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Working towards a sustainable water future: Part 1

August 8, 2023

By Amanda Farley

Water pouring into cupped hands (©

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) unites water professionals around the world towards a goal of clean and healthy water for all.

Known as “the water quality people,” the Water Environment Federation(opens in new tab/window) (WEF) is an association of water professionals that includes tens of thousands of members worldwide. WEF’s vision is for a life free of water challenges. Pollution, sustainability and the environment are issues that have always affected water quality, so WEF was already working towards some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(opens in new tab/window) before they were even established.

Here, the WEF’s Chief Technical Officer Dr Barry Liner(opens in new tab/window) and Managing Director of Publishing Lorna Ernst(opens in new tab/window) discuss how their organization is supporting the SDGs and net zero principles.

Societies & Sustainability

This article is part of our ongoing series of interviews with engineering society leaders about their perspectives on how engineers are forging a critical path forward toward achieving net zero.

Why is it so critical now for industries, subject matter experts and other professionals to become part of a larger community like WEF?

Barry Liner: We all know we can achieve more as a group than we can individually. That’s why another goal in the WEF strategic plan is to “cultivate a purpose driven community to sustainably solve water challenges for all.” WEF seeks to drive connection and collaboration for the development of innovative solutions. When we leverage the power and diversity of industry, municipal utilities, researchers and students, manufacturers, regulators, operators and the general public, we can impact change for the better.

We water professionals can engage the general public as well. The original Brave Blue World(opens in new tab/window) documentary, featuring Matt Damon, Jaden Smith, Liam Neeson and many water experts, has had over 100 million streams on Netflix since its release in 2020. This impact would not have been possible without WEF and the water community partners. I’m looking forward to Our Blue World — the sequel scheduled for a 2024 release.

Barry Liner, PhD

Barry Liner, PhD

How is WEF supporting the UN’s SDGs?

Dr Barry Liner: WEF released a position statement supporting the SDGs in 2019, but the Federation’s activities in active support of water resource recovery (SDG 6) and the circular economy (SDG 12) goes back well over a decade, before the SDGs were even released. The SDGs are integrated throughout our educational programming, and the WEF Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) in 2019 even featured an SDG certificate program. Beginning in 2021, WEFTEC featured a dedicated SDG Theater to provide education about innovations spanning all the SDGs. We put the theater on the exhibition floor to enhance the visibility for all attendees.

In addition, WEF was a founding talent partner for UNLEASH(opens in new tab/window), the global SDG Innovation lab that brings 1,000 young entrepreneurs together to solve SDG challenges.

Which SDGs are your members best positioned to address?

Dr Barry Liner: The SDGs are interrelated by design and necessity because of the complex nature of sustainability. SDG 6, for Clean Water and Sanitation, is integral to all SDGs and explicitly related to most of the 17 goals. The work of water professionals also directly impacts most of the other SDGs, including SDG 2: Zero Hunger; SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being; SDG 5: Gender Equality; SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy; SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities; SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production; SDG 13: Climate Action; SDG 14: Life below Water; and SDG 15: Life on the Land.

We could go into detail on any SDG, but looking at the operation of one water resource recovery facility (WRRF), you can see the impacts: By recovering nutrients through biosolids or struvite, you are providing renewable fertilizer, which supports agriculture (SDG 2) and soils (SDG 15) and the circular economy (SDG 12) and reduces embodied energy in chemical fertilizer to help reduce climate change (SDG 13). Water reuse provides agricultural support and the circular economy again, while also helping industry (SDG 9). Clean water sent into receiving bodies enhances habitat (SDG 14). Renewable energy from biogas or other biofuels addresses SDG 7. Sustainable management of all water infrastructure impacts SDG 9 (Infrastructure) and Sustainable Cities (SDG 11). As water organizations seek environmental justice and equitable solutions, the water sector also addresses SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

What trends is your publishing team seeing in terms of topics related to sustainability?

Lorna Ernst: Sustainability is now being addressed in virtually every area of the water sector and in the resources we create to support those initiatives. Our publications are all examples of this trend: Industrial Water Reclamation and Reuse, Sustainability Reporting Formats for Wastewater Systems, Sustainability and Energy Management for Water Resource Recovery Facilities, The Energy Roadmap: A Water and Wastewater Utility Guide to More Sustainable Energy Management, The Nutrient Roadmap, and The Water Reuse Roadmap.

Lorna Ernst

Lorna Ernst

Is WEF organizing any special events or activities in the near future to promote sustainability among its membership?

Dr Barry Liner: WEF has been investigating how to gather water professionals from within various industries, and we have decided to launch the WEF Circular Water Economy Summit(opens in new tab/window) on July 18-20 in Nashville. It’s a new event that aims to bring together the water community across multiple industrial verticals. 

You can read Part 2 of the interview here.

Barry Liner, PhD

As Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), Dr Barry Liner(opens in new tab/window) is responsible for leading the WEF Water Science & Engineering Center, as well as global water utility innovation and resource recovery initiatives. He served as a facilitator for SDG 6 (Clean Water & Sanitation) at UNLEASH, the global innovation laboratory for the SDGs in Shenzhen, China (2019), Nuuk, Greenland (2022) and Bangalore, India (2022). Before joining WEF, Barry served as Assistant Professor and Director of International Engineering Programs at George Mason University in Washington, DC, where he founded Engineers for International Development.

Previously, he led change management efforts at AEM Corporation and managed support regulatory support projects for the USEPA’s Office of Water and IT projects for both public and private sector clients. He also served at the World Bank, developing a protocol to monitor and evaluate progress towards the water and sanitation targets of the Millennium Development Goals, and as a management consultant at Black & Veatch. Barry is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Board-Certified Environmental Engineer (BCEE).

Lorna Ernst

Lorna Ernst(opens in new tab/window) has been with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) for 33 years. In her current role as Managing Director of Publishing, she oversees WEF’s publishing program, which includes a peer-reviewed journal under partnership with Wiley, standards, books, print and digital magazines, training materials, and auxiliary news websites. She also provides oversight for the organization’s acquisitions program, online library, licensing and translations, and co-publishing relationships with industry partners. Lorna received her BS in Geology.


Amanda Farley


Amanda Farley

Manager of Publisher Relations