Engineers make good things happen

National Engineers Week is this week, Feb. 19-25. Established in 1951, it aligns with the birthday of President George Washington. He is considered our nation’s first engineer because of the surveying work he did early in his career.

Engineers use their technical, analytical, and critical thinking skills to solve problems and impact all aspects of our lives. The contributions that engineers make to our society should be recognized during Engineers Week.

There are many types. Civil engineers work on the analysis, design and construction of our physical infrastructure. They have contributed to significant advances in our society and continue to have a major role in our drinking water and wastewater systems.

Most Americans take drinking water for granted. Clean and safe drinking water in our society is not magic; it is the result of engineering and scientific work. Systems developed by civil engineers and other scientific and technical personnel have made safe and clean drinking water available across the country. The health of Americans took a leap forward after engineers and scientists began disinfecting public drinking water supplies in Jersey City, N.J., in 1908. After disinfection was determined to be safe and effective, it spread across the country and diseases such as cholera and typhoid dropped dramatically.

However, we live in a changing world. Water systems age and deteriorate. Demand for water changes. Water sources change and/or become contaminated. Engineers and scientists need to stay involved in the operation, maintenance, and continual development of our water systems. As demonstrated by the recent disaster in Flint, Mich., bad things can happen when technical decisions are made without understanding the underlying engineering and scientific principles.

Civil engineers have also led in the upgrading our wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure. Technology has significantly improved since wastewater and storm water runoff were collected in combined sewers and discharged into nearby streams and rivers. Civil engineers and scientists have made major advances in wastewater infrastructure since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began in 1970 and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. These advances have improved the water quality of our streams, rivers and lakes.

However, new methods, strategies, and technologies must be continually developed to fix wastewater issues from the past, meet current water quality standards, and address future challenges. In older cities across the country, work is being performed to reduce and eliminate wastewater discharges from combined sewer overflows. Treatment plants are being upgraded to improve treatment capability, and new technologies are being introduced to increase performance and efficiency. Engineers are also working to address the challenges of runoff from modern farming activities and blue green algae blooms which have impacted Ohio and other states water supplies.

As new political leaders begin to formulate policy, engineers and other scientific and technical personnel should be included in the process. As we learned in Flint, a technical understanding of the situation is critical; costs should not be the only factor when making policy decisions.

Engineers are not typically flashy, but they have solid skills to analyze situations, solve problems, and make good things happen. Their expertise has played a critical role in the development of our country and they should continue to be a major factor in our future.

During this National Engineers Week, please urge politicians to keep engineers involved in formulating and developing policy; and emphasize the importance of learning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to our daughters and sons, and encourage them to consider an engineering career.

Tony Klimek is a Civil Engineer for the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnat.

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