Introducing Michael J. McGuire, our friend and mentor.

We would like to thank Mr. Michael McGuire for his time in answering these questions for us. From the moment we started this blog, Mr. McGuire has helped us organize our goals, presentation, and access to our site. He has gone from a mentor to now, a friend. Thank you again Mr. McGuire for all your insight and positivity, you are truly an inspiration!

What inspired you to go into the field of water?

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 with a BS in civil engineering. That is a degree that prepares you for everything and for nothing specific. Civil engineers do all kinds of things that keep our cities and our country running. I had job interviews with Mobil Oil, Bethlehem Steel and other big corporations. I also met an amazing man in my senior year that told me that a career in public service is one of the highest callings an engineer can have. His name was Sam Baxter.

Samuel S. Baxter was the Water Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia. In a town that was slimed with patronage and dirty politics he was special. He had the highest moral principles and he told any Mayor that tried to control him where he could go—in the most gentlemanly fashion. I met him at a seminar at Columbia University for senior engineering students. Here was the guy running the Philadelphia Water Department taking an entire day off to hang out with undergraduates. He intrigued me.

I decided to write a senior project paper on wastewater reuse. That’s right, sewage to drinking water, or as we say in California, toilet-to-tap. I took a chance and asked Mr. Baxter (that’s what everyone called him; never “Commissioner”) if I could interview him. He agreed and was very kind to a kid who knew nothing about nothing having to do with wastewater reuse. In the course of my two interviews with him, I was impressed with him as a man and as a leader of this field of water and wastewater services. When the time came to choose among my job offers (yes, this was a long time ago), I accepted a position with the Research and Development Unit of the Philadelphia Water Department. I have never looked back. I have never wanted to do anything else. I love the field of water.

If you met someone who didn’t believe that America is, right now, facing a water crisis, how would you present your argument to them (for or against)? 

There are several water crises facing America today. Some of them are old, such as not having enough water in the right place at the right time. Some of them are new including all of the potential disasters we face due to climate change. There is not enough time in this forum to go into all of the water problems we face today. Let’s choose one.

How can we make more efficient use of our existing supplies in the dry southwestern U.S. so that we do not have to build expensive new facilities such as seawater desalination plants? In southern California for the past 30 years, we have been engaged in an experiment that has demonstrated the price elasticity of water demand. The theory is simple, the higher the cost of water, the less people will use. When I was Assistant General Manager at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in 1991-92, I managed a 43 percent rate increase through out Board of Directors. That was the beginning and several additional price increases later, the region has had about a 30 percent decrease in water use overall due to conservation that was caused by the higher prices. Retail water agencies played a big role in this effort by charging customers more per unit the more they used. What a concept. In the old days, you got cheaper water the more you used.

None of this is simple and there have to be lifeline rates to take care of the people who have trouble paying more for basic services. But, it can be done. It has been done. We need to do more of it, because the water supply news in California is not getting any better. With increasing air temperatures, our ability to store water as snow pack is becoming more limited which is putting more pressure on water supplies and all of the competing uses for it. The rice industry in the Sacramento River valley just celebrated there 100th year of commercial rice growing. Growing rice in the Sacramento River valley is nuts when we are competing for a limited supply with so many uses.

I have skipped around from price elasticity to rice, but they are all connected. Complex and interesting—that is why I love my career in the water field.

During your career, was there a moment or an experience that changed your world-view?

It was 1976 and my wife and I were living in Florence, Italy while she did her PhD dissertation research on art history and I wrote my thesis on activated carbon treatment of water. We lived on the second floor of an apartment building and some days we did not have any water. Now, this was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but their concept of reliable water service was quite different than I was used to in the U.S. During this period, I had the opportunity to travel around to water research centers in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and the UK. I met with people who worked for international water companies that were serving water to cities in South America and Africa. I learned that the world of water was nothing like I studied in college. These experiences and what I have learned since have helped me better understand how other countries face water challenges.

Over the past two weeks, I have been moderating a discussion on a Linkedin Group that has been debating the performance of Nigerian water agencies at the federal, state and local levels. It all started with a guest blogger who I invited to post a story about water supply issues in that country. The Nigerian engineers and water agency administrators who are participating in the debate agree that the situation in Nigeria is terrible. Vast areas of this country, which is blessed with abundant natural resources, are without safe drinking water. Some argue that it is corruption that is causing all of the problems. Others complain about the bureaucracy. I do not know where the truth lies but it is helpful to engage people in these debates to flesh out the issues.

I have become active on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and other social media sites recently and I have learned a lot about the vast network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and foundations that are trying to improve the lives of people around the world by providing sanitation and safe water supplies. It is really astonishing how many organizations are competing for the same dollars to do the same or similar things. In 2009, I sponsored a symposium that explored ways to provide assistance in water and sanitation to the developing world. It was part of the Water Quality Technology Conference of the American Water Works Association that was held in Seattle. The problems of providing real assistance and not charity handouts that were discussed at length during that symposium still appear to be issues with NGOs and foundations today.

What is the water issue you find most interesting (past or present)?

Public health and the prevention of waterborne disease are the most interesting water issues for me. For the last six years, I have been doing research on the history of waterborne disease and the contributions of water treatment to improvements in public health. I have been particularly focused on the first introduction of chlorine for water disinfection in the water supply of Jersey City, NJ in 1908. Life expectancy in 1900 was an average of 47 years in the U.S. Many of the biggest killers were diseases that were transmitted by contaminated drinking water. In many cases, cities, engineers and public health experts knew that sewage-contaminated drinking water was killing people by the trainload. However, little was done for decades because of the high cost of water filtration systems, the unavailability of pure, upland water supplies and the reluctance to use chemical disinfectants.

All of that changed in 1908. A courageous physician, Dr. John L. Leal, partnered with the most famous sanitary engineer of the time, George Warren Fuller, to construct a chlorine feed system at Boonton Reservoir—Jersey City’s water supply. Leal wanted to chlorinate the water supply in part to demonstrate to a New Jersey Court that his private water company could supply water that was “pure and wholesome.” But also, he had worked for years as a public health officer in Paterson, NJ, and he knew that adding chlorine to water supplies was the only way to break the logjam over how to prevent waterborne disease. The Court ruled that using chlorine in drinking water was safe, effective and reliable. After that ruling, the use of chlorine exploded across the U.S. and the rates of typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases plummeted. We now enjoy an average life expectancy of 78 years, due in no small part to the pioneering efforts of these two men.

I have completed a book, The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, that describes these events. I hope that anyone who has an interest in drinking water quality and safety will find it useful. The book comes out in spring 2013.

When you hear the term “water politics” what does that mean to you?

The following quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” In California, we fight over water a lot. Most of the fighting is related to water politics. Not politics in the usual Democratic or Republican Party sense. We engage in water politics that involves who has water, who wants it and, to a certain degree, who is willing to pay for it.

In California and throughout the southwestern U.S., we are in the middle of a huge shift in water resources. Due to historical water development, farmers have cheap and dominant water rights. Cities continue to grow and demand a bigger slice of the water pie. There have been several instances over the past 25 years of willing sellers being matched with willing buyers in a messy water market. Sometimes the politics of water means fighting over how big a payment will be made to agriculture water rights holders to put the water to a higher and more cost-beneficial use. However, the farming community is concerned about selling the birthright of their children for a short-term gain. Again, nothing about this is simple but we are making some headway—slowly.

What’s a water-related question that you would like to be asked and what would be your answer?

How can we encourage the next generation of water professionals to get involved in and stay committed to this amazing, complex and satisfying career?

Older water professionals get wrapped up in families, careers, and leisure activities. What we cannot forget is that we need to help the next generation of engineers, scientists, operators and administrators achieve success in this great profession of ours. I have felt a particular need to do this for most of my career, mostly to due to the example of others. When I came to California in 1977 as a newly minted PhD, I did not know a soul in the water business. People reached out to me and welcomed me into the profession. What success I have had in my chosen line of work is due in no small part to people who helped a newcomer become involved.

The next time anyone is wondering how they can give back to their profession, they shouldn’t just write a check to a deserving water charity (ok, that would be good too). To really strengthen what we have in this, the best career that I could possibly imagine, we all need to reach out to a young professional and give her or him some guidance and actual assistance so that they can enjoy an awesome career.