In an economy altered by the coronavirus pandemic, water and wastewater industry essential employees remain in demand. To help people explore their career options, the Cuyamaca College Center for Water Studies program will hold its annual Open House and Student Orientation at distance via Zoom on Tuesday, August 11, at 6 p.m.
State legislation co-sponsored by the San Diego County Water Authority and the Otay Water District has been signed into law, making it possible for veterans to receive credit for their military education and experience when applying for civilian water and wastewater system operator certifications in California.
State legislators, water industry leaders, veteran advocates and business and community organizations gathered at the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park today to celebrate Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of Assembly Bill 1588.
The bill was introduced in the state legislature by Assemblymembers Todd Gloria (San Diego) and Adam Gray (Merced), and co-authored by several state legislators, including Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath (Oceanside).
The Water Authority and the Otay Water District co-sponsored the bill to increase the number of military veterans entering the civilian water and wastewater industry at a time when many Baby Boomers are retiring.
‘Silver Tsunami’ of retirements in water industry
“The new law helps our communities two ways – by lowering employment barriers for our veterans and sustaining our vital water and wastewater services for the next generation,” said Water Authority Board Secretary Christy Guerin. “This was a victory for San Diego and the whole state – a successful, bipartisan effort that will help maintain our economy and quality of life.”
The Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have created a regional workforce development task force to address the “Silver Tsunami” of retirees. The task force reported that there are approximately 4,500 water and wastewater positions in the San Diego region – and more than 1,400 of those workers are expected to reach retirement age by 2024. Statewide, there are approximately 6,000 active certified wastewater treatment plant operators and approximately 35,000 drinking water treatment and distribution operators.
Several states help veterans navigate the civilian water system operator certification process and allow veterans to apply equivalency standards to credit military experiences toward state or industry certifications in water and wastewater treatment and distribution. However, no similar approach existed in California.
Creating bridges to water industry jobs
“What we are missing, and what this bill addresses, is a pathway in which we honor the experience of our veterans and allow that experience to qualify them for a career path in our civilian water systems,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria. “Thanks to Governor Newsom, that pathway now exists. California will now properly credit the service of our veterans and enable them to secure good-paying jobs here in our water system. In this time – when the importance of clean water and good paying jobs is undeniable – let’s create bridges not barriers.”
AB 1588 provides a pathway for military veterans to apply their advanced skills and experience toward state and industry-supplied certifications in the water and wastewater treatment and distribution operator fields. Additionally, it ensures that advanced water treatment operators and distribution system operators of potable reuse and recycled water facilities have a career advancement path as certified water and/or wastewater treatment plant operators.
“San Diego County is home to more than 240,000 veterans with skills that benefit our region in numerous ways,” said Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas, a co-author of the bill. “With this legislation, we are building stronger communities that can remain home to servicemembers after they take off the uniform and transition into civilian life.”
Veterans continue public service in water industry
Assistant Chief of Water Operations at the Otay Water District Jose Martinez is a veteran who initiated the idea of the bill and has thrived in the civilian water industry. “As someone who had the pleasure to serve alongside the members of the military responsible for the safe and reliable operation of water and wastewater systems, I observed firsthand their education, experience and dedication,” he said.
“Now, as a water manager responsible for providing safe and reliable water and wastewater services to the public, I championed this bill to provide a path for veterans to receive the certification credit they have earned after years of service. This will ensure that the water sector continues to recruit from the biggest and best talent pools to provide the highest level of service to everyone.”
The first Hydro Station in California opened August 15 in Chula Vista.
The interactive educational space is a joint partnership between the Sweetwater Authority, Otay Water District, and the Chula Vista Elementary School District.
The Hydro Station, at the Richard A. Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility, features learning exhibits and hands-on activities to introduce fifth grade students to the ecological cycle of water, water conservation, water quality, and careers in the water industry.
More than 4,000 students are expected to visit the Hydro Station annually.
Making the world ‘a better place’
“The Hydro Station introduces our students to the world of work in the water industry and inspires them at an early age to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics,” said CVESD Superintendent Dr. Francisco Escobedo. “With this station, we expose students to careers that can change the trajectory of entire families, opening the door to high-wage careers that our students might not have thought were possible.
“The students also explore ways to make the world a better place through clean water, and water conservation,” added Escobedo.
New generation encouraged to consider careers as water industry professionals
More than 2,800 people work in the water and wastewater sector at the San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies. One-third of these industry professionals will be eligible for retirement in the next few years.
“It’s an opportunity for a new generation to join us in our mission to deliver safe and reliable water to hundreds and thousands of people in communities that rely on us as water professionals,” said Tish Berge, Sweetwater Authority general manager.
As part of the Hydro Station experience, students will have three dedicated days focused on career opportunities in Information and Communication Technologies, Clean Energy, and the Blue Economy. They will learn how their strengths, interests, and values may align with career options. Hands-on activities will also help them make connections to specific careers.
Hydro Station mission is about education and conservation
“I have served many years in the water industry, which has allowed me to experience the evolving industry climate firsthand,” said Mark Watton, Otay Water District general manager. “The high level of retirements, new technologies, and increased demand for safe drinking water all contribute to the availability of good, stable careers and employment.”
“We want to make sure that a rewarding career in the water and wastewater industry is within reach for as many local students as possible who are vocational or college bound, and the Hydro Station helps us do that,” he added.
The Hydro Station’s location is ideal to educate students on how their strengths, interests, and values can connect with careers in the water industry while presenting opportunities to solve real-world problems through the Engineering Design Process. It will also serve to educate children and their families, as well as the community, on the thoughtful use of water resources.
Construction costs have surged across the nation over the past year as prices for materials used in construction have risen. At the same time, contractors are struggling to meet project deadlines due to a shortage of skilled workers, construction trade industry publication Constructive Dive reported on March 18.
Those higher construction costs are impacting local agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority. Agency staff briefed the Board of Directors’ Engineering and Operations Committee in mid-March on how those market changes are driving up costs of infrastructure and maintenance projects.
“The Water Authority will monitor market trends and adjust individual project budgets as required,” said Gary Bousquet, the Water Authority’s deputy director of engineering. “Our planning process includes prioritizing projects, and evaluating the timing or need and scope of projects. We will adjust our project cost estimates to meet changing market conditions.”
Labor shortage adds to increasing costs
A labor shortage in the construction industry is one of several factors increasing costs.
“While construction hiring remained very widespread through January , industry employment gains nationally slowed in February—possibly an indication that the pool of qualified workers has dried up in many markets,” Ken Simonson, chief economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a new report.
The report showed that construction employment declined by 1,300 jobs in the San Diego region from January 2018 to January 2019.
“There are many large-scale construction projects underway in Southern California, while at the same time, there is a shortage of skilled and unskilled labor, which means greater competition for those workers,” said Brent Fountain, a principal engineer with the Water Authority. “In addition, increasing prices for materials are impacting the costs for both maintenance and capital projects.”
Water Authority project bids from contractors in 2018 ranged from $200,000 to $6 million over the project costs estimated by the Water Authority, according to Fountain.
Contractors bid above estimates in 2018
“We’ve received fewer bids at higher bid amounts from contractors for several projects in the past eight months,” he said. “The Water Authority generally had more bids and bid amounts closer to our project cost estimates, from 2014 through 2017.”
In previous years, bid amounts were typically closer to project cost estimates and sometimes the bids came in well below the estimates.
Contractors bid below estimates in prior years
Bousquet said the agency will monitor construction industry cost trends as it continues pioneering projects to serve the region.
“The Water Authority has made an array of innovative infrastructure investments over the past 25 years, including some of the largest projects in the history of the agency, to sustain the $231 billion regional economy,” said Bousquet. “We will continue to develop cost-effective projects to provide a safe and reliable wholesale water supply to San Diego residents.”