A Conversation with David LaFrance, CEO of AWWA

David LaFrance is CEO of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and has been on the board of Water Education Colorado for less than a year. AWWA, a 51,000-member organization, has an international scope but is headquartered in Denver. The organization’s core values include protecting public health through safe drinking water, safeguarding the environment, sharing best practices, inspiring innovation, and, importantly, fostering diversity and inclusion. As AWWA leads the water sector, they’ve done significant work around aging infrastructure. We caught up with David to hear about it. A segment of this interview first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine: Keeping Up With Aging Infrastructure.

Can you tell me a bit about your work with AWWA and also about your time with Denver Water?

I’m the CEO of the American Water Works Association, we’re often known by the name AWWA, and we’re the oldest and largest water association in the world. We just happen to be headquartered here in Denver. While our scope is international, Denver is a wonderful place to work on water issues—there is so much going on—and, I like to believe it’s also great for the state that we happen to be located here. AWWA is a 501c3 non-profit organization, and some of our corporate values include: Protecting public health (through safe drinking water), safeguarding the environment, sharing best practices, inspiring innovation and, importantly, fostering diversity and inclusion. Our work is powered by an army of 51,000 members which includes utilities, service providers, manufacturers of water products, academics, researchers, laboratories, and basically, anyone who is interested in making a better world through better water. I’ve been the CEO for the past 10 years and before that I spent 17 years working for Denver Water. I actually became a member of AWWA while working for Denver Water and now I’ve been a member for 25 years. Both AWWA and Denver Water are really great places to work, they both offer so much opportunity for those that want to shape the world we live in.

What spurred you to get into the world of water?

I have two answers to this question. The first one is that I have considered myself to be a water professional since I was 16 and a lifeguard at Boy Scout summer camp. I know it sounds silly, but I can trace virtually every single job I’ve had directly to water. The second answer, perhaps more of a traditional one is, like many water professionals, I didn’t necessarily set out to end up in the water profession. I was a kid out of college and I needed a job. I landed one with the Army Corp of Engineers working on economic analysis for how best to clean up rivers and streams after the Mount St. Helens eruption. I didn’t realize then that this was a signature type of project in anyone’s career, and how I was really lucky to be a part of something big. In many ways, I think the interesting question is what inspired me to stay in water. At some point, I realized the absolute importance of how we get water to communities and I realized that I wanted to be a part of that. Water brings together three things that, for me, are essential: the environment, society and finance. Understanding the interaction of those three things are massively important when you are working in water, and so intellectually and emotionally it was fascinating to see how those all work together. Ultimately I decided that if I wanted to help make a better world, there is no better profession than to be a water professional.

What was the motivation for joining WEco’s board?

I’ve known about WEco for a very long time, but I’ve always looked at it from afar. Once I found out that there might be an opportunity to join the board I was motivated to do so. I really felt this would be a wonderful opportunity and an important time to connect with others who were like-minded.  The opportunity to work with WEco’s Board and its great staff — all of whom work to elevate the importance of water in the state where we live—is an extraordinary honor. With AWWA, I work very broadly and often internationally but WEco helps me connect what I love-water-to the place I love to live-Colorado. I’m so thrilled to be part of the board and this critical mission. I am extremely confident that as WEco works to brings state water issues to Coloradoans’ attention, we are helping them and the State policy leaders arrive at positive solutions that advance Colorado. I am excited to contribute to that process.

Are there any points of emphasis that you would like to bring to the organization?

All good board members should start by listening first to see how they can be helpful which is something I fully intend to do. I imagine that having a background in water, finance and non-profit leadership may prove helpful, but I’ll have to wait to see how I can best contribute and what experiences I have that may be useful to the organization. The Board and the staff are all very talented and knowledgeable, so my goals are to partner with them to fulfill WEco’s goals. Figuring out how to best do that starts with listening.

What work has AWWA done that relates to aging water infrastructure?

First, AWWA is the only standards-writing organization for the water community. I know a lot of people don’t really know what that means but standards create great efficiency for any sector of the economy. Think of this, because we create standards for things like water pipes, you can pick up a pipe in Grand Junction and take it to Pueblo where it can connect to the pipes in Pueblo. The idea that pipes, among other things, are made based on AWWA standards means a utility can count on new pipes fitting with old pipes and that is a huge boost in efficiency. Second, around the year 2000, to recognize the immense challenge with the maintenance of existing and aging buried infrastructure, we published a report called “The Dawn of the Replacement Era” which foreshadowed that America’s aging buried infrastructure was going to need to be replaced. Then in 2012, we followed up on that warning with a publication called “Buried No Longer.” This study estimated replacing all the aging infrastructure throughout the country would cost $1 trillion from 2010 until 2035. That’s a huge number, but over time and with increased awareness and maybe some help from our elected leaders, I’m confident we will be able to maintain or repair all the infrastructure that needs it. Third, we led the way for federal legislation that created a funding mechanism for water and wastewater infrastructure. The program is called WIFIA (Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) and it provides long-term, low-cost supplemental assistance. The program was an ingenious way of alleviating much of the pressures associated with infrastructure replacement costs. While water infrastructure is often overlooked, in part because we cannot see it, it truly is the backbone of our cities. Without water infrastructure, we would not have water in our homes or at our places of work, we would not have the ability to provide water to fire hydrants, and we wouldn’t have beautiful parks and recreation areas.

With the uncertain future concerning COVID-19, how does AWWA plan to deal with long-term and short-term unknowns? How do you think AWWA’s plans for the future affect Colorado water utilities?

First off, water professionals are experienced in emergency disasters, they prepare for them but often this has to do with natural or infrastructure disasters. There is really nothing like COVID-19 in modern times. Dealing with a drought is hard and complicated, don’t get me wrong, but COVID-19 is very different. It’s having broad impacts, not so much on the water supply, but on society at large and how we all function. As a result, there are uncommon challenges and heroic responses by utilities, and at AWWA we are extremely proud of what utilities are accomplishing. To start, they are maintaining the quality of water for all of us—at the tap, in our homes where we shelter. As if that was not enough, in many cases the utility staff is sheltering at the treatment plants for long stretches of time. They are there, away from their families, so that they can protect our families-that is noble. Also, especially as a past utility CFO, I am impressed by how water utility leaders have kept water flowing to their customers even when the customers are behind in paying their bills. This is happening in Colorado, as well as throughout North America. This ubiquitous change in policy shows how our utility leaders know that their primary role for their community is in providing safe water and by doing that, they can help all of us protect our health whether it is washing our hands, hydrating, cooking, or flushing a toilet, water plays an integral part.

Affordability is always on people’s minds, but given COVID-19, does AWWA see affordability becoming a greater issue, and if so, who do you see it impacting the greatest? Do affordability, water rates, and water access relate to infrastructure?

When I was young, I didn’t think about how water got to our house—it just was there. I didn’t understand all that it takes to deliver safe water let alone that my parents were paying for it. It’s not really until I had to pay my own water bill that I became aware. The irony is by then I was working for a consulting firm helping utilities set their water and wastewater rates. Also, my experience at Denver Water, being immersed in the finances of a large utility, really crystalized the lessons of water’s value and its price. So, I guess, understanding the affordability of water is something that I have been involved with since I started paying a water bill.

I do think that COVID-19 puts a spotlight on affordability issues and with the unemployment rate reaching 15 percent, I think the spotlight might stay there for a while. Earlier, I mentioned the utility policy shift of suspending turn-offs for non-payment, something utilities are doing for the greater good, but which also introduces financial challenges for utilities in the long run.

I do think it is an important question to ask ourselves, will our COVID-19 experiences change our “future normal”? It seems unreasonable to expect that water affordability will become less of a challenge in the future. Because of that, I’m glad WEco has already started to frame this thorny issue for all of us. The recent issue of Headwaters addressed it and WEco’s toolkit for pursuing water justice are two important steps to addressing this issue in Colorado.

I think affordability will be a top issue for water for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 did not make it a greater issue but, perhaps, accelerated its urgency.

How does awareness play a role in maintaining and developing new infrastructure? What role do you see for WEco in creating greater social awareness?

Awareness of where your water comes from and how it gets to you is extremely important today, but community awareness of water has ebbed and flowed throughout history. If we go back to the time when Colorado was becoming a state, the citizens of Denver knew where their water came from—just as we know today which cell phone service we have. This is because several privately owned water utilities were vying to sell water in the city and they were all competing fiercely to provide the best—and ideally, only water service. That is until the city decided to provide its own water service in 1918 through a single utility that we now know as Denver Water.

After a time, water utilities became known as the silent service—meaning they provided a good and safe service to their community and they were silent about it. They did not promote the importance of their work as there was not a need to do so. The unexpected result was that citizens forgot about the systems that provide water.

Fast forward to today, many people still do not know where their water comes from but that is changing and that is good. I think today’s growing desire to understand where your water comes from is part of why WEco is so important.

WEco has been critical in helping build water awareness. If not for them, how else are all Coloradoans going to understand where their water comes from and how important water is for our way of life. WEco’s mission from the beginning has been to raise this awareness, and with a small number of amazing staff they are taking big strides toward this goal.

While it was important to understand where your water came from when Colorado was created, it is more important to have that understanding today.

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