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ACE19: Water connects them all

See what the annual convention for water leaders worldwide looked like.

From Alaska to Florida, Asia to Africa, the world of water poured into the Colorado Convention Center in Denver in mid-June.

The American Water Works Association’s 138th Annual Conference and Exposition — known as ACE19 — brought more than 12,000 attendees to the Colorado Convention Center from across the United States and more than 50 countries around the world.

“ACE brings together the brightest minds in water every year,” said Greg Kail, AWWA’s communications director. “It’s a great place to share ideas, see new innovations and learn from water industry experts.”

The conference featured sessions on a variety of topics, including protecting streams, rivers and lakes. Attendees learned what other utilities are doing to protect water quality, manage water rights, learn new water treatment technologies, deal with the impact of climate change on water providers and handle aging infrastructure.

“Over the next 25 years, it’s estimated that utilities across the U.S. will need to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure repairs and upgrades,” Kail said. “It’s important that our communities understand how much work needs to be done to ensure people have safe, reliable drinking water.”

Denver Water employees look at a pipe exhibit at ACE19. Photo Credit: Denver Water.


New products and friendly competitions

The conference also provided an opportunity for about companies to display their products and innovations in over 1,000 booths.

“We have pipes, pumps, water meters and more on the exhibit hall floor,” Kail said. “It’s a great place for water providers to see what’s new on the market and take new ideas back to their communities.”

ACE is also home to five competitions that put on-the-job skills and knowledge to the test.

The events include pipe-tapping, in which teams simulate how fast they can connect a copper service line pipe to a charged water main. Other events included assembling a fire hydrant, taste-testing the best drinking water and answering questions in a quiz-show competition.

“These are fun events that unite water crews from around the world in a friendly but serious competition,” Kail said. “The teams work hard to see who’s best-of-the-best in their field.”

Learning and sharing

Denver Water sent 200 employees to ACE19 and over 20 presenters.

The utility’s experts gave presentations on a wide variety of topics including the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, climate change, watershed protection, setting water rates and getting messages out to customers using social media.

“ACE was a great chance for our employees to share their knowledge and also learn from other experts,” said Nicole Babyak, a water treatment development and leadership supervisor at Denver Water. “Collaboration and sharing ideas are very important in the water industry as we look ahead to the challenges of the future.”

For Aaron Benko, an environmental compliance specialist at Denver Water, the conference’s technical sessions were the best part.

“This conference broadens our horizons and introduces us to so many things we never would have seen,” Benko said.

Perry Evans came to ACE19 from Houston, where he is a director at the Blue Ridge West Municipal Utility District.

“I’ve been to ACE about 15 times and learn a great deal of information,” Evans said. “I think it’s important for everyone to meet as many people as possible and learn as much as they can about the scarce resource.”

Michael Kukoski flew in from Alaska, where he works at the city of Anchorage’s water department.

“We get most of our water from a glacier and send about 25 billion gallons per day through our system,” Kukoski said. “I come to the conference to get a look at all the latest innovations.”

Aaron Benko, environmental compliance specialist at Denver Water, takes part in an virtual reality exhibit at ACE19. Photo credit: Denver Water.


Future leaders and diversity

Cathy Bernardino Bailey earned the nickname “first lady of water” from friends and colleagues because she was the first female director at the Greater Cincinnati Water Works department.

Bernardino Bailey said she comes to the annual conference on a regular basis to network and see what’s new in water treatment practices, but also tries to encourage young people and people of color to get into the water industry.

“It’s so important that we help foster water leaders of tomorrow,” she said. “I want to make sure our industry has diverse leaders and diverse employees because it’s important to have as many different voices in the room to help handle all the complex issues surrounding water.”

Bernardino Bailey said the industry has made great strides over the years.

“In the past, there weren’t many women or people of color in the field,” she said. “But now there are many different people here at the conference. There’s young, old … by race, by gender, everything has changed and I’m excited to see what we’ll all bring to the industry.”

More than 20 Denver Water employees gave presentations at ACE19. Photo Credit: Denver Water.


What attendees take home

AWWA’s membership spans more than 4,300 utilities across the U.S. that supply roughly 80 percent of the nation’s drinking water, making the annual conference a critical event.

“We hope when people leave this conference that they are inspired when they go back to their own communities,” Kail said. “ACE is a place to get a sense of pride in our work and a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that you can really only get in a setting like this.”