Municipal Water Leader
Interview

The Water Tower: A Water Innovation Center for the Southeastern United States

The Water Tower is a new water innovation center headquartered in Buford, Georgia. Its campus, expected to be completed in 2022, will include laboratories, a field training center, and access to real effluent and reuse water for research purposes. However, The Water Tower is already moving forward with programming in four key areas: applied research, technology innovation, community engagement, and workforce development. In this interview, Kristan VandenHeuvel, The Water Tower’s strategic director of research and engagement, tells Municipal Water Leader about the center’s vision of being a water hub for the entire Southeast and how it is already making that a reality. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: I am fairly new to the Buford, Georgia, area. My career brought me here in September 2019, when I accepted the position of strategic director of research and engagement for The Water Tower. Prior to that, I had been working at the Water Research Foundation (WRF) in Alexandria, Virginia, where I focused on water reuse and water resource management. The work was heavily oriented to agricultural water use, and I also participated in outreach and engagement for the water industry. Through that, I was able to develop my skills in research planning and project management. 

Interestingly, The Water Tower’s current CEO, Melissa Meeker, was CEO of WRF at the time I was working there. Melissa was recruited by the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources with the goal of developing the new Water Tower innovation center in Buford. She invited me to come on board to manage the research and community engagement programs. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us an overview of the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources, its current services, and how the idea of The Water Tower evolved? 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: Gwinnett County and its Department of Water Resources have always had the reputation of being progressive and forward thinking. The water department’s F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center is a world-renowned wastewater treatment and resource recovery facility. People from all over the world come to visit and learn about its innovative approaches. There are also four other plants that are devoted to a mixture of water and wastewater treatment and that incorporate thousands of miles of pipe and numerous pump stations. 

The previous director of the department came up with the vision of The Water Tower as an innovation space. The idea was that the Gwinnett County system would be involved in the creation of The Water Tower, but that The Water Tower would operate as a separate nonprofit that could apply for grants and provide training and resources for the immediate area surrounding Gwinnett and the southeastern United States more broadly. It is still a work in progress. For example, the staff of The Water Tower are still employees of the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources. However, once established, The Water Tower will be a separate entity with its own employees.

Municipal Water Leader: What sort of entity is The Water Tower right now?

Kristan VandenHeuvel: There are two nonprofits, a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), that are collectively known as The Water Tower. The 501(c)(3) is focused on programming in four key areas: applied research, technology innovation, community engagement, and workforce development. The 501(c)(4) is focused on the real estate development of The Water Tower’s campus. The Water Tower is not just one structure; it is an entire campus. Part of our sustainable funding plan is to develop the area surrounding our main building. As we lease it out to water-related businesses, the revenue will be used as a sustainable funding source for the 501(c)(3).

Municipal Water Leader: How many employees does The Water Tower have at the moment?

Kristan VandenHeuvel: Currently, we have a staff of four and two interns. We are small but mighty!

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the four focus areas you mentioned above.

Kristan VandenHeuvel: The Water Tower’s campus will offer world-class facilities and access to fully functioning real-world test conditions for researchers. We’re piping in primary effluent, secondary effluent, and reuse water to our demonstration area so that researchers can use those real flows for their experiments and then run their tests in the lab we’ll have in our headquarters.

We are crafting our research programming through the development of the Lake Lanier 5-Year Research Plan. Our goal is to develop a suite of projects to be carried out over 5 years with the objective of benefiting the Lake Lanier watershed. The watershed and the lake itself are extremely important to our region, as the lake serves as a water source as well as a discharge point for treated effluent. The transformation of wastewater into reusable water is becoming more and more important in regions throughout our country and the world, and doing it here will require thoughtful planning and the monitoring of the watershed and lake. Various water research projects and planning efforts have been carried out in the Lake Lanier watershed in the past, but we have found that there is no centralized, coordinated plan that brings all the stakeholders together.

The Lake Lanier 5-Year Research Plan involves a three-step process. First, we gathered input from stakeholders from throughout the watershed, including utilities, water organizations, associations, and other folks who have a vested interest in the lake about the challenges they are facing. Then we took those challenges to our technical advisory committee, which is a group made up of researchers with backgrounds in fields like ecology, limnology, and water resources management and other people who have worked on projects in the watershed in the past. Now, we’re translating the stakeholder needs we identified into concrete projects. The 5-year plan will be funded through crowdsourcing and grants. Researchers outside The Water Tower staff will conduct the applied research.

Municipal Water Leader: You also referred to your plans to do workforce development. Does that refer to training people for careers in water resources?

Kristan VandenHeuvel: Yes. Especially in light of the current coronavirus situation, one thing we constantly highlight is that water and wastewater operators and workers are part of the essential workforce. It’s really important, especially considering the number of people in the industry who are nearing the point of qualifying for retirement, that we bring in young folks, get them excited about the industry through internships and apprenticeships, and eventually get them established as licensed operators. 

We have a blended learning model that combines three different types of learning. The first is in-field training. We are building a field training center on The Water Tower campus where trainees can go and move dirt with heavy equipment, take apart a pump and put it back together, and see how things work through hands-on experience. The second type of learning is standard lecture-style classroom training. The third type is online courses. We’re working with a local association called the Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) to help young people access state-approved operator certification courses so that they can get certified, start working, and advance their careers.

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some of the community engagement activities you have planned?

Kristan VandenHeuvel: Our outreach involves fun, water-related engagement opportunities that encourage people to start talking and learning about water. Currently, we have a quarterly Women, Water, and Wine networking event that brings women in the water industry together to expand their networks and to talk about professional development and how to advance their careers. We have also launched a virtual water-related book club that meets online every other month. Beyond just reading books as a group, we have invited the authors to join us for conversation and questions, which has been quite interesting. 

We’re also developing a traveling water bar—essentially a repurposed food truck—that will be taken to local festivals and events. The truck will provide drinking water and serve as a handwashing station. As people come to wash their hands or get a drink of water, they will also get a quick bit of education from the volunteers operating the truck. 

Another thing we are working on is a youth environmental summit for high-school-age students, which will be held on the campus once we can gather again in person. This initiative will allow students to talk about the value of water; participate in activities and challenges; and hear from engineers, operators, and others in the water field. 

In addition, we’ve developed a suite of educational videos for public schools in Gwinnett County. We provided them online during the initial coronavirus school break in March–April 2020 while students were all at home. Our videos featured conversations of around 8 minutes with water professionals from across the country in which they discussed how they had become involved in the water industry and shared their advice for students. The underlying focus, of course, was on trying to get students excited about careers in water. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your technology innovation pillar. 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: As a part of our technology innovation pillar, we offer water technology companies workspace, mentors, a network they can bounce ideas off, and employment opportunities for those technologies. For example, a vendor can approach us with a particular technology, expressing the desire to demonstrate it to the industry and to gain recognition for it. The technology can be hooked up to our real flow system in order to be analyzed by panel experts to confirm that it matches the expectations hypothesized by the manufacturer. Thereafter, it may receive a certification from The Water Tower. The beauty of this approach is that manufacturers can get real-time feedback as well as instant exposure for their technologies. They can also connect with the researchers on the campus and the utility staff who are taking part in the workforce development program. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are you planning to set up partnerships with municipalities, universities, and other entities? 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: Yes. Our founding partners are Gresham Smith; the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources; Siemens; Mueller; and JEA, a utility company in Jacksonville, Florida. Having JEA as a partner already brings us beyond Georgia into the broader Southeast. We have innovation partners as well, such as Georgia State University, Tetra Tech, and GAWP. As we establish new partnerships, we are expanding our reach beyond Gwinnett County. Our campus itself is located between I-985 and I-85, which makes it easy to visit. 

Municipal Water Leader: How will The Water Tower benefit the area economically? 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: While the construction of the campus is really in its beginning phases, much of the operational programming is already well underway. Once the physical campus is completed in early 2022, our headquarters building and the different businesses on the campus will provide employment opportunities. We’ll work with utilities in the area to place employees in our workforce development program. The specific number is hard to nail down at this point, but we’ll have a staff on the campus guiding people through internships and apprenticeships with the water-related businesses we’ll have on campus to advance their careers. 

Municipal Water Leader: Were you inspired by any other existing water resources hubs in the United States? 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: There are some awesome examples of innovation centers and water clusters in the United States and around the world. We have been speaking with them and coordinating with some of them. Our goal has been to learn from and build off those interactions, but we always planned to approach the concept a little differently. Most other innovation centers are focused solely on economic development, but we wanted to come at the topic holistically. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of The Water Tower? 

Kristan VandenHeuvel: We started locally, but we’re already expanding beyond the borders of the county and the state into the Southeast as a whole. Our vision is to continue to expand so that we can provide the benefits of our campus to researchers and utilities nationwide and eventually even internationally. Our mission is to help small-and medium-size utilities become more progressive, and we want to reach as many people and organizations as we can. We’re hoping to be a one-stop shop for all things related to innovation, workforce development, applied research, community engagement, and technology. I think we are off to a great start. 

Kristan VandenHeuvel is the strategic director of research and engagement at The Water Tower. She can be contacted at kristan@theh2otower.org.