Ken Kirk Steers NACWA to National Leadership in Clean Water Advocacy

Ken Kirk at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ 2015 Utility Leadership Conference & 45th Anniversary Annual Meeting at the Omni Providence Hotel, Providence, RI, July 13-14, 2015. (Photo by Max Taylor).
By Andrew Farr

Ken Kirk sees the big picture now. When it comes to policy development in the area of clean water, he’s seen the full extent of both struggles and achievements and takes pride in the latter.

This month, Kirk officially retired from his longtime position as chief executive officer of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Under his leadership, the organization has grown into one of the foremost associations in the water sector working to advance clean water policy and education.

The progress of the last 45 years is no doubt a success story, says Kirk, who’s been an advocate for the environment and clean water policy since the early 1970s before he joined NACWA.

“I remember the pictures we saw of rivers burning on fire, not being able to swim in the Potomac, and there were pictures of that all over the country,” he says. “Today, you look at those cities’ waterfronts, and you compare what their waterfronts looked like then to now, it’s an incredible story of success.”

In many ways, the advancements in clean water policy and the growth of NACWA over the years are directly tied to the Clean Water Act. In fact, one could make the point that some of the major advancements in environmental progress and public health stem from the passing of the Clean Water Act, which in 1972, established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.

In the years after the passing of the Act, NACWA has become a nationally-recognized convener for public sewerage agencies to come together for policy advocacy and more. Under Kirk’s leadership, the association has broadened its members, its initiatives and its message. 

NACWA History

In 1970, a group of individuals from 22 large municipal sewerage agencies came together with the goal of obtaining federal funding for municipal wastewater treatment. The group also wanted to find better ways to collaborate on clean water issues due to the growing national interest of improving the quality of polluted waterways. Based on the goal of representing the interests and priorities of publically-owned treatment works, the group eventually formed the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA). During that time, another organization also formed to represent drinking water utilities, which would become the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA). 

Initially, the group that started AMSA was based in the Seattle metropolitan area, but soon realized the need to be in Washington, D.C., where it moved in 1976 to be run by a management firm. Kirk joined that group in late 1978, working primarily with AMSA.  

Kirk had grown up in New York City and became interested in environmental law and policy and took an interest in advocacy work.

“I always felt strongly about giving something back to the cities that gave me so much,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that or whether I was going to be able to do that.”

With an educational background in environmental law, Kirk went to work for the EPA in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations and worked on issues associated with the Clean Water Act after it was passed. As Kirk recalls, clean water issues comprised probably 90 percent of EPA’s budget at the time. Soon after, he began meeting the members of AMSA when they would come to Washington, D.C., to meet with EPA officials.

“I was really impressed with how they carried themselves and the points that they made and the fact that they were really tough advocates for what they believed in,” he says. “I immediately liked them.”

Kirk would eventually join the firm that managed AMSA in 1978 and began working closely with the membership, as well as continuing collaboration with EPA on issues like the implementation of the Clean Water Act, the national pretreatment program and national policy for combined sewer overflows. Kirk also worked closely with members to improve initiatives such as community outreach, green infrastructure, funding and addressing the pros and cons of privatization.    

In the following years, AMSA continued to grow and broadened its reach in terms of the issues it dealt with. According to Kirk, the focus early on was almost entirely on meeting the secondary treatment requirements of the Clean Water Act, improving treatment facilities and building interceptor sewers. Along with secondary treatment, there was also a push for a greater focus on pretreatment, sludge and biosolids issues, and later toxics and wet weather issues in the 1980s. Throughout this time, AMSA became viewed as an important stakeholder in both the legislative and regulatory arenas as it strengthened relationships with members of Congress, presidential administrations and the EPA.

Name Change & Recent Initiatives

In 1989, the AMSA Board of Directors decided the organization needed its own staff rather than working through a management firm. Kirk was asked to head up the initiative and was quick to accept the position due to his growing admiration for the Board and the AMSA membership.

“I was really impressed by their commitment to clean water,” he says. “I knew right away that my preference would be to work for them. They were the ones who were going to implement the Clean Water Act and achieve the objectives and goals of it more than anyone else.”

During this time, AMSA also opened its membership to include utilities that serve less than 250,000 people – the minimum requirement at the time. Before then, members consisted only of large municipal sewerage agencies.

Recently, the organization has been enamored in a broadening array of environmental laws and regulations that include the full scope of ecosystem issues encompassing watershed management, particularly nonpoint source pollution control and also protection of air quality and endangered species. In 2005, it was decided – in part to Kirk’s persistence in years prior – to change the organization’s name to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies to better reflect its commitment to achieving clean water goals. Today, NACWA remains a dynamic national organization, involved in all facets of water quality protection.

“The biggest challenge in the last 10 years has been nonpoint sources of pollution,” says Kirk, adding that it’s an issue that’s an ongoing battle. “There’s no way water is going to be improving even if we take every last drop of nitrogen and phosphorus out of our systems. Waters are still going to be polluted.

“On the requirements side, we’ve got to figure out a way to move into the direction of holistic approaches, integrated planning and the notion of ‘one water,’” Kirk adds. “We need to build some flexibility into the process and the requirements that are being imposed on communities across the country. And we have to find a way to fund it.

“Let’s be realistic, we’ve had the Clean Water Act now for 43 years. We’ve made a lot of progress and we still have a lot to go. But if you look at the goals of the Act, it was zero discharge by 1985, which was 30 years ago. We’re not anywhere close to that. I think we need to recognize that if we really want to move in this new direction of cleaning up the waters in a holistic way that doesn’t break the back of all the ratepayers around the country, it’s going to take one or two, or maybe even three generations to reach the point where we truly have green cities all over the county.”

An Umbrella Organization

Speaking of the notion of one water, the story of Ken Kirk’s leadership of NACWA would not be complete without covering the creation of the U.S. Water Alliance in 2008 – a vision aimed at industry advocacy not only among municipal representatives, but associations, manufacturers, consultants and other water groups.

According to Dick Champion, you might even call the conception of the U.S. Water Alliance accidental. The story goes that in 2006, Champion, the director of the Independence Water Pollution Control Department in Independence, Missouri, and NACWA president at the time, invited Kirk to his lake house on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.  

Champion, now a longtime friend and colleague of Kirk’s, had joined NACWA in the early 1990s when the association broadened its membership to include smaller municipalities such as Champion’s utility.

The two got together along with another colleague for some fishing and ended up in a discussion about the diversity of the NACWA membership. Champion says they came up with the idea of creating an umbrella organization that could offer a platform for dialogue among multiple industry groups representing drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.

“There was a realization that the profile of our NACWA membership, and particularly the Board of Directors, had a lot of irons in the fire,” says Champion. “They were dealing with a lot of issues. Many of them were becoming bilingual – they could speak water, wastewater and stormwater.

“The idea was that we were fragmented, and maybe this alliance could serve as a convener of collaboration and we could bring everyone together with some regularity and try to get our messaging synchronized.”

Kirk worked closely with his staff at NACWA and, along with a small group of directors, officially launched the Clean Water America Alliance in 2008. Kirk also served as its first president. The organization changed its name to the U.S. Water Alliance in 2013. Today, the Alliance remains a not-for-profit organization aimed at gathering various facets of the water sector together for collaboration on finding integrated solutions to water challenges ranging from infrastructure to source water protection. It honors leaders in these areas through its annual U.S. Water Prize.

“It’s really an organization that is coming into its own, finally,” adds Kirk. “It’s starting to accomplish the purpose that it was set to accomplish.”

The U.S. Water Alliance and NACWA have also worked together on newer initiatives such as the Value of Water Coalition, another convening organization of public and private water leaders, for which the two organizations are founding members. Both NACWA and the Alliance have worked with the Value of Water Coalition on efforts to craft compelling water messages to advocate for clean water issues.

“NACWA has also played an important role in trying to bring more local utility leadership involved in the Value of Water Coalition,” says Radhika Fox, director of the Value of Water Coalition who was recently named as the U.S. Water Alliance’s next president.

“I will say that Ken is really someone who is focused on building the next generation of leadership within water and being very generous with his 40-plus years of experience in the industry and passing that on,” she says. “When I look at what he built at NACWA and how exceptional the staff is there, I see that kind of mentoring and leadership development. For me personally, Ken has very much been that.”

The Big Picture

There are several accomplishments Kirk is proud of throughout his career, and many of his peers describe his passion as forward thinking. It’s a goal evidenced by NACWA’s initiative of promoting the Water Resources Utility of the Future – seeing that clean water issues are priorities with Congress, the Administration and other key stakeholders going forward.

“I’ve enjoyed all these decades working with Ken,” says Champion, who still serves as chairman of the U.S. Water Alliance. “He works tirelessly, he’s passionate about it and he’s constantly moving forward. He has a big heart for taking care of the members. The [U.S. Water Alliance] has really growth over the years in large part due to Ken’s vision.”   

In terms of the growth of NACWA, Kirk says he has continued to be impressed and surprised by NACWA’s membership in their eagerness to adapt forward thinking goals. But as Kirk reflects on his time in the industry, he isn’t proud of just the tangible accomplishments, but also the evolving public perception of the industry. 

“When I first started out and when AMSA first started out, it was pretty clear that everyone regarded the big cities as polluters,” Kirk says. “Our members at the time wore that as a badge of courage. They weren’t concerned about that at all. That’s how they viewed themselves – they were water pollution control people.

“The biggest change that I’ve seen – and it’s totally 100 percent deserving – is the fact that our members are now viewed as environmentalists. And even if you talk to people at EPA and people on the Hill, they understand and appreciate the fact that our members are clean water advocates, and they are just as committed to clean water as any NGO group.

“I always loved these guys. Whether they knew it or not, they were helping me achieve my lifetime goals as well.”

Andrew Farr is associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

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