| AWWA Volunteer of the Year – Brent Alspach, BCEE, PE, Oceanside, Calif.
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AWWA Volunteer of the Year – Brent Alspach, BCEE, PE, Oceanside, Calif.

Job title and employer: Director of Applied Research, Water Division, Arcadis 

Brent AlspachEducation: Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University 
Work focus: Potable water treatment and reuse, specifically emerging water quality issues and membrane processes
What drew you to a profession in the water sector? With a strong interest in chemistry, I entered college as a chemical engineering major. However, a weekly career seminar featuring industry speakers had the opposite of its intended effect and inadvertently convinced me to fulfill my passion elsewhere. I subsequently discovered a class called “Water Chemistry” in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, with a description that seemed customized for me, focusing on chemistry applications in natural and engineered systems in the environment. That course solidified my career trajectory, as the content demonstrated the water sector’s unique and challenging position at the intersection of scientific and technical challenges, public health, and regulatory policy. I was strongly motivated by the chance to make a positive contribution to society via my career – even in small ways.

What led to your becoming an internationally recognized authority on membrane processes? Although I sincerely appreciate the recognition afforded by this question, it’s important to acknowledge that “expert” is a relative term, as there are always people who are more knowledgeable. For my part, I just aspire to learn as much as possible and help disseminate valuable information to the industry. I can attribute my good fortune to be considered as an authority to three primary factors: 1) the desire to learn; 2) circumstance (i.e., having the opportunity to work on many membrane-related projects); and 3) a large group of people I’ll call “passive mentors.” This latter group is representative of many of the outstanding AWWA volunteers who are happy to engage in conversation and help peers further their understanding. Even as a young and much less knowledgeable engineer, I was never made to feel out of place among the industry’s membrane luminaries, who were always friendly and willing to share their expertise. 

Brent with wife and daughterAs a frequent presenter and author, what inspires you to share your knowledge and expertise? I’ve never forgotten the impact these passive mentors had on my career, and I hope to likewise share my own knowledge and experience with the sector through presentations and publications as much as possible. Plus, having the opportunity to exchange ideas and “talk shop” with other water quality and treatment professionals, particularly at AWWA’s conferences, is one of the best aspects of my career. Many conversations initiated with then-strangers at such events have blossomed into long-term friendships, in some cases going back more than two decades. (Pictured left with wife, Berniece, and daughter, Olivia)

As a member of the editorial advisory boards for AWWA’s periodicals, what tips do you have for those aspiring to publish articles? Almost everyone has unique knowledge and experience from which the rest of the water community can benefit, and I’d encourage anyone reading this feature to consider publishing. Any member of the various advisory boards for AWWA’s periodicals, as well as associated staff, would be happy to discuss an idea to determine if/how/where it might be a good fit. I’d also advise students to hone their writing skills through dedicated coursework, practice, and peer-feedback. The art of writing is often an afterthought in engineering curricula already saturated with technical requirements, but there is still a need for better appreciation of the essentialness of good written communications in our field.  

Brent with daughter at ballparkHow have your many years of involvement with AWWA, including your current role as trustee of the Water Quality and Technology Division, benefited your career? My volunteer work with AWWA over 20+ years has been such an integral part of my career that it would be difficult to imagine it otherwise. It has certainly been instrumental for the continuous learning that I not only sincerely enjoy, but which is essential in my role as director of applied research at Arcadis. The opportunity to network with people across the spectrum of water industry stakeholders (i.e., other engineering firms, utilities, regulators, academics, and equipment manufacturers, among others) also has been both professionally valuable and personally fulfilling. These benefits are the heart of AWWA, which imparts a community feel and collaborative spirit to a large industry. (Pictured right, Alspach catching a ballgame with Olivia)

Why would you urge others to volunteer with AWWA? I would hope that my responses to the questions above make a very strong case for the benefits of volunteering with AWWA, including continuous learning, networking, career advancement, personal and professional development, and the opportunity to make a positive impact both within the industry and for public health. Thus, I’d like to sincerely thank Arcadis, which has enabled my involvement with AWWA over many years; neither the benefits I’ve enjoyed, nor this award would have been possible without the company’s generous support and acknowledgement of the value inherent in AWWA engagement. I encourage all organizations in our industry to similarly support their staff as AWWA volunteers (as I know many already do).  

Brent, wife and daughter at campsitePlease describe your family and/or hobbies and interests: My wife, Berniece, is an English professor at California Baptist University, so it’ll be interesting to see how our daughter, Olivia (4), develops with both the proverbial left- and right-brain influences! Because recreation is healthy for both sides of the mental dichotomy, everyone in the family enjoys hiking, particularly in our country’s many magnificent national parks. We’re also robust baseball fans, cheering for both the Braves (my hometown team) and the Padres (our local ballclub). We’ve been partial season ticket holders for several years, so San Diego’s Petco Park feels like a second home. In fact, the family has even structured several vacations specifically around baseball, and I’ve been fortunate to have seen a game in 29 of the 30 active Major League ballparks.

What is something that people would be surprised to know about you? Due to the convergence of having a young daughter and the activity restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, I can recite nearly all of the lines to Disney’s “Frozen” … which, to bring this point full-circle, is at least obliquely water-related!  😉

Anything else you’d like to add? I’d like to thank all of the outstanding AWWA staff – past and present – with whom I’ve collaborated over the years. All of you help make volunteering easy and fun, and I’m very appreciative of your hard work and support.

(Photos courtesy of Brent Alspach)