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October 19, 1999


Civil Engineering Serves a Civil Society

by Elliott Lauderdale

This article continues the examination of how the universities and our region collaborate. I spoke with Ginny Russell, the coordinator of Envision at the Chamber of Commerce, who mentioned several University of South Alabama faculty members who have served a major role in Envision Mobile-Baldwin. In this issue I will profile one faculty member, Dr. Kevin White, in order to uncover some characters of successful collaboration. This partnership involves bringing together awareness of issues and practical approaches with objective evaluation of scientific findings and models of best practice from throughout the world.

Over 1000 citizens from our communities worked from March of 1997 to February of 1998 under the guidance of national and local facilitators to envision our region in the future. Dr. Kevin White participated in the Envision Mobile-Baldwin process. Jim Fibbe, Director of Mobile Water and Sewer, asked Dr. White to chair the infrastructure utilities action group. Dr. White is an environmental engineer specializing in water and wastewater treatment in the College of Engineering at the University of South Alabama. He has worked for several years consulting with governments, private firms and organizations. Dr. White serves as chair of the utilities action group because he is a citizen of our region and because the constituency of civil engineers is the society.

According to Envision Mobile-Baldwin, “We will produce infrastructure projects that continually improve our quality of life and economic environment.” The first goal for utilities in the future is to implement a county-wide/regional water supply and wastewater collection and treatment plan.

The committee meets monthly with members from different localities, occupations, utilities, and the health department. They have determined that a major challenge will be to promote cooperative regionalism. Given the various political entities in our region this is no easy task. Dr. White notes that many of the stakeholders had yet to be at the same table. In fact, the committee was able to get parties to the table by announcing a meeting with the question, “Regional water and sewer, will it work for you?” Several utilities attended in self-defense; the utilities thought “they,” whoever “they” might be, were trying to regionalize and take away the decision-making power.

Territory and political and economic powers come into conflict over the infrastructural issues. When the committee asked the participants in the initial meeting for ways to cooperate, they were not met with stony silence. By emphasizing the importance of taking small steps first, Dr. White was able to encourage reasonably suspicious participants to make suggestions in addition to voicing concerns. With an occasional suggestion from the committee, the diverse group of utility leaders from Baldwin and Mobile Counties was able to create eight pages of possibilities for cooperation.

After considering the long list of suggestions for cooperation and concerns about cooperation, the group was able to set priorities and find common ground. Mr. Fibbe emphasized how helpful Dr. Kevin White has been in helping the region work toward a formal agreement for water and sewer emergency assistance. The group sought a simple effective model. Because electrical utilities were at the table, they were able to explain formal state-to- state emergency utility agreements. Participants came to believe they could cooperate more effectively in the future with a more formal agreement. Dr. White searched for and did a review of scientific and technical literature on the topic. Baldwin County utilities volunteered to bring back information to which they had access.

The group also considered standardizing materials. If everyone uses standardized pipes for connections, unified purchasing procedures are a possibility. Sometimes there are utilities from different agencies on the north and south side of the same road. If combined, the utilities could share the expense and revenue. Water supplies were considering adding meters to control excessive watering. Dr. White suggested establishing a baseline during non-watering months and charging consumers for excess use over the baseline. Dr. White also recommends everyone shares in the expense and complexity of double meters. Kevin says he profits professionally from his work with practitioners because he gets to know the issues and what people are doing. The challenge of applying current best practices to local situations stimulates his scientific and engineering ingenuity. He notes that his colleagues in the community are skeptical, and he needs to listen carefully before he brings up an idea. He also said he needs to be prepared to cover all bases and to identify cost and benefits to all parties. His careful homework has paid off. After Dr. White’s recent presentation at Weeks Bay on wastewater, Patty Hurley of ADEM asked to use his slides to make presentations throughout the state. This meeting was notable because it brought together developers, real estate agents, and wastewater engineers.

One clear advantage of the university is its familiarity with research and best practices internationally, because there is conflict over infrastructure everywhere. Our independent spirit sometimes resists the importation of solutions from elsewhere, either from the university or another place, but town-gown collaboration can allow research and best practices to be reviewed, analyzed, adapted and tested for appropriateness in our environment. As a fair and expert moderator, Dr. White is beginning to move this process along. His artful teaching carries over into the community situation. Kevin emphasized that he is careful not to make decisions because it is important for citizens and leaders to work this out among themselves.

The goal appears to be increasing interdependence and self-reliance. While Dr. White has some ideas of a better future himself, he emphasized the importance of working collaboratively within Envision Mobile-Baldwin. Kevin noted that local teams competed in a national meeting held recently in New Orleans, but no papers were presented by utilities from the region. He sees opportunities for further collaborative research and grant writing a possibility. Dr. White appears to encourage building collaborative decision-making and a process for education.

Other faculty members at local institutions of higher education have expertise and interest in regional cooperation, and they are participating in the Envision Mobile Baldwin process.

Dr. Elliott Lauderdale in the Adult Interdisciplinary Studies department at USA teaches research methods, adult education, cultural diversity, and community development and leadership. He invites suggestions on issues relating to town-gown relations for future issues.

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