Learning the Industry In the “Show Me” State

The onsite wastewater Mega-Conference provides many opportunities for education, networking and seeing the latest and greatest treatment products

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Coming off the COVID-19 pandemic and amid a period of great customer demand for professional wastewater services, remember to take time to learn and grow in the onsite industry. That’s why planners say it’s more important than ever for installers to attend the fall staple Onsite Wastewater Mega-Conference this year, scheduled for Oct 30-Nov. 2 in Springfield, Missouri.

This year’s Mega-Conference is a joint effort between the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, the State Onsite Regulators Association, and the Missouri Smallflows Organization. Since 2015, the national groups, with the help of a state organization, have worked together to provide education on topics of importance to wastewater professionals, continuing education credits and field trips to scope out regional onsite wastewater challenges.

There are a number of great reasons to take part, not the least of which is the changing workforce demographics in our industry and the need to educate, network with and encourage the newcomers who will help fortify environmental protection efforts for the millions of folks in the U.S. who rely on decentralized wastewater treatment in their daily lives.

Fresh faces needed

Sara Heger, PhD., president of NOWRA and an onsite trainer though her work with the Water Resource Center at the University of Minnesota, recognizes the aging of the onsite community. But she says she is noticing a change through her work at the Mega-Conference.

“I know when I’m doing training and look across the room, I feel like it is shifting a little bit. I feel like I see more young people, but it seems like the average age is still up there,” she says.

Tammy Trantham, executive director of MSO and chair of the Mega-Conference, agrees. She says many in her organization talk about retiring soon or they would like to slow down as new people come up and take over. At the same time, she is seeing fresh faces, and conferences like this one provide much-needed networking and education opportunities.

“It’s definitely an issue in Missouri. We’ve seen many in the industry aging out and new people coming in. That’s where training has become very important and our organization has been very busy with courses to get people up to speed and learning new technologies.”

This is the 8th annual Mega-Conference. The event was held virtually in 2020, but then came back in-person in San Marcos, Texas, last year.

The event moves around the country every year to give more folks the chance to attend. It generally attracts 500 to 600 participants, but about half usually reside within driving distance to the host location, Heger says. As such, the local group provides a track of education seminars touching on onsite treatment issues important to the region with a goal of providing required continuing education credits, CEUs and to expose a national audience to unique treatment challenges.

Inspection focus

In addition to a track being planned by MSO, NOWRA will present three education tracks and NAWT is also providing seminars for service providers that will likely tie into training topics being planned for the 2023 WWETT Show.

NAWT President Kim Seipp said there will be a concentration on inspections to meet an increasing demand for system monitoring. She used her home state of Colorado as an example, where time-of-sale inspection requirements started with one county in 2004 and have spread to 20 counties. Her own company, High Plains Sanitation Service, saw its inspection work jump to about 300 systems annually during COVID-19, and with no let-up in sight.

“With the amount of homes transferring across the country, it becomes more important every year,” she says. “Inspections are the first step to management. Another thing (contractors) should be thinking about is working on operations and management contracts. Even a gravity system needs to have a professional looking at it, because clearly the homeowners aren’t doing it.”

Through the involvement with SORA, 50-100 regulators typically attend, giving them a great chance to network with other wastewater professionals and see the latest treatment technologies on display. The bulk of onsite industry manufacturers show their systems and components in an exhibit hall at the conference.

Karst and caves 

Trantham explains the MSO seminar track will delve into unique geology and soils of the area, including how extensive underground cave systems in the region pose wastewater challenges. The area’s karst topography of limestone and underground aquifers, and poor soils high in clay content call for a lot of advanced treatment systems, particularly drip and low-pressure pipe LPP solutions.

Enhancing the local interest, Day 3 of the conference will include two field trips being organized by the Missouri group. One tour will focus on viewing residential onsite systems, while the other will concentrate on larger commercial systems. The tours will also include a stop at the group’s wastewater training center in Springfield and area caves, including the Fantastic Caverns, where Jeeps with trams pull visitors through a system of caves.

It all adds up to a valuable experience for both local installers and those who travel across the country.

“One thing I’ve learned by going to national conferences is that we all have the same problems,” Trantham says. “I’ve learned so much from people in other states on how they approach problems in different ways.”

Grant program

Attendees will hear from prominent speakers on policy issues, including representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among the issues discussed will be the new emphasis on federal government funding for decentralized wastewater projects. Heger said the USDA Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program will be a topic. That program is funding up to $5 million in improvements for private systems, with the potential for greater support in the future.

Another NOWRA initiative will play a role in the seminars and networking. Heger explains that there has been a lot of interest shown in the Emerging Professionals program, reaching out to speakers who have worked in the industry for five years or less. She said it’s important for the onsite veterans to be welcoming to new people.

Heger says that while only a small percentage of folks working in the onsite industry attend every year, it tends to be those who value staying ahead of education requirements, best practices and learning new technologies.

“To me, the installers, designers and service providers are the top 10%, the ones looking to grow their businesses and those excited about new technologies and new ideas,” she says. In addition, local attendees get exposure to industry trends across the country. “It’s almost like we bring the NOWRA show to them and this might only happen once in 10 years. They’re excited to have outside speakers come in and share new ideas; to me that’s the draw for people who can drive to Springfield.”

Time to travel?

For those in Missouri and environs — as well as installers everywhere — I’d encourage you to make time for the Mega-Conference, your state association gathering, or the WWETT Show when your schedules allow. Time is at a premium, especially since the pandemic, I know. But I always think events like the Mega-Conference can energize you and your crew to learn new treatment techniques, bolster your networking and marketing efforts and see new products the industry has to offer.

At the time of this writing, the Mega-Conference sponsoring groups were still firming up plans for seminar tracks. For more up-to-date information on the Springfield conference, visit www.nowra.org.


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