| In memory of Alan Stevens
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In memory of Alan Stevens

Alan A. Stevens, an international authority on disinfection by-products in drinking water and a long-time researcher at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati, died suddenly on Sept. 13 after suffering a stroke. He was 74.

“Al was invaluable to the research program and a good friend,” said James Symons, author of the acclaimed book “Plain Talk About Drinking Water” and a colleague of Stevens at EPA. “He will be missed by the many people he influenced, both professionally and personally.”

Stevens was quiet and intensely private, a man of calm demeanor, great depth of character and a passionate commitment to accuracy, according to those who knew him. He counted many drinking water sector luminaries as friends, authored or co-authored more than 40 scientific papers, and was instrumental in collecting data and editing EPA’s 1981 book, “Treatment Techniques for Controlling Trihalomethanes in Drinking Water.”

“Many authors contributed to this effort, but when the manuscript was completed, Al insisted on reviewing the entire document for accuracy,” Symons recalled. “This was a time-consuming task, and Al found many errors and numerous sections that needed reworking. He would not allow his name to be listed as a co-author until all of the corrections had been made.”

Thanks in part to Stevens’ efforts, the book was widely used throughout the industry.

Among the many papers authored or co-authored by Stevens was the 1976 Journal AWWA article that was the first to describe the influence of environmental factors – pH, temperature, chlorine concentration, precursor concentration, etc. – on the rate and extent of trihalomethane (THM) formation. 

“This paper became the guidepost for all of the studies that followed,” said Symons.

Shortly thereafter, Stevens made what many believe were his two most important and lasting contributions to the disinfection by-product issue. One was the method of determining THM precursor concentrations and the other was his conceptualizing the behavior of bromide ions during the THM formation reaction.

Stevens’ 1977 paper on THM precursor measurement earned the Association of Environmental Engineering Professors’ 1993 Outstanding Paper Award and a citation that read, “A landmark paper that has stood the test of time.” 

His ideas on the behavior of bromide ions during the THM formation reaction were included in a 1993 paper published by Symons along with Stevens’ good friend, Stuart Krasner, who recently commented, “This paper is still being cited today, nearly 25 years after it was published.”

As he poured himself into his research and papers, Stevens managed to make time to mentor younger professionals. In 1975, a German chemistry student began working at the agency as a researcher and immediately bonded with Stevens.

“Al gave me my first water ski ride on the Ohio River, introduced me to American football, which I still like to watch, but failed to help me understand baseball. I still don’t understand it,” said the student, Wolfgang Kühn. “He was very supportive at Americanizing me. He introduced me to his team, so the lab felt like home to me. When we went to AWWA meetings together, he showed me how to go from hospitality room to hospitality room to get free food and drinks.”

Stevens was among the first employees of the newly formed EPA, joining Gordon Robeck’s Drinking Water Research Division in Cincinnati in the early 1970s. He headed the Chemical Contaminants Section, of the Physical and Chemical Contaminants Removal Branch, before becoming chief of the Organics Control Branch after the reorganization in the early 1980s.

Dick Miltner, who was the chief of the Organics Control Section when Stevens was branch chief, said that the branch conducted treatment studies and that Stevens wanted to bring other disinfection by-products – other than THMs – into the studies and to get those analytics in place.

“Al taught me to always know the weakness of the analytic methods before designing a study or interpreting any data,” Miltner said

“Al was an outstanding branch chief,” said Tom Speth, an environmental engineer in Miltner’s section back in the mid-1980s. “He was technically sharp, well connected to the program office and the water industry, pragmatic, and someone who cared greatly for his staff.”

In 1990, Stevens continued up the administrative ladder, becoming director of the Technical Support Division (TSD) in the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water in Cincinnati. While there, he headed several major programs, including implementation of the Information Collection Rule, which gathered and managed facility information – water quality, treatment processes, and performance data – from 300 surface water treatment systems across the United States.

These data were used to support development of regulations controlling the occurrence of pathogens and disinfection by-products in drinking water systems using surface water sources.

Shortly after Stevens became TSD chief, AWWA’s annual conference was held in Cincinnati. Jim Westrick, chief of the division’s Water Supply Technology Branch, recalled that Stevens hosted a celebration for attendees at his home overlooking the Ohio River. It was but one of many social events spearheaded by Stevens.

“Al was big on communal pizza lunches in his office, and he promoted TSD picnics at least once a year,” Westrick said. “He was extremely loyal to his staff and worked effectively to increase TSD’s contribution to the development and implementation of safe drinking water regulations. He left TSD in very good shape and in very good standing” within the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. “I have nothing but good memories about his service in TSD.”

Stevens obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California Berkeley, and his master’s in analytical chemistry at San Jose State. He began his career as a commissioned officer in the U.S Public Health Service and was stationed at Dauphin Island, Ala. where he worked on the “red tide algae” Gymnodinium breve.

In the early 1970s, Stevens landed a civil servant position at the EPA in Cincinnati, where he spent more than 25 years as a researcher and administrator, and earned the reputation of being a  technical guru and mentor. 

Stevens retired in 1995 and continued to pursue long-time interests. More than a world-class techie, Stevens was also an avid fisherman and expert woodworker. He enjoyed rehabbing old houses, boating, fishing and hunting. He was also a history buff with a strong interest in river history, and a volunteer and member of the Switzerland County Historical Society.

He is survived by his partner of 20 years, Linda Papa, two daughters, a sister, brother – and friends at the USEPA, AWWA, and overseas.

Special thanks goes to James Symons who was instrumental in the creation of this tribute to his long-time friend and colleague. Symons received the Abel Wolman Award of Excellence in 2006 and AWWA’s top research award in 1981, now called the A.P. Black Research Award. The two awards are AWWA’s highest honors. Symons acknowledged his work with Stevens was among the reasons he received both awards.