Monday was, for many people, the first day of the conference. That being the case, the first agenda item of the day was the opening general session. This was held in one of the largest halls at the facility in LA. I was sitting so far back, I was having trouble seeing the giant screen, which was projecting what was happening on stage, which was basically in a different zip code. Regardless of that issue, the audio reached me and got me excited about water.
The initial welcome was put forth by LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He talked a little about how LA was innovatively tackling the issues of so many people in such a small space with water being a strained resource. He talked about the massive amount of water being treated, wastewater being moved and cleaned, and the stormwater also coupled into the cycle. The first motto of the conference was “we believe in clean water.”
Next, Jeanette Brown (immediate past president) came out on-stage to recognize everyone involved in WEF, the WEFTEC organizers and board members, as well as various prize winners in the water-based arena. She then introduced Jeff Eger, the new president. One of his first acts was to present the “Water’s Worth It” Campaign. This is the new initiative by which everyone in the water industry can unify and reaffirm the importance of what is done. It’s a WEF logo and slogan, but more important, it is meant to be a unifying, identifiable symbol that everyone can get behind to place more value in what is really the most valuable resource we have.
With the official-type business out of the way, the two keynote speakers began. First, there was Dr. Rita Colwell. She has spent significant parts of her life studying water, child mortality, and Cholera. She found a strong correlation between copepod presence and Cholera bacteria presence. The zooplankton (copepods) are often carriers of the Cholera bacteria, and provide a sort of host for the Cholera bacteria to thrive and spread. Since the zooplankton is related to the phytoplankton population (food source), and phytoplankton population is related to rainfall and measurable by chlorophyll quantitative analysis, Cholera could be correlated with weather phenomena and further predicted via weather models. Dr. Colwell’s computer models ended up being very effective in predicating Cholera behavior given a specific location and weather analysis. Academically, her work was done at this point. She went beyond this though, asking “What can be done now that we know where and when it is going to happen?” Focusing on a region of Bangladesh, she experimented with filtration for water sources. In this highly populated, very wet region of the world, water sources often double as sanitation transport, and vice versa. Water quality is very low, especially with a large population of impoverished people. Luckily, the copepods are very large organisms, and through crude filtration, they can be eliminated. Sari cloth ended up being the local, most easily attainable option for copepod filtration. With minor training and experimentation, they found that their “Sari Filter” experimental group had reduced instances of cholera by 50%. The filtration aspects of a piece of old Sari folded 4 or more times was all that was needed. They believed the percent of success may have been even larger, but was skewed lower due to mixing of control and filter test groups. Subsequently, returning many years later to the test area, they found the practice had been adopted further, and even more people were benefitting from this research. This is the kind of story that really creates excitement about getting out there and tinkering to solve our large scale problems. Science can lead to great things. But then again, great things can happen without science too.
Enter Doc Hendley, former bartender and musician, and current water non-profit champion. Doc came on stage after a great show of research and benefit from Dr. Colwell to tell us a more personal story. One day he woke up and decided that being a bartender and musician was no longer his road in life. He found out about the many people in this world who didn’t have clean water, and it surprised and shocked him. He didn’t know much about his own water much less water for the rest of the world and he had never questioned that the rest of the world wasn’t as fortunate as him. Like most of the public, he basically thought water was free and everywhere. Finding out that wasn’t true compelled him. So, he hosted a gathering and served wine to all his friends, attempting to raise money to help get water for people. He ended up raising more money than he had ever planned. Then, he was ready to hand that money over to Samaritan’s Purse so they could drill wells or whatever, but something strange happened. They said no. They told him to keep his money. They instead trained him in everything they knew about providing water, and sent him out into the world to spend the money on his own. This is where the story of Doc Hendley and Wine to Water began. Today they are working with locals all over the world, providing lower tech, hyper-local solutions to getting water. Whether its filtration, locally rigged machinery, or other simple and easy methods, Doc and his organization are filling in the gap between high-tech, expensive water exploration/ development and the absence of water altogether. He admitted that his engineering abilities were indeed non-existent and he implored the crowd to stop looking so hard, and to just start doing. Solutions exist and the need has never been greater. After hearing this guy speak, its hard not to quit my job and show up on his doorstep telling him I will follow wherever the water leads him.