| AWWA Member Spotlight – James Okumu, City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri
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AWWA Member Spotlight – James Okumu, City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri

James Okumu left Kenya for the United States to pursue a water career and improve life for his family and those back home. He is a manager in water systems planning and engineering with City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri.

James Okumu, City Utilities of Springfield, MissouriEducation: B.S., Engineering Physics and Computer Engineering, Missouri State University; B.S., Civil Engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology

What motivated you to leave Kenya to pursue an education and career in water? Kenya is well known for its wildlife, great weather, coffee, and long-distance runners. At the time I was completing my high school education, I needed a change of scenery, pace and the opportunity to immerse myself in a program that would provide the means and knowledge to someday make an impact on our water systems in Kenya. Growing up in Kenya as a boy meant pulling your weight and helping around the house. For me that involved fetching water for the family. I wanted to make that process of moving water more efficient by understanding and learning about the water sector from an early age. 

We sometimes take for granted being able to turn on the faucet and know you will have clean running water. Having experienced both situations has allowed me to respect and appreciate people in the water sector. I pursued a water career to make life better for myself and for the people back home. I love being a part of AWWA because it supports water professionals by providing a single source for knowledge, resources and opportunities to network with other professionals. 

What led to your focus on design, engineering and project management? I have always loved building stuff and tinkering with equipment. I used to take apart computers and work on making them operate faster. Engineering was a way for me to see projects through from inception to completion.  I enjoy working in a group to develop project scopes, understand user pain points and get input from end users through the design process to delivering a final product. The water sector provided me this opportunity and more. The bar is higher since we consume the product, which means I must be on top of what I do.  

What is a current challenge you’re focused on in Springfield? I think everyone around the country is trying to wrap their heads around emerging contaminants, particularly PFAS. We are also navigating through requirements of funding we received through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Fortunately, our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 staff have made themselves available to assist us. It is one thing to apply for and receive a grant, but what comes after that is the challenge. It’s nothing we can’t rise to.
What is a career success that you’re most proud of? Coming up with solutions for our Springfield rate payers on a limited budget by using alternative project delivery methods. I was able to successfully do this on a filter rehabilitation project at the Fulbright Water Treatment Plant, saving our rate payers more than $2 million.  

How have you benefited from your involvement with AWWA? I have been an AWWA member for 12 years and have made lifetime friends and colleagues who share my passion for providing safe drinking water. I have made contacts that have made my career easier and very rewarding. I am not one to reinvent the wheel and believe in sharing our experiences and expertise in our day-to-day jobs. AWWA provides a platform for us to share these experiences, improve upon them and continue serving our communities with safe drinking water. Through AWWA we can learn from each other’s successes, failures, and best practices and showcase them at conferences. 

Please describe your family and/or hobbies and interests. My wife, Liz, and I have two lovely daughters, Zoiya (12) and Zailey (9). They are my joy and reason for always striving to do better in everything I do. I love spending time with them playing board games (Monopoly UK version), chess, or card games. On other occasions you will find me playing golf and enjoying a cold beverage that’s approximately 95% water. When not doing stuff with the kids, Liz and I enjoy traveling around the world with our best friends.
What is something that people would be surprised to know about you? I am originally from Kenya (if my accent hasn’t given me up) and came to the U.S. for college. I have family in every continent except South America, so Thanksgiving is more of a virtual event for us. Despite the spread of places to visit, we always choose to meet in Kenya whenever travel allows. I played rugby in Kenya and still enjoy watching and occasionally travel to watch the Kenyan team play when they travel to North America.