Water Infrastructure Management Award: Steve Allbee

Steve Albee

By Jim Rush

In fall 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its much-anticipated Clean Water and Drinking Water Gap Analysis. The report became one of the most-cited documents within the water/wastewater sector, highlighting the challenges we face with regard to aging infrastructure and capital investment.

More than a decade later, the challenges outlined in the report still exist, but we are seeing some improvement, according to the Gap Analysis’ director, Steve Allbee.

Allbee drew upon his 30-plus years in the water/wastewater sector in spearheading the report beginning in the late 1990s. In the decade-plus since, he has been focused on establishing a new pathway forward with regard to utility management.

Workshops, research, training sessions, presentations and papers related to improved practices have filled Allbee?s waking hours since the seminal report was released. Particularly, Allbee has been hammering home the importance of a holistic, asset management-based approach as the keystone for water and wastewater system sustainability.

As a result of his endeavors to help guide utilities toward a pathway of sustainability, Allbee is being recognized with UIM?s inaugural Water Infrastructure Management Award, which is bestowed on a public sector individual who has had a lasting and meaningful impact on the water/wastewater field. Allbee will be formally given the award at the annual UIM Asset Management Conference to be held Nov. 28-29 in Arlington, Va.

The Gap Analysis’ most often-cited statistic is the roughly $25 billion shortfall in what was being spent annually and what was needed to be spent to meet current and future needs. The larger issue, however, was that collectively we were mismanaging the infrastructure systems upon which we rely for clean and safe water, as well as our economic well-being.

“The numbers regarding the spending gap obviously were very big, but quite frankly that wasn?t the discussion that we needed to have,” Allbee says. It was part of the discussion, but the bottom line in the findings was that we were facing much more than just big numbers; what we were doing simply wasn?t working. The situation was going to continue to get worse and we needed to think differently about how we were going to accomplish the mission.

“Now a decade later, I think the numbers may have edged up, but I think we are a lot closer to having a responsible dialogue about how we are going to meet our service challenges over the next generations. We may not have a complete roadmap, but we are on the right pathway.”

A Lifetime of Service

Allbee?s involvement in both the water/wastewater field and the public sector are a natural extension of his farm upbringing near Minneapolis/St. Paul. As a child he remembers growing up when the family household had an outhouse, and, coincidently, one of his first jobs was digging ditches to install water and sewer lines for the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission. ?One of the first lessons I learned was to make sure the pipe was covered before the inspector arrived,? he muses.

Allbee briefly attended college before enlisting in the Marines. He served from 1966 to 1969, including duty in Vietnam, and upon his return re-enlisted at Winona State University and earned a bachelor?s degree in political science. From there he went to Mankato State University, where he earned a master?s degree in urban and regional planning.

Upon graduating, he joined the Waste Control Commission as an intern before eventually landing full-time employment there. ?It was a tough job market at that time, and what caught the chief administrator?s eye was the fact that I had worked in the ditch; he liked his people to have bottom-up experience,? Allbee recalls.
As Allbee was getting oriented to the water market, there were major changes afoot. The landmark Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, ushering in sweeping changes for wastewater utilities across the country. ?I have been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time during my career,? he says. ?I basically got my start in the market right when then the Clean Water Act was passed. There was a large step up in activity as a result, and a lot of young people were put into positions of great responsibility because essentially there was no one in front of them.?

While in charge of planning at the Waste Control Commission, Allbee was selected from a group of candidates to study for a second master?s degree at Harvard University. After earning his degree, his plan was to work in Washington, D.C., for a few years before heading back home, and accepted a position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1979.

While at EPA, Allbee embarked on a number of programs and assignments for the Office of Water: construction grants, state revolving funds, targeting financing, technical assistance. ?I had the opportunity to work on a variety of issues over the years and had a strong personal connection and passion for the subject matter,? he says. ?All of these areas were overflowing with interesting challenges and interesting people, so it really cranks your energy level up.?

New Direction

Following an assignment working to bringing services to the U.S.-Mexico border region, Allbee returned with an idea. ?When I returned from Mexico, the typical thing would have been for me to take on a new management assignment, but I was thinking about the emerging issues in the water sector,? he recalls. ?I was tuned into the sector and I could see that costs were going up and that we didn?t really have a long-term plan on how we were going to address these things.?

The result was the decision to move forward with the publication of the Clean Water and Drinking Water Gap Analysis. As Allbee recalls, the report took about three years to complete, a great deal of which involved edits and gaining consensus as an agency-issued document.? ?To get the document released, we had to get political buy in, and I commend the leadership for being committed to gaining a better understanding of the issues, not simply wanting to hear that what we were doing was good,? Allbee says.

While asset management was mentioned in the Gap Analysis, it wasn?t central to the message. However, asset management for water and wastewater was growing internationally, and was being introduced in the United States in some forms including EPA?s proposed CMOM guidelines and GASB 34?s accounting standards, both of which incorporated some asset management principles.

“Asset management was not a major focus of the report,” Allbee says. “It was one of those things that we needed to start thinking about. At about the same time the report was released I started to get a better understanding of the worldwide trend toward asset management practices as a way to manage water and wastewater assets.

“At that time, each organization and each department looked at asset management as it related to their experience. People were having a hard time understanding the holistic framework because their experience had always been about projects and not systems. It was really a paradigm shift to thinking about the whole cycle of getting from conception to conclusion.”

Ten years later ? the blink of an eye in agency time ? these concepts are not only being accepted but embraced at many utilities across the country. ?When I see what is happening today I am blown away,? Allbee says. The regulators and the service providers are much closer to being on the same page and buying into the asset management approach. It is a big transition that involves hundreds of thousands of people across organizations large and small, but I believe people are getting better at understanding that we need to be talking about the whole life cycle and making decisions based on sustainability principles.?

Lasting Impact

While many people have pushed for asset management practices as a way forward for water and wastewater utilities, Allbee?s tireless promotion and unique position within EPA have allowed him spread the work to all types of utilities. He has presented at numerous conferences, managed research and education efforts, and hosted workshops and training sessions across the country.

?Steve?s impact on the water/wastewater industry has been monumental: from his work in resolving funding and service issues with the Mexican government along the Rio Grande and with various Alaskan Native American Tribes to his landmark work with birthing EPA?s State Revolving Fund program, his reach has been astounding,? says Duncan Rose, technical director for asset management with GHD and a frequent presenter with Allbee at workshops across the country. ?But arguably his most long-lasting impact on the industry has been his vision and enthusiastic persistence in investing the fundamentals of modern asset management into the culture of the water industry. His definitive Gap Analysis report set the industry on notice: we can?t keep managing our infrastructure the way we have been and meet the emerging the life-cycle challenges heading our way. But rather than sitting back after raising the alarm, he took on the challenge of institutionalizing a significant part of the solution ? the introduction of concepts and practices of the international model of asset management. The water/wastewater industry will forever be the better for his efforts.?

Sunil Sinha, associate professor at Virginia Tech who works closely with water infrastructure issues and has worked with Allbee on outreach programs including the online ?Bridging the Gap Asset Management Primer? and PBS documentary ?Liquid Assets,? adds: ?Education is an important element in furthering the practice of asset management and achieving our clean water goals. Education goes beyond giving a paper at conference or conducting a research program; it involves engaging people at all levels across a variety of platforms, and Steve has been a champion within EPA is getting the message of improved management out to all stakeholders. Collectively, all of these outreach efforts have really made an impact.?

As for Allbee, he plans to retire from EPA at the end of the year, marking more than 30 years with the agency and close to 50 years since he starting digging ditches for water and sewer lines in Minnesota. He credits the many people he has worked for and worked with for helping him throughout his career, as well as his wife, Diane, their four daughters and seven grandchildren who are at the center of his personal life.

For now, he is looking forward to taking some time off traveling before embarking on the next phase of his career, which he says is to be determined. Odds seem strong, however, that whatever his next steps are, they will be rooted in water.

Jim Rush is the editor of WF&M. He is also the editor of sister publications TMB: Tunnel Business Magazine and Utility Contractor.

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