How to Make Water more attractive than the Apple and Samsungs of this World

We’ve been regularly touching on how we’re facing an aging water infrastructure: and so is the water workforce as well! In light of the “silver wave,” we currently experience, how can we transform the water industry to attract new, diverse and dynamic talents?

This age and knowledge pyramid problem is of particular concern when you’re administrating a mid-sized or rural infrastructure. Hence today’s episode promises to be a fascinating exploration:

with 🎙️ Errick Simmons – Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, and co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.

💧 The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative works to improve the river’s water quality, restore its habitat, coordinate the state’s efforts, create sustainable economies around the basin, and celebrate the river’s culture and history.

This episode is part of my Series on the Water Crisis in America

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What we covered:

🧠 How to rethink water we need to rethink the World – what Errick has been contributing to at the last COP 26

🍀 How managing a river basin involves the entire Social, Environmental, and Governance spectrum of activities

👦🏽 How finding a way to attract and involve youth is a decisive factor in guaranteeing our water systems’ resilience in the coming decades

👴🏽 How the retiring workforce also leaves with a treasure of knowledge that needs to be transferred and safeguarded, and how it may require thinking laterally

🌊 How large-scale natural events and catastrophes impact a river basin and what can be done to preserve communities and perform pre-disaster mitigation

🤝 How the recent events in Jacksonville, Mississippi, highlight the need to reinforce solidarity and collaboration between neighbors and co-citizens of watersheds.

💪 How private and public forces should join their efforts to benefit from the best of two worlds – especially in presence of high social challenges

💻 How solutions from the past won’t be solutions for the future, what needs to change, and what role digitization will play in this

🏫 How solving the water riddle probably starts with water education and which role universities, scholarships, and grants will play in this

🧑🏾‍🤝‍🧑🏾 How diversity is an everyday battle, and how it is the best way to ensure we tap into our community’s full potential

💚 Partnerships, water becoming the “cool kid on the block,” water management as an integral part of environmental protection… and much more!

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥


➡️ Send your warm regards to Errick on Twitter  

➡️ Check the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative’s website 

➡️ A big THANK YOU to Sciens Water for enabling this episode!

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is on Linkedin ➡️

Teaser 1: We need new Funding Vehicles (w. Errick Simmons, Mayor of Greenville, MS)

Teaser 2: We need to retain experience & knowledge (Errick Simmons, MRCTI Co-Chair)

Full Video: My conversation with Errick Simmons

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

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Antoine Walter: Hi, Errick, welcome to the show!

Errick Simmons: Thank you.

Antoine Walter: I’m amazed to have the opportunity to speak with you today. I’ve read a lot about you. I’ve seen you featured in the press, in the news, at the COP 26… And I’m wondering, what’s your take on Rethinking Water? What do we need to rethink today?

Errick Simmons: Well, you know, when you rethink water, you’re rethinking the world.

And when we were in COP 26, when you begin to think about the issues and the challenges that we face with water, it’s a global issue. And given that it’s a global issue, it must have a global solution. And so I represent a group of mayors on the Mississippi River, a basin called Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiatives.

I’m the co-chair along with Jim Strickland of Memphis, Tennessee, and what we’re doing is looking not only at climate performance but how we’re rethinking water with aging infrastructure. Across America, across the world and how we can begin. And it’s wonderful to be here at Columbia University how we can begin to attract young folks to begin to look at water and rethink water, but also have careers in water as well.

 Our most prized natural resources are our young people from Mississippi to Beijing, from France to California. We have to look at young folks across the World .

Rethinking Water by involving young people

Antoine Walter: So that means when you’re thinking of water, the number one thing you want to look into is the young people. That’s quite an interesting approach!

Errick Simmons: It is! You have to begin to do that, uh, with aging infrastructure, uh, and aging systems and folks dying out literally in Greenville, Mississippi. What we’ve had to do is literally look at retaining the folks with the years of experience, and we’ve done that by bringing in private companies that come in to take over our wastewater treatment plant.

But hire them, because folks, when they get to that age of retirement, they wanna begin to receive their retirement benefits and they wanna go home. But when they go home, they’re leaving with the years of experience that you need to operate a water and waste water system. And so we got to look at ways to retain the seniority and the, the, the talent and challenge and experience that folks have, but also acquire that new, uh, hope in young folks.

Water quality is at the heart of Rivershed management

Antoine Walter: You’re focusing on water quality with the Mississippi River Cities and Towns initiative. And that water quality, you’re right, has a lot to do with the way you treat the wastewater and probably the way you treat the watershed. What is the number one challenge you have today besides that silver wave you just, uh, mentioned?

Errick Simmons: Well, specifically along the Mississippi River, we have sustained over 210 billion in actual losses since 2005. And so the largest share of the loss is from the destruction of major damage on the critical infrastructure platforms of our entire infrastructure portfolio. Bridges and water systems remain the most expensive spending lines that we’re seeing from Memphis to Greenville, from New Orleans to Bemidji m Minnesota.

However, it’s very important, uh, to note that we’re not just talking about the damage to hardware, like pipes and pumps and treatment plants and technology, but more importantly, the environmental systems, uh, that provide our fresh water supply, like you just mentioned, increasing stress and accelerating the climate risk.

So the ecology responsible for our water, the surface water, the aquifers, the lake. The streams throughout our beautiful Mississippi River Valley are being tapped more than ever before and are sustaining drought, extreme heat, and record breaking flooding. So we’re seeing 1000, 2000 year floods just like Jackson.

Jackson just hit that heavy rain pour and Jackson, Mississippi that crippled their system. And so people don’t have safe drinking water in 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. And so we’re looking at ways to begin to address that by looking at the watershed, but also looking at nature based infrastructure. We have a partner, Ducks Unlimited, that we’re deploying 66,000 acres of nature based infrastructure on the Mississippi River in about eight states.

And so when you do that, it’s ecologically. It’s environmentally safe, but also for the struggling industries that right there on the port or in our cities, it’s economically beneficial to them as well. And so we’re looking at a new, a number of innovative ways to protect the watershed, the food quality, and also the water quality in the Mississippi of of Basin.

How Greenville supports Jacksonville, Mississippi

Antoine Walter: You started off by explaining how water is a global topic. It is. And water is also a very local topic. It is. Usually, it’s at a very, very, very local place. It is. And actually you have a good example of. Bit beyond that local aspect. You mentioned Jackson, and I think you’ve been supporting Jackson, so it’s, it’s local, but you can be helping your neighbor.

Definitely. So how do you see that cooperation between neighbors? Mm-hmm. a bit wider between more distant neighbors than within a region, a country estate.

Errick Simmons: I’m a firm believer that a friend in need is a friend indeed. And just neighboring city of Jackson when they needed. You know, the Bible tells us, loved our neighbors ourself.

And so what we did, we partnered with private folks. We partnered with Dollar Tree and Family Dollar to provide 18 wheel loads of water to the folks in need that dealing with the water crisis in, in Jackson. But what we do from a corridor scale on the Mr. River Cities and towns initiative is when we have natural disasters like Hurricane Ida, Hurricane Katrina that hits Gretna or New Orleans.

It comes upstream. Or when you. Snow to melt in the upper Mississippi Valley. It comes down the river and it creates high water events for us. And what it does, it strains our, uh, wastewater systems, uh, and it strains our infrastructure. We just have to work on a corridor scale, quarter scale, and look at a weight to be able to be regional friends to address a regional problem and a global problem as.

The importance of private/public partnerships in a city’s water management

Antoine Walter: You mentioned these partnerships between the municipality and the private companies. How important is that private-public partnership?

Errick Simmons: It’s very important because when you look at some of the solutions, the way of the past is not gonna keep us moving for the future. When you think about. You know, water and sewer rates.

Right now in Greenville, Mississippi, we use our sewer revolving loan fund, and we’re looking at the large vehicles like the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act. All of those things are gonna help, but cities like Greenville, Mississippi that got black and brown communities haven’t been able to be beneficial or benefit from these large scale vehicles.

What we’ve been doing is getting sewer revolving loan fund and the bipartisan infrastructure laws, providing some help with that, but in order to pay for. You’re taken from the top of your budget, the sales tax revenue. When you take the sales tax revenue from your budget, it’s a form of regressive tax on black and brown folks and poor folks in the community.

Greenville has a 38.6% poverty rate. We have elderly, uh, ladies that get an SSI check of $757 a month. They’re deciding to whether they want clean water. Or wastewater versus their medicine or their groceries. And so what you have to begin to do is look at some of these vehicles, the federal funding vehicles, but look at private equity as a source as well to get consistent rates.

Get rates that’s probably gonna be consistent and level out versus the increased regressive rates that you’re gonna see to fix an old aging system. The o and m costs, the operation and maintenance costs of these systems are gonna continue to rise, and then when Covid hit, the pandemic created a global supply chain.

The global supply issue makes, you know, Delivery of these equipment, hardware, and the piping and all of that. Even more difficult and challenging for communities like Greenville, Mississippi.

When we rethink water, how much outside of the box shall we go?

Antoine Walter: We are here at Rethinking Water. Yes. So I’m thinking if we go a bit outside of the box mm-hmm. , there might be many different ways to rethink water.

One might say, why not go fully distributed? And then the infrastructure is no longer a struggle or to go on a bigger scale and benefit from scale effects and having even more infrastructure. Your vision of that future of water?

Errick Simmons: My vision of the future of water is completely the digitized water in a way where we can see the problems coming before they come.

You can see a system failing or a pipe fail, or a force main failing before it, it hits you. The create, uh, the emergency effect that increase costs to the taxpayers, uh, but also increase the. On those poor folks and less fortunate folks, we’re gonna have to digitize water, but we also gonna have to truly put in, in place an attractive tool and a recruitment tool for young folks to be more involved.

And, uh, getting certified folks, young folks involved in wastewater in water. That’s how you’re really rethink it.

Scholarships and Water Education will help solve the world’s pressing water challenges

Antoine Walter: And how do you do that? Because it sounds to be something we should at.

Errick Simmons: Yeah, so, so we, at Columbia University, you got to begin. Put in stem, uh, uh, jobs and careers. We need universities around the world to begin to offer scholarships to young folks to get into the water and wastewater industry.

You’re also gonna need, even at a local level, whether it’s mayors, youth councils, or even in high school, in elementary school, to begin to talk about the importance of water. You know, folks really don’t recognize the significance of water. And so when you begin. Educate and educate and educate and re-educate, you’ll begin to have the attraction and recruitment that’s needed.

Uh, for rethinking water.

We need to further enhance the Water Sector’s diversity

Antoine Walter: In the water sector, there’s estimated to be about 17% of women, which means we don’t tap and to almost half of the potential out there as it’s also one of the access you’d like to follow to. To find more talents, more brains, more, more hands.

Errick Simmons: You need to look for women, you know, uh, women, uh, are mother mothers of this earth, and you need to begin to look at women.

Uh, but you also need to look at minorities as well. Much like, you know, the president is talking about Justice 40 and the equity strategies regarding equity and how do we begin to look at black and brown communities, but also small and minority businesses as well. Uh, the vice p. Came to Greenville in April the first, and she came to Greenville to talk about small communities and small businesses, and she went to minority businesses in the community.

We’ve really done a great job in Greenville, Mississippi. At the height of the pandemic, we gave $3,000 grants away to women own businesses, and we did it because we wanted them to survive and thrive, but also how do we keep them moving given the pandemic? Mm-hmm. , when we rethink water, we need to look at grant opportunities from a federal.

And from a state scale, but we also from a local scale, need to begin to train young. Young, black and brown women, uh, to get involved in water as well.

Antoine Walter: If you’re looking into my water crystal ball, you can look in five years, 10 years. What tells you that you’ve succeeded?

Errick Simmons: When we have more women in the water and wastewater industry, when we have disadvantaged communities, third world countries, whether.

The Mississippi River Basin, the Nile, the yoga around the world began to truly understand water, deploying natural infrastructure to help solve natural disasters. Sequester carbon, have climate performance, but also. Have a large swell ground swell of young folks involved in the water industry. Uh, you know, you got a lot of folks getting in the tech industry, but if you’re gonna digitize and rethink water, just like folks have iPhones and Samsungs, We need people to be thinking about water and wastewater at the same scale or even greater.

Antoine Walter: Usually. I’m wrong enough. These interviews with rapid fur questions, so I just have one or two for you. Yes.

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Rapid Fire Questions

Antoine Walter: My first one is what is the favorite project you’ve been involved in and why?

Errick Simmons: The one that we are very proud of right now. Is our partner with Ducks Unlimited, and this is the natural infrastructure project that we’re deploying about 66,000, uh, acres of natural-based infrastructure.

It’s gonna most definitely sequester carbon. It’s gonna help with reconnected flood plains, but it also helps with the risks that we see in our cities and towns when we have high. Water events that not only destroy the infrastructure and wastewater piping in our collection system, it’s gonna lessen the burden there, but as environmentally safe, as economically safe, as ecologically sound, but also it’s economically beneficial to those struggling industries right there under the Mississippi River in our ports.

So it is all around great solution win-win for not only wildlife in the water file, but also for the cities and towns on the Mississippi River base.

Antoine Walter: And it started all of that. A global view. So I have that last question for you, which is usually something people have to really project themselves, but for you it might be a bit closer to to your reality.

Mm-hmm. , if you were a world leader tomorrow, what would be your first action to influence the fate of the world? Crisis.

Errick Simmons: We have to protect the environment. Water is the environment. And if we begin to see water as the environment and put forth strategies, global strategies and solution in protecting water, we’ll protect food quality food supply.

We can address food insecurity. We can address economic development and third world countries, and we can begin to truly merge our differences that are. By boundary lines or by rivers and continents to understand human dignity and respect people and who they are and understand that we all need water to survive.

And because we all need that water as a survival tool, we all cannot survive without each other. It’s a way to say, Take care of each other and look at it that

Antoine Walter: way. I guess that’s a perfect conclusion. Thanks a lot. Thank you. I was honored to speak with you!

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