Aqua employees and Villanova University students return to Panama for service trip

 

During the first week of March, Villanova University engineering students and professors traveled with Aqua North Carolina President Shannon Becker, Aqua Pennsylvania Vice President, Distribution Mike Fili and Electrical Maintenance Manager Joe Gallagher to Wacuco, Panama to work with Panama-based partner Father Wally to improve water delivery and quality in the community. The trip marked Aqua and Villanova’s fourth service visit to the country since 2016. This year the Aqua and Villanova team worked together on multiple projects including water quality testing, rehabbing water tanks and upgrading a steel bridge in the community.

To provide employees with an inside look at their experience in Panama, Becker, Fili and Gallagher shared their thoughts on this year’s trip.

Tell us about what you and the team were doing in Panama.

    • Becker: Since this was my first trip, I didn’t really know what to expect. I wanted to help in any way that I could, including spending this time getting to know the Villanova engineering students. One of the projects I worked on was to add a layer of concrete to the surface of a bridge that Father Wally previously installed using a railroad car. The Villanova students did whatever was needed, and the local residents even came down to help shovel gravel. The students not only got to use their brains on this project, but also discovered muscles they didn’t know they had as they worked side-by-side with the local residents who were so appreciative. The sense of community and desire to help was amazing!
    • Fili: We worked on a few projects. One of our major projects was repairing water tanks. Not only were we going in to repair them, but we also wanted to teach the local operators who work with Father Wally how to perform these repairs in the future, so they could continue to maintain them on their own. The Villanova students were so eager to help and finished the first tank project much quicker than expected – they completed the repairs in one day! Overall, we were down in Panama to provide labor and knowledge.
    • Gallagher: There were members of Villanova Engineering Service Learning {VESL} and a senior design team that came along this year. I specifically worked with this team, which had the task of trying to modify existing PVC straight pipe that, once heated, would mimic a cast iron coupling. The students created a prototype that we were able to put to test and refine in the field.  As a result, they are making some modifications based on their learnings and expect to deliver the prototype to Father Wally for use this coming summer.  It was great working with these bright students and bouncing ideas off each other.

What was the main goal of this trip? 

    • Becker: The primary objective was to help Father Wally and the community accomplish the repairs to the water tank and provide on-going knowledge. For me, I was looking forward to getting my hands dirty and just being part of this overall effort while connecting with the engineering students. I wanted to share knowledge with them, be a good role model, and provide career advice wherever possible. This experience helps provide the students insight into the real world, outside of a textbook. I wish I would have had an opportunity like this VESL project while in school.
    • Fili: For me, the main goal of the trip was meeting and working with the students and having a positive relationship with them. It was an incredible group of young people; they were extremely motivated, talented and intelligent. It was also great being able to work with the Villanova leadership and my fellow colleagues.
    • Gallagher: For the Senior Design project, the main goal was to get the device to work and prove that it is functioning, which we were able to accomplish. Before we left Panama, we also sat down with Father Wally to go over other items he may need help with in the future.

What was the biggest challenge or obstacle during the trip?

    • Becker: Personally, I think the biggest challenge was the language barrier. Unfortunately, I did not take Spanish in school and had to rely on a translator to communicate.  It would have been nice to be able to speak to the local residents and workers to better understand who they are and how they live. 
    • Fili: For me, the challenge was language. I thought it was great that there were people in the group who were fluent in Spanish and were able to help translate. When we would go into the stores for materials, it was hard to communicate with the employees to try and get what we needed because of the language barrier.
    • Gallagher: The one challenge was the language difference. The crew that Father Wally has working with them is very helpful, but I was only able to interact with them a little bit. So, I would say the interactions with the locals was a little bit of a challenge.

What has surprised you most about Panama?

    • Becker: I was surprised to see what Father Wally has been able to do with so little. It was astounding to see what they fixed and repurposed by turning a useless item into a useful tool.  It was eye opening to see the conveniences we take for granted and the different lifestyles. Haircuts were $3 and you could buy fresh meat on the side of the road – goats and chickens just waiting to be purchased on the way home for dinner!
    • Fili: I think the language barrier stood out to me the most. I wish I was able to communicate better with the locals because they were fantastic and very nice. Everyone was very welcoming with the projects and were there to help us with whatever we needed.
    • Gallagher: Even though I have been on previous trips to Panama, it still surprised me how much Father Wally has accomplished. The water systems he has established are incredible to see firsthand. You can’t fully appreciate it until you see it in person.

What does the partnership with Villanova mean to you? 

    • Becker: I was aware of the partnership we were developing with Villanova, but being in North Carolina, I hadn’t been as close to it as some of my colleagues in Pennsylvania. I think it’s a great opportunity to partner with a prestigious university that also has a practical application as part of their program where they can reach out to the community and get real-life experience. Our connection with Villanova has enabled us to use them as a resource, whether it’s hiring students down the road or working with them in the community, I’m thankful for the opportunity to contribute and proud to say that I’m a part of this program. It’s a fantastic opportunity to develop a great relationship with the school and its students.
    • Fili: To me, relationships are everything. I really enjoyed working with the students and faculty of Villanova and building relationships with them. You never know when you’ll cross paths again, whether it be for a future job, a recommendation, whatever it might be. It was great meeting new people and building connections.
    • Gallagher: It’s a great opportunity and it lives up to Aqua’s mission of protecting Earth’s most essential resource. For Aqua to enable their employees to go on a trip like this is great and shows their commitment to the community and helping others. When you go to communities like those we visited in Panama, it makes you appreciate this resource and understand that not everyone has easy access to water like we do. I was really impressed with how the students worked together and the time they put into this trip. It made me feel young again to be around college students.

Did you try any new or unique foods while in Panama? 

    • Becker: I tried sugar cane juice that was made by one of the local residents helping on one of the jobs.  It was homemade and served straight from a bucket, which is the only way to have it!  We also had rice and hot dogs for breakfast several days, which I’ve never had in combination before, or at that time of day (and without ketchup).
    • Fili: We had a lot of beans and rice and I tried hot tuna, which I never had before. I also tried a complete fried fish, the whole head and everything!
    • Gallagher: We had all local food and I enjoyed it. We tried chicken stew, feet included! We also had a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Most interesting thing that happened while on the trip? 

    • Becker: Aside from showering with a tree frog and waking up to howler monkeys dropping nuts on our tin roof, the limited access to paved roads and their condition jumped out to me. Riding in the back of Father Wally’s truck through the mountains was an invigorating experience. Overall, I created so many great memories working with Mike and Joe, who I got to know well and developed a strong bond.  This entire trip was interesting and memorable.
    • Fili: When I got up the first morning, the magnitude of the equipment they had and the size of the operation Father Wally built over the years really surprised me. You have one man who basically started a water system from scratch with very little resources – the vision, perseverance and dedication to get things done is amazing. Father Wally does it all.
    • Gallagher: When we realized we completed all our assigned tasks, we celebrated and discussed our highs and lows of a trip. It was great to sit around with everyone and discuss the highlights of our time in Panama.  

Anything else you would like to add about your experience? 

    • Becker: Looking back, I wish I would have had this type of experience while in college - I just didn’t know what I was missing.  To be able to apply what you are learning to a practical experience, and in a way that helps others is so rewarding and valuable - it sends you down a different path and one I will be sure my kids travel.
    • Fili: I had a great time on this trip. It was a great opportunity for me to be able to work closely with Shannon and Joe, who are tireless workers. We were always looking for the next thing to do. It was a great experience all around and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
    • Gallagher: I really enjoyed being able to work with Shannon and Mike. It was a pleasure working with Father Wally and it was really satisfying to be able to help with whatever projects he needed done. He always says to us that he lives simply so others can simply live. He talks the talk and puts his heart and soul into his work. It was great being a part of the experience and making memories with other members of the team. It makes you enjoy the little things in life.

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Are you up for a Drinking Water Week challenge?

 

It should come as no surprise that at Aqua, we celebrate water every day. But during the American Water Works Association’s Drinking Water Week, it’s an especially perfect time to remember how water makes up nearly 71 percent of our planet and 60 percent of the average human body. Yes, water is all around us, but remembering to drink the recommended daily amount can be hard—life gets busy, after all.

Speaking of that recommended amount, let’s get the numbers straight: Although one glass of water may feel like enough to quench your thirst, adults should drink two liters of water per day. (That equates to eight eight-ounce glasses of water.) It seems like a lot, but it’s what your body needs!

In honor of Drinking Water Week, we’re challenging YOU to make a positive change in your hydration habits. Ready for a little friendly competition at home—or even with your coworkers? Here’s Aqua’s challenge to you: drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water every day during Drinking Water Week (May 5–11). If you can do that, you might just be crowned a Hydration Hero!

Want to get your coworkers, family, or friends in on the challenge? Let’s dive in.

Setting rules and keeping score

Whether you’re implementing your Drinking Water Week challenge at home or at work, it’s important to set some ground rules.

If you’re challenging your coworkers, think about how you can keep score as a group without disrupting your workflow too much. Instead of checking in daily, it can be more efficient and suspenseful to keep a tally on the office fridge for everyone to update at their leisure. Set a deadline for when the numbers will be tallied, and get your (reusable!) water bottles ready.

How about a friendly competition at home? Teaching your families about proper hydration can help them lead healthy lifestyles and understand more about the importance of water for the human body.

Setting up a group chat can be a fun way to track each other’s progress. That way, you can all motivate each other to reach your daily goal and see who gets there first. By the end of the week, it will be easy to tell who should be awarded the Hydration Hero title.

Awarding prizes

Once you’ve tallied your scores, checked them twice, and declared a winner, it’s time to award your Hydration Hero! If your coworkers are looking for a little incentive to get involved, offering a prize is an easy way to encourage participation and excitement. Our advice? A reusable water bottle is not just fitting for the winner, but it’ll also encourage them to keep up their good hydration habits. 

If your household accepts the challenge, the stakes can be a bit higher—how about a weeklong exemption from a household chore like doing the dishes? Whatever you choose, giving your winner a little something special can make everyone eager to reach their hydration goals next year. 

Keeping up the practice

Water is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle, and the more you can incorporate hydration into your everyday routine, the better. Even though it’s normal to skip a glass or two when life gets busy, the important thing is to pay more attention to your water intake.

If you can’t hit your two liter goal every day, don’t sweat it. As long as you’re staying hydrated, spreading the word, and doing your best to appreciate all the great things that water does for you, you’re a Hydration Hero in our book!

 

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Make an environmental impact during National Volunteer Month

April is National Volunteer Month, and here at Aqua, we’re passionate about both our planet and the people who live on it. That’s why so many of our year-round volunteer activities involve doing our part to take care of the environment, especially when Earth Day rolls around.

To celebrate both National Volunteer Month and the annual holiday that recognizes our planet, we’ve rounded up a variety of ways for community members across all eight of our states to get involved with environmentally focused events and activities throughout April. Let’s dig in!

Illinois

Get up and break a sweat in honor of Mother Earth! The seventh annual Earth Day Race takes place on April 20 in Crystal Lake, Illinois and will lead runners on a beautiful tour through the woods—the perfect way to enjoy nature.

If you’re an Illinois teacher, you can also get your classroom involved with Earth Day in the Parks, a series of events from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in which students can participate in “natural resources stewardship activities” such as planting trees, building brush piles, and more.

Live near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign? Check out the school’s wide array of sustainability-focused events throughout the month of April to find one that interests you.

Indiana

Create new life this Earth Day by gardening at Chellberg Farms on the morning of April 20. If you’re located in the central part of the state, head to the Earth Day Indiana Festival at White River State Park to enjoy exhibitors, food trucks, and hands-on games and activities like hula hoops, lightsaber duels, and more. Sounds like a good time if you ask us!

New Jersey

On April 13, Clean Ocean Action will hold its 34th Annual Beach Sweeps event up and down the New Jersey coast, where participants can do their part to keep the state’s beloved beaches clean. Get a head start on shore season by browsing the list of Beach Sweeps locations to find one near you. Then, check out EarthShare New Jersey’s roundup of additional Earth Day activities across the state, from trail cleanups to live music.

North Carolina

If you’re on the hunt for an artistic way to celebrate our planet, you’ll love the Earth Day Jam from local nonprofit Happy Roots. Located in Salisbury, North Carolina, the two-day event (April 19–20) features more than 15 bands and all kinds of Earth-oriented arts and crafts. Get tickets here.

Further west in the state, Durham Parks and Rec will host an Earth Day Festival full of performances, food, and environmentally focused educational opportunities on Sunday, April 28. To volunteer at the event, head here.

Pennsylvania

Those located in central Pennsylvania have tons of opportunities to celebrate Earth Day, from the Mechanicsburg Earth Day Festival to a volunteer day at Little Buffalo State Park. Visit PA also put together a list of Earth Day-related events and places to visit in honor of the occasion, including everything from beautiful state parks to the Philadelphia Science Festival’s Naturepalooza.

(Psst: On April 6, the largest single day stream cleanup in Pennsylvania took place at the Perkiomen Creek Watershed. Members of our Aqua Pennsylvania team were there to help—were you?)

Ohio

Celebrate Earth Day with a weeklong event of volunteer opportunities throughout Central Ohio known as Earth Day Columbus. Then, reward yourself and your fellow volunteers for all your hard work at the Earth Day Columbus Celebration in Genoa Park featuring music, eco-friendly artisans, family fun, and more.

If you live in northeast Ohio, you’re in luck as well: Check out this list to browse events ranging from hikes to movies to parties at the zoo, all in celebration of our beautiful planet.

Texas

They say that everything’s bigger in Texas, which means there’s even more Earth to love—and protect! Earthx2019, described as “the world’s largest environmental experience”, takes place from April 26–28 in Dallas. “Water for all” is the event’s 2019 theme, so you can imagine that we’re extra excited here at Aqua! Between workshops, yoga, food trucks, and plenty of opportunities to get involved, there’s something for every member of the family to enjoy.

If you’re located closer to Austin, swing by Earth Day ATX on Saturday, April 13 to enjoy the annual zero-waste festival full of performances, food, and family activities.

Virginia

Virginia is for lovers… of the planet! Head to Radford’s Bisset Park to enjoy an Earth Day Festival on April 20. With activities including sunrise meditation, tree planting, river cleanups, kayaking, and more, you won’t want to miss the sunrise-to-sunset event.

There are an infinite amount of ways to honor our planet this Earth Day, and we’re proud that each of our Aqua states is jam-packed with opportunities to get involved. If there’s not an event near you, don’t worry—you can still make an impact by implementing these eco-friendly tips from the Earth Day Network into your everyday life.

Earth is the only planet we have, and it’s our job to take care of it. We hope you’ll join us during National Volunteer Month!

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Aqua makes strides to improve Pennsylvania’s infrastructure

Think report cards don’t exist outside the classroom? Think again.

Every year, the Pennsylvania State Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a statewide infrastructure report card in areas ranging from bridges to roads to drinking water. For 2018, the council gave Pennsylvania an overall grade of C-, and while that doesn’t sound great, keep in mind that the state's grade in 2017 was a D+. It’s a small improvement, and there’s still plenty of work to be done, but it’s an improvement nonetheless.

Why should you, as a customer, care about your state’s infrastructure grade? We asked Aqua Pennsylvania President Marc Lucca.

“It really comes down to reliability of service,” he said. “If you think about the service that we provide on a daily basis, our infrastructure sustains basic services that we need as a community to exist and to thrive. If there’s interruption to service, whether it’s on the water side or the wastewater side, the community, and even our environment, can suffer.”

Aqua Pennsylvania President Marc Lucca (left) during a field visit

 

At Aqua, we’re proud to play a role in the continued improvements made to Pennsylvania’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Throughout 2018, we invested more than $340 million in a wide array of projects to upgrade water infrastructure across the Pennsylvania communities we serve, contributing to the increase in the state’s infrastructure score.

Want to know more about what these efforts entail? Let’s dig in—pun intended.

What’s the project?

One of our current infrastructure improvement projects in Pennsylvania is the upgrade of the Media Wastewater Treatment Plant in Delaware County. The project, which represents $32 million of investments in the community’s wastewater infrastructure, has been underway since June 2018, and the first phase will wrap up in December 2019.

We spoke to Dave Hughes, director of plant engineering at Aqua, who is heavily involved with the project, to learn more about its goals. Open since 1922, the plant treats 1.8 million gallons of wastewater every day. Yeah—that’s a lot of wastewater.

Building progress on the plant's new clarifier tank foundation

 

Let’s talk details, though. Improvements to the plant include upgrading all of the headworks (equipment at the beginning of the treatment process that begins the removal of pollutants) and the installation of a brand-new thickener (which removes solids and other impurities from the dirty water) and digester (which stabilizes those solids). New chemical feed systems, clarifiers, and sludge pump stations will also tremendously improve the plant’s operations.

In addition to these mechanical improvements, the project includes the construction of a new operations building to support staff and visiting specialists in their work. Finally, the plant’s electrical system will receive much-needed upgrades, including the installation of a new emergency generator to ensure smooth operations despite any bad weather or unexpected losses of power.

How do customers benefit?

All this technical talk about sludge pumps and power generators might have you wondering about the real-world impact of this project on you, the customer. According to Hughes, the benefits of these types of infrastructure improvement projects are numerous.

More progress on the plant's construction site

 

“It’s definitely going to improve the overall reliability of the plant and reduce operating costs,” he said. “And it’s going to improve the discharge water quality.” That means that these upgrades are reflected on the water released back into the environment as part of the wastewater treatment process, which is something we can all get behind. Our mission at Aqua is to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource—water—and to do that, we must do our part to take care of our planet as a whole.

A pipe's lifetime can range from 15 to 100 years, with many in Pennsylvania aged on the higher end of the spectrum—part of the reason why the state's infrastructure is in such dire need of upgrades like these. Making these changes to a plant that’s been in existence for nearly a century improves its overall reliability, and better reliability demonstrates greater social responsibility as a whole. Our water and wastewater treatment plants are not widely visible to customers, so many are not aware of the work that takes place in these facilities. Customers are likelier to see the miles of main replacements we do every year.  

“Much of our water mains we’re replacing was installed before the 1960s,” Marc Lucca added. “Here we are in 2019, and you’re looking at equipment that can be 60, 70, even 80 years old or more. A lot of these facilities were just not made to last that long.”

Lucca referenced the below photo to shed more light on the importance of upgrading aging water infrastructure.

Blast from the past: an Aqua maintenance crew in 1949

 

“When our workers installed these mains in 1949, people were probably thrilled to connect to a public water supply and to have access to public sewer,” Lucca said. “Here we are 70 years later, replacing the pipe that those men installed. In 2018, we replaced more than 150 miles of mains that had reached the end of its service life. Since the early 1990s, we have replaced almost 2,000 miles of similar main across Pennsylvania.  While this is a great benefit to the communities we serve and to the environment, we are sensitive to the temporary inconvenience it might create. People sometimes say they are upset by the traffic impact of our construction on their street or in their neighborhood. But we know that the pipes being replaced have lasted and served these neighborhoods for decades and enabled these communities and others to thrive and grow into what they are today.

“On the occasion that someone complains about us putting a new main in the ground, I usually say, ‘Well, at least you won’t see us for another 100 years, because our new pipe will last even longer.’”

How does this help Pennsylvania—and the world?

When it comes to Pennsylvania’s infrastructure report card, every improvement to the state’s infrastructure systems makes a difference, no matter how small. If outdated systems fail, there’s an increased risk of pollution or harm to the environment, and that’s no good in our books. At Aqua, our commitment to our customers and our planet drives everything we do.

Stay tuned to our Aquastructure blog series throughout 2019 for more insight into how we’re improving our nation’s infrastructure, not just in Pennsylvania but across the eight states we proudly serve.

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World’s drinking water and climate change are intrinsically intertwined, not mutually exclusive

 

By Aqua Vice President and Chief Environmental Officer Christopher Crockett 

In a recent interview with CBS News, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued that the agency’s time would be better spent cleaning drinking water across the globe rather than focusing on climate change. According to Wheeler, “Unsafe drinking water – not climate change – poses the greatest and most immediate global threat to the environment.” While Aqua America applauds the EPA for shining a spotlight on the critical importance of water safety and reliability, the reality is that water safety and climate change are intrinsically intertwined – and how the world addresses these problems will have a global impact for generations to come.

Safe drinking water is already an immediate concern to millions of people across the globe without access to potable water. But if countries ignore climate change, water-stressed countries, and even water-rich countries like the United States, will be in serious trouble. Climate change models predict warmer weather and changing precipitation patterns, where droughts will have a profound effect on river and groundwater levels, and extreme rain may result in flooding of developed areas. Lower river levels will require additional energy for water treatment, while lower groundwater levels will require more energy to extract water deeper from the Earth. Reduced water quantity is already forcing more communities to consider wastewater reuse, e.g. toilet to top. Climate change might also force fresh water sources to become more salty, reduce the quality of existing sources and force water systems to use lower-quality sources, which would increase treatment needs. A growing number of extreme-weather events, like hurricanes and super storms, combined with more urbanization, are likely to result in increased flooding, which can threaten our existing water and wastewater infrastructure. The World Water Resources Institute has many helpful maps that show the projected impacts of climate change on the nation’s water resources, and these effects cover large areas of the country.

To ensure Aqua can continue to make water even safer and more reliable in the future, these changes will require innovative solutions and a better infrastructure to carry new sources of water greater distances, and provide water-reuse options including small home-scale solutions like using rain water or gray water during extreme-stress periods. Climate change will likely require more energy to build this infrastructure and to process and distribute water. We must choose to invest equally in both water safety and climate change, with an eye towards the future. 

Serving more than 3 million people across eight states, Aqua America is an environmental steward for water resources. We know it is a great responsibility to deliver safe and reliable water efficiently and sustainably. And with more than 130 years of investment in water safety in the communities we serve, we aim to protect Earth’s most essential resource. Each year, we spend millions of dollars to repair and replace infrastructure, including leaking pipes and aging water mains, and we focus on conservation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. In fact, earlier this year, Aqua joined the CDP ranking for environmental stewardship, reinforcing its commitment to continued improvement in climate change governance and best practices.

Aqua employees and Villanova University students working on water infrastructure projects in Panama.

While we are continuously focused on improving service and reliability for our customers, Aqua understands that safe drinking water affects the global community. This is why Aqua partners with Villanova University to assist with vital infrastructure rehabilitation and water management projects in Central and South America. Aqua volunteers help build and repair water storage tanks and pipes, and transfer necessary water engineering knowledge to local workers. These projects help bring reliable water to communities that have done without, while also strengthening the vitality of agriculture and vegetation that off-set carbon emissions.

Aqua takes these efforts toward climate change mitigation seriously because, to us, the connection to safe, reliable water is obvious. Protecting the environment means protecting the vital, life-giving resource the world needs for generations to come.

For more information about Aqua’s commitment to sustainable business practices and environmental performance, visit our corporate social responsibility report

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