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Working towards a sustainable water future: Part 2

August 16, 2023

By Amanda Farley

At water treatment facilities like this and water resource recovery facilities, water professionals are working to meet multiple sustainable development goals. (©

We continue our conversation with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) on how water professionals are integral to reaching sustainability goals and achieving net zero.

The Water Environment Federation (WEF)opens in new tab/window is a global association of water professionals. Here, Chief Technical Officer Dr Barry Lineropens in new tab/window and Managing Director of Publishing Lorna Ernstopens in new tab/window dive deeper into what the WEF and its members are doing to achieve net zero. If you missed Part I of the conversation, you can read it here.

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.

What are WEF’s commitments to achieve net zero?

Dr Barry Liner: WEF released a new strategic planopens in new tab/window in 2022. One of our three strategic goals is to “lead the transformation to the Circular Water Economy.” The plan commits to championing the adoption of circular water economy (CWE) and eliminating barriers to CWE adoption. WEF has also released position statements on Climate Changeopens in new tab/window (2021) and Resource Recoveryopens in new tab/window (2022).

Water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) engaging in resource recovery are the key to a healthy and sustainable community. WEF supports the following:

  • Balance competing priorities of removal and recovery of nutrients and recovery of other products such as carbon and energy, and climate change goals that lead to sustainable solutions.

  • Increase awareness of the importance of resource recovery and incentivize WRRFs to continue and grow their contributions to the communities they serve.

  • Develop legislation and/or regulations that promote resource recovery and incentivize markets and products.

  • Increase research investment for resource recovery. Incentivize and invest in the innovation, development, advancement and deployment of processes and technologies that make nutrient recovery more cost effective.

  • Reduce barriers to beneficial use adoption.

  • Promote a holistic approach to find the best cost-effective option for resource recovery while minimizing the environmental impacts.

Barry Liner, PhD

Barry Liner, PhD

The Climate Change position statement also supports advocacy and innovation to solve these challenges, while additionally explicitly encouraging upholding socioeconomic and environmental justice and equity at every level of planning, financing, construction, operation and delivery of all water infrastructure and services.

The WEF community has a history of living up to commitments like these. For example, in 2011, the renewable energy position statement said that “WEF believes that wastewater treatment plants are not waste disposal facilities, but rather water resource recovery facilities that produce clean water, recover nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen), and have the potential to reduce dependence upon fossil fuels through the production and use of renewable energy.”

In 2013, a WEF task force recommended we refer to Water Resource Recovery Facilities (WRRFs) instead of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Over the past 10 years, that terminology has become widely adopted, which helps water professionals recognize the change in mindset from linear waste management to a circular sustainable approach aimed in support of net-zero principles.

Has the race to net zero opened up any new areas of publishing?

Lorna Ernst: WEF publications are in line with the goal that the next generation of wastewater treatment has zero net impact with regards to energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient discharge. Achieving this goal will require a dedication to overcoming the technical barriers, financial constraints and regula­tory disincentives limiting nutrient removal, greenhouse gas emis­sion reduction and energy neutrality in the treatment of wastewater. To that end, most publications that we develop, and especially those that we update, now address sustainability and the potential for zero net impact. It has also resulted in new partnerships and audiences for our content.

Lorna Ernst

Lorna Ernst

How is WEF helping to prepare its individual members or member companies to navigate the challenges of achieving net zero?

Dr Barry Liner: WEF education always integrates resource recovery and the circular water economy, whether as part of a specialty conference, a webcast or WEFTEC. The technical programs feature deep knowledge on how to address the engineering and operation of WRRFs to strive towards net zero. WEF also supports partners such as the US Water Alliance’s Imagination Challenge: Water’s Role in the Race to Zero. Collaboration is key to success.

What critical preparation is needed for engineers to be successful in achieving net zero?

Dr Barry Liner: Engineers are exceptional at solving technical problems, and the technology and expertise is advancing rapidly. In fact, there are WRRFs that produce more electricity than they use. Perhaps the most important skills in getting these technical solutions adopted are related to communications and other so-called soft skills. These skills are critical when putting solutions in place that address net zero, while upholding principles related to socioeconomic and environmental justice and equity at every level of planning, financing, design, construction, operation and delivery of all water infrastructure and services.

What are some ways that your members are engaging with the challenges of achieving net zero?

Dr Barry Liner: WEF’s Research and Innovation for Strengthening Engagement (RISE) program supports the core value of accelerating adoption of innovative technology within the water industry and integrating utilities, academics, and consultants in the discussion. With over 800 experts in eight innovation focus groups, these partnerships seek to have an impact on net zero principles. Some of the focus groups deal with renewable fuels (Hydrothermal Liquefaction), water reuse, and advanced controls (Soft Sensors and Machine Learning).

Where do you see the most potential for net zero related change in the near future?

Dr Barry Liner: One of the biggest challenges for net zero and the circular water economy is the development of a market for recovered products. Water reuse and biosolids fertilizer like Milorganite have been around for decades. To expand the use of recovered products, water reuse, renewable energy generation and other new opportunities, the business side of market creation will be necessary. If that can happen in the next five years, there will be further advances.

Barry Liner, PhD

As Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), Dr Barry Lineropens 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 Ernstopens 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