New NOWRA Executive Director Pushes for a Higher Industry Profile

Thomas Groves replaces Eric Casey, who served decentralized wastewater professionals for a decade

New NOWRA Executive Director Pushes for a Higher Industry Profile

Thomas Groves

In January, the longest-serving executive director of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association retired, and the next executive director started. Eric Casey’s contract officially ended on Dec. 31, but he stayed on for a few weeks until Thomas Groves was finished with his previous job and was ready to take over. 

Groves is an engineer who has been involved with NOWRA since the mid 1990s. Before becoming NOWRA’s executive director, he was director of wastewater and onsite programs for the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission. The commission is a quasi-governmental organization that provides training and technical assistance, organizes conferences and workshops, and conducts research on water topics for its seven member states. In other words, it’s a kind of regulator, and when he was on the NOWRA board, Groves filled the seat designated for regulatory agencies. 

Groves was president of the NOWRA board that hired Casey a decade ago as the organization’s first (and only) full-time employee. 

Building out

“I’m going to build off a lot of the structure that Eric’s put in place,” Groves says. 

For example, NOWRA was ahead of the curve in putting training programs online, he says, and he wants to expand that. “We were lucky to be where we were and have it so established when the pandemic hit. We see that trend not going away,” Groves says. 

Some in-person training may return, he says, but because online resources can flex to fit peoples’ schedules, and because of the variety of programs that can be offered, virtual training will remain a major way to help people in the industry, he says. 

It’s also part of diversifying NOWRA’s income, Groves says. Membership dues are still important, but by 2019, revenue from training had grown to comprise the largest share of NOWRA’s revenue at about 31%.

Part of Groves’ revenue diversification plan includes putting NOWRA in a position to apply for grants. As a 501(c)(6) it can’t accept most grants now because it lobbies lawmakers on behalf of members. So there may have to be a sister organization eligible to accept grants for research or other purposes, he says. 

Groves also wants to continue building connections between NOWRA and its state affiliates, and perhaps help create state affiliate organizations where none exist now. 

“I think we’d like to change the idea of NOWRA as a parent that is off in D.C. and doesn’t care about the state affiliates as much. We do care; we do deeply,” he says. 

Census questions

Some people who work only locally don’t understand how a national organization can benefit their business, he says. For example, NOWRA has been encouraging the U.S. Census Bureau to ask people if their home uses an onsite system. Hard information like that can be used when lobbying Congress to appropriate money or when talking to state policymakers.

Casey notes that NOWRA has been working with other nonprofits to expand the amount of federal grant money available to repair or replace failing onsite systems. This would happen through the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program of the U.S. Agriculture Department. Along with the National Groundwater Association and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, NOWRA has pushed to expand the amount appropriated for onsite system aid. Last year, Congress appropriated $5 million although the grant program is authorized for as much as $20 million. All of that money was used for rural wells, Casey says. 

Another challenge facing the entire industry is the aging of the workforce, Groves says. That means not just people who understand pipes, pumps, and electronics and who make wastewater systems run. Many folks are closing in on retirement, he says. “There’s a lot of knowledge that will be going out the door, and there isn’t a proven mechanism for grooming the next wave (of workers),” he says.

The commission has been working with states to provide instruction teaching potential managers about budgets, labor relations and other management subjects, Groves says. He believes the onsite industry could draw on this idea to expand and professionalize its own workforce. 

Money needed

As he looks back at the industry he’s served, Casey’s key worry is about research in college and university programs.

“I personally think it’s the most critical long-term problem that NOWRA can play a role in addressing,” Casey says. “Since the early 2000s, the number of colleges and universities that offer programs in onsite wastewater of any type has dropped by almost two-thirds.”

Only about four schools offer full programs to train professionals, he says. That means fewer people training the next generation of soil scientists and engineers, and it means fewer people researching topics related to onsite wastewater, and fewer people helping to develop new treatment technologies, he says. The last major influx of research money came about 20 years ago, and many ideas flowed from that, he says.

“The regulations 30 years ago on a septic system were way different than they are now, and now there are emerging contaminants; there are pharmaceuticals; there are any number of different things for which very little research has been done,” Casey says. And there’s climate change and how sea level rise will affect onsite systems in coastal areas, he adds. 

Like everyone else, Casey says, scientists and universities have to follow the money, and young students can’t build a career studying a topic if there is no money to support them and their work.

As part of this leadership change, NOWRA will no longer have an office in Washington, D.C. Instead, Groves will work from his home in Westford, Massachusetts, about 30 miles northwest of Boston near the New Hampshire border. He will commute to Washington as needed. 

Casey, who is 62, will do some consulting if he has the opportunity, but he primarily wants to work on what interests him. Related to onsite treatment, he is particularly interested in working for groups trying to improve sanitation for lower-income people. Call it environmental justice if you wish, but it’s important, Casey says. It’s a view he developed from being NOWRA’s executive director. 

His training was not in a technical discipline but in government and business, and before joining NOWRA he worked at some of the many professional associations with offices in the nation’s capital.

“Over the 10 1/2 years I’ve been here,” he says, “I have come to not just love this industry but truly respect it for what it does, and the important role that it plays that is so greatly underappreciated by most people.”  


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