Staying Focused on the Risks that Matter

July 1, 2021


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Author: Kathryn Sorensen

Like many Gen-Xers, Star Wars was my favorite movie growing up.  I can still remember clutching my seat with excitement as the hero Luke Skywalker used the Force to aim his weapons at the Death Star’s exhaust system.  Enemy fighters were firing at Luke and his wingman, who through the din and chaos of the battle said in a calm, determined, deep voice, “Stay on target.”

That phrase always stuck with me.  When the odds seem overwhelming, when your actions are of high significance and consequence, when it’s all just about to hit the fan—stay on target.  I’ve tried to do that throughout my life.

As Director of Phoenix Water Services, which serves safe, clean, reliable water to around 1.7 million people and is one of the largest water utilities in the country, I was confronted with operational problems, budget challenges, political controversies, legal disputes, droughts, floods, and many other issues that made the job challenging, interesting, and rewarding.  Distraction was a daily part of life.    

There are so many dimensions to managing a water utility that must all perform perfectly in the never-ending symphony that quietly plays unseen, behind the faucets, making sure that everyone has reliable tap water at perfect pressure and quality parameters 24/7/365.  There are many costly needs—the provision of safe, clean water is one of the most capital-intensive undertakings on the planet—and dollars are nearly always short. 

At neighborhood meetings and other public venues, people would often ask me about the next thing.  What the next thing was varied over time and from community group to community group, customer to customer.  Sometimes the next thing was, “What is Phoenix Water doing to become more carbon neutral?”  Other times it was “What are you doing about rainwater harvesting?” Or “Are you concerned about micro-plastics in water?”  These are valid concerns, and the next thing is generally more captivating than the unseen things, the boring pipelines, pumps, and infrastructure that keep a water utility functioning.  Interest in the next thing is commonly based on activism or fear, both effective at stoking public interest.  Political interest follows public interest and eventually enough eyes are fixed on the next thing to dictate new laws, requirements, and regulations, which invariably require additional funding.

The next things are nearly always good things.  I want utilities to be carbon neutral because I, too, care about this planet.  I harvest rainwater at my house (though it nearly never rains).  And of course, I wish it rained more in Phoenix (so that my rainwater harvesting could be more successful).  Am I concerned about micro-plastics in water?  I haven’t seen the science that tells me whether I should or shouldn’t be, but I have seen the science about bacteriological contaminants in water and the effect they have on human health. So I always focused my energy making sure we were treating water effectively to eliminate them, and proactively replacing aging pipelines to avoid their introduction into a customer’s home. That’s a now thing, not the next thing.

Here’s the question I never heard at a public meeting: “What are you doing to invest responsibly in aging water infrastructure?”

I want the next thing, too.  But what I really want is for every person in this country to enjoy the privilege of safe, clean, reliable tap water.  The best way to achieve that is to focus on the now things.  The boring things.  The unseen infrastructure—pipelines buried beneath our streets—plants, wells, tanks, and pumps hidden behind homeland-security protected walls—that make it all possible.  Attention and money focused on the next thing is attention and money taken away from the thing that is most impactful—the thing that best protects public health for the greatest number of people—investment in aging water infrastructure

I am now at the Arizona State University Kyl Center for Water Policy. To those of you out there fighting the good fight, I can be your wingman.  Stay on target. 


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