSI-authorized provider of certification programs. The process we’ve used so far has brought us to the point where it’s time to step over that formal line. Similarly, our education program has been accredited by the International Accreditors for Continuing Education and Training (IACET), benchmarking the section as a provider of high-quality instruction.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your water utility council.
Sue Mosburg: Our water utility council is relatively new. We’ve had a government affairs council at the section level for a number of years, but we got to the point at which we realized that we needed to be a greater advocate for water utilities, and we decided to elevate our voice by forming the water utility council. It is a technical group that has been appointed to represent the broad spectrum of water systems within our section’s membership in terms of size, location, type of utility, and services offered. Our water utility council represents agencies from Northern California, Southern California, central California, and Nevada. It has two subgroups; one focuses on legislative issues and the other on regulatory issues. The council takes a look at proposals at the regulatory and legislative levels and makes sure they are aligned with technical realities. For example, if the devices to measure a certain constituent in the water only measure accurately down to a certain quantity, it’s hard to set a rule that requires the levels of that constituent to be any lower. If you can’t measure it, you can’t follow the rule. Our water utility council advocates for balanced, appropriate regulations and legislation based on the reality in the field. That mirrors what’s happening at the central AWWA water utility council, which has existed for a number of years and does the same thing on a national level with U.S. federal regulation.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the top issues CA-NV AWWA is addressing?
Sue Mosburg: In 2020, our section’s voice influenced several California legislative and regulatory questions. One specific area we dealt with was transparency for water quality response notification levels. We got involved with the revised standards for the California Environmental Lab Accreditation Program and have been involved in economic feasibility work related to safe drinking water standards and nonpoint source protection program implementation. We’ve also been heavily involved in the performance standards for water loss control for distribution systems and water efficiency. When the pandemic hit, we supported the shift to online certification examinations instead of in-person exams for distribution and treatment system operators so that operator certification could continue. Most recently, we’ve been involved with the comprehensive overhaul of California’s rules for backflow prevention and cross-connection control programs. Historically, we have focused on operator-centered, distribution- and treatment-related, and water-quality-related issues. Over the last few years, we’ve expanded our involvement in issues related to water efficiency, water loss, environmental concerns, and disadvantaged communities.
Municipal Water Leader: What are your educational and training activities on the section level, and who are the main audiences for them?
Sue Mosburg: Our primary education and training audience is made up of the newer system distribution and treatment operators who are progressing in their professional careers. They come to our classes either to prepare for higher-level certifications or to receive ongoing education credit and stay abreast of new regulations. We also provide initial and refresher backflow-prevention and cross-connection-control training for those who seek certification in these disciplines. As a result of the COVID‑19 pandemic, we learned that we needed to bolster our online learning opportunities. With the wildfires in the state, drought issues, and affordability issues, we had to expand our educational offerings. Now, we have on-demand content and an online training program called H2OKnow that is available 24/7. Many of the certified water operators use it for their ongoing education. We also continue to do individualized web-based classroom training and in-person training for backflow specialists. We have IACET-accredited coursework approved for those who are aiming to become certified operators and need specialized training to meet their certification requirements. Our classes in distribution-treatment operations and math make up the core of what we do, but we complement that with emergency response training and specialized topics.
Over the last 5 years, recognizing workforce issues, we’ve started to reach out to students, encouraging them to consider a job in water when they’re young and still thinking about what they want to do. We have local AWWA student chapters, including seven in the California-Nevada region. Through those chapters, we’re linking industry professionals with university students to talk about careers in the industry, providing them with plant tours, and establishing personal connections to managers so that they can understand the industry and how exciting it might be for them.
Municipal Water Leader: Are there any other top issues that AWWA is working on?
Sue Mosburg: The biggest issue we’re spending time on right now is water affordability. After COVID‑19 hit California, water agencies found they were no longer able to shut off customers for nonpayment of water bills. That caused some arrearages, which we are helping water systems work through. It’s important that water systems have tools that support customers and encourage them to make timely payments. Many water systems are struggling to find equitable solutions to keep the water flowing at an affordable price. There are many new water quality regulations and regulations that require upgrades to treatment plans. Affordability will affect many of us in what we do, how we do it, and where our industry goes.
Another issue that is becoming an area of focus is water supply availability. That’s a given in California and Nevada, where we always have cycles of shortage. As we move forward, especially with climate change, supply availability will be an even greater issue. So will source water protection, including dealing with microplastics, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Ten years ago, those weren’t on our radar, but they are now, and they’re issues that we’re tackling with individual struggling agencies.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Sue Mosburg: Safe, reliable water for all. That vision is achievable through collaboration. I see a future in which CA-NV AWWA creates meaningful and functional opportunities for all our members to contribute to the water community, including those who are new. I see a future in which we create opportunities for that dialogue and contribution across the industry and across the water community. I see a future in which CA-NV AWWA delivers sound, relevant, and innovative education and certification programs to prepare those who are coming into the industry for future opportunities. I see AWWA promoting the vital place of water in public health and the environment to the larger community. We tend to focus on our piece of the industry and forget how it fits into the larger picture of the health and well-being of the entire community. I want to do that better by educating those who are on the fringes of our communities and elevating the public’s trust in the services we provide. After working for a government agency for several decades, I know that there is a level of distrust. I strongly believe that in the United States, specifically in the urban areas of California and Nevada, our water systems are robust. They provide good-quality water, and we need to continue to urge the public to trust, believe, and pay appropriately for that service.