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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Shedding light on the state of U.S. water infrastructure

 

From filling up the bathtub to boiling a pot of water to watering the plants, we rely on a ton of water for our daily needs and activities. 

And because water utilities like Aqua work so hard behind the scenes to make it seamless, it can be easy to take Earth’s most essential resource for granted. However, there’s a lot more that goes into our steady and reliable water supply than meets the eye. In fact, sometimes you have to go hundreds of feet underground to see it. 

The intricacies of water infrastructure tend to be out of sight and out of mind for many of us, and we wanted to shed a bit of light on the state of all those systems. So, we talked with Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin to get the scoop on the state of water infrastructure systems across the United States. 


Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin (left), employees and board members tour an Aqua facility in Illinois.

You mentioned water infrastructure. What does that look like?

First, let’s go back in time to the beginning of the 20thcentury, which is when the U.S. started laying miles and miles of pipelines deep within the Earth (one million miles, to be exact). These are the pipes that collect water from the ground and surface sources and transport it all the way to your tap. 

The good news is that underground water pipes last up to 100 years, so this infrastructure has provided us with reliable drinking water throughout the past century. The bad news, though, is that a lot of time has passed and those pipes desperately need to be replaced. 

How desperately? 

Well, every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the current status of water and wastewater infrastructure across the nation. Let’s just say it wasn’t a report card you’d want to bring home to mom and dad. (Spoiler alert: the United States got a D). 

Here’s the thing: we are facing a very serious water quality challenge in the U.S. due to aging water systems, stringent drinking water and wastewater regulations, and budgetary constraints. The time to take action is now.

Tell me more about this dilemma…

According to Franklin, many aging water systems are falling behind because it’s simply too pricey for communities to upgrade or replace all those old, deteriorating pipelines. And we’re talking big bucks: according to the American Water Works Association, we need about $1 trillion over the next 20 years to get water infrastructure to where it should be. 

Most of the country’s water systems are municipally managed, and the truth of the matter is that municipalities having competing priorities for funds to improve and replace the pipes. They have to prioritize water projects with other needs like schools, police and fire departments, roadways, and bridges, which can be rather tricky. However, prolonging investment in water infrastructure improvements can have serious consequences on the safety and quality of our drinking water over time. 

“Although the challenge to the U.S. water infrastructure is less visible than other infrastructure concerns, it’s no less important,” Franklin reminds us.  


Pipes, pipes, and more pipes: Looks like infrastructure! 

What about Aqua’s water? 

“Since Aqua’s only focus is on water, Aqua customers can feel confident that we are actively updating and upgrading infrastructure to meet the needs of their families and communities,” Franklin says. 

This means new pipes, efficient treatments from the source through the plant, and sturdy storage tanks for all. Additionally, Franklin assures us that because investment in water infrastructure is a key pillar of Aqua’s business strategy, Aqua customers can continue to expect clean, safe, and reliable drinking water and wastewater services

Back to the infrastructure dilemma. There has to be a solution, right?

Thankfully, yes, and that’s where Aqua comes into play. Over the past several decades, Aqua has teamed up with and acquired many municipal and private water companies that are struggling to keep up with their water and wastewater systems and injected some much-needed capital into their aging water systems. 

Plus, when Aqua makes these infrastructure improvements, cost-effectiveness is always kept in mind. That means that we take measures like purchasing pipes in bulk and using scientific approaches to tracking main break history, pipe age and more to ensure that rate increases are kept to a minimum for the benefit of our customers.  

 Our board looks forward to any opportunity to learn more about Aqua’s infrastructure systems.

In just 2017 alone, Aqua invested a ton of money (as in more than $450 million) in water and wastewater infrastructure, and since 2007, Aqua has acquired (and drastically improved) 174 water and wastewater systems. Looking forward, you can expect Aqua to play a leading role in fixing up many of these deteriorating water systems. 

“Aqua is committed to renewing and improving water and wastewater infrastructure through thoughtful and continuous capital investment,” Franklin adds.

 The next time you take a sip of water or wash your hands in the sink, try to remember all the hard-working Aqua team members that are dedicated every day to bring you clean and safe water. See you back here next month, where we’ll reveal the best kept secret to safe, reliable drinking water.  

 

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Aqua Leadership Travels to Panama to Provide Water Quality Expertise

Aqua’s leadership team recently joined forces with Villanova University to provide hands-on water quality expertise in Panama. The trip is one of the first in a new partnership between Aqua and the University’s College of Engineering to provide water infrastructure expertise in developing countries.

 

The team from Aqua traveled with representatives from Villanova Engineering Service Learning (VESL) to inspect water sites and meet with local community members and non-governmental organization partners. The six-day trip to the Alto Bayano region of Panama took place from August 11 to 16.

 

Aqua’s Rick Fox, Chief Operating Officer, Peter Virag (Corporate Energy Manager), Ryan Coombs (Chemist) and Deborah Watkins (Director, Water Quality & Environmental Compliance traveled to Panama with Jim O’Brien and Frank Falcone of the University’s College of Engineering.

 

 

A Panamanian representative, Father “Wally” Pablo Kasuboski, a Capuchin missionary priest from Wisconsin that has been serving in Panama for more than 30 years, led the representatives from Aqua and Villanova. Father Wally was the trip's visionary leader and works tirelessly on improving community conditions through ministry; building churches, roads, bridges, and water systems; and leading an agriculture cooperative while preserving the rain forests.

 

There were three specific goals defined by Aqua and Villanova going into the trip. These goals included:

·      developing an understanding of local culture and the four water systems in the Alto Bayano region;

·      evaluating existing water system challenges in the region including five leaking storage tanks and water quality concerns associated with chlorination and turbidity control during the rainy season; and

·      brainstorming ideas to address these challenges while understanding the capabilities of the local operators, materials available, and the economy of the region.  

 

Each day the team participated in different projects, including visiting a reservoir and dam, evaluating water storage and treatment methods, and analyzing samples from customers’ premises, storage tanks, and water sources in the region. The team attained a better understanding of the region's water systems and, throughout the course of their visit, collected samples for more detailed analysis at Aqua’s laboratory in Bryn Mawr.

 

While Aqua and the Villanova team were able to provide their expertise and services to one of the largest rural water supply systems in Central America, they also found time to experience the culture surrounding the Alto Bayano region. The team enjoyed a region filled with a beautiful mosaic of farmland, pastures, jungles, and city life. Life at the mission, the team’s home base, was delightful (and hot) with a smorgasbord of bunkhouses surrounded with wild animal noises, open air, copious amounts of rainfall, and great home cooking. The participants had the delight of trying the local cuisine including plantains, yucca root, beans, rice, Panamanian pizza, and Panamanian-influenced Chinese food.

 

The Panama trip participants enjoyed lending their expertise, learning about a new culture, and cautiously exploring the wildlife that calls the region home. Aqua and Villanova are looking forward to continuing their partnership and initiative to help international communities in desperate need of clean, safe drinking water. 

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Aqua America Partners with Villanova University College of Engineering on International Water Infrastructure Projects

Aqua America, Inc. today announced a partnership with Villanova University’s College of Engineering to provide mentorship opportunities, hands-on water quality expertise and foundation support for the college’s international service work. As part of this partnership, Aqua leadership and engineers will travel with Villanova faculty and students to various projects internationally to provide engineering and water infrastructure expertise.

Aqua’s on-site engagement with Villanova begins with a trip to Nicaragua on August 4 and a visit to Panama on August 11. Members of Aqua’s leadership team will accompany the Aqua team that includes engineers and water quality experts. They will travel with Villanova Engineering Service Learning (VESL) representatives to inspect water project sites, meet with community members and connect with local nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners. The partnership reflects Aqua’s greater initiative of partnering with community-based nonprofit organizations that advocate for the environment.

An important part of the success of the Villanova program has been working with in-country partners who have the capacity to implement these projects. In the Alto Bayano region of Panama, VESL has been providing engineering support on water-related infrastructure projects for 25 years. In collaboration with local NGO’s, they have helped to develop one of the largest rural water supply systems in Central America. Similarly, over the past decade, the college has worked with local partners in Waslala, Nicaragua to design and implement water supply networks that provide safe drinking water for rural communities. Through the Aqua America partnership, VESL hopes to improve the sustainability of water delivery services in these areas, while creating unique learning opportunities for its local partners and student participants.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Aqua America in what is a true partnership,” said Villanova’s Dr. Gary A. Gabriele, Drosdick-Endowed Dean of Engineering. “Aqua is VESL’s first corporate partner to put boots on the ground, and we look forward to the continued growth of this partnership.”

Aqua’s President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Franklin highlighted that the company has a long history of demonstrating commitment to the communities it serves.

“Because this commitment has become part of our culture, it will continue long into the future,” Franklin said. “When we consider how fortunate we are to live in the United States where clean drinking water is almost taken for granted, we must consider what other human beings in other countries endure each day to find clean water for their children to drink.”

Franklin noted that with this in mind, Aqua made the decision to take a small portion of the Aqua foundation budget and combine it with the talents its employees possess to make a meaningful difference for those who live in these countries.

He added, “As one of the nation’s leading water companies, our mission is to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource. In our own small way, we will demonstrate our commitment in a few communities outside the U.S. where clean, safe drinking water is so desperately needed. We look forward to leveraging our expertise and partnering with Villanova’s distinguished College of Engineering faculty and students on this program.” 

Aqua supports environmental projects through the Aqua Charitable Trust and forming important partnerships with community-based nonprofit organizations within the company’s territory. This partnership with Villanova marks the first time Aqua will be taking its commitment internationally.

Villanova is highly regarded in the area of water resource management and sustainability. In addition to offering graduate degrees in sustainable engineering and water resources and environmental engineering, the university is home to the Villanova Center for the Advancement of Sustainability in Engineering and the Villanova Urban Stormwater Partnership. Given this area of expertise, in addition to Panama and Nicaragua, VESL water projects are underway in Ghana, Honduras, India and Madagascar. The college’s other service projects include robotics for unexploded ordnance removal in Cambodia, and mobile health programs in Nicaragua. More than half of Villanova’s engineering undergraduates participate in service-learning projects or experiences.

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