CHICAGO — For some, WEFTEC 2013 (Oct. 5-9th) came and went — another major water conference. For others, WEFTEC 2013 was truly a unique, distinct experience. Hosted by the City of Chicago at the McCormick Center, WEFTEC 2013 attracted a record number of attendees. Specifically, there were more than 22,500 registered attendees as well as over 950 companies that contracted for exhibit space. As a result, WEFTEC 2013 has become recognized as the largest, best-attended conference event in WEF’s 86 year history.

According to the interim executive director of WEF, Eileen O’Neill, “WEFTEC has evolved over the past 86 years, but it continues to demonstrate WEF’s unfailing commitment to serving the needs of the water profession. The event is carefully designed to offer a personal experience that can be customized for individual professional growth, which ultimately supports and contributes to the overall success of the entire water sector.”

WEFTEC 2013 opened up with a special welcome from the Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn. The opening session also included inspiring remarks from the WEF President Cordell Samuels, as well as the best-selling author and self-proclaimed agent for social change Kevin Carroll, who challenged WEFTEC attendees to tap into their sense of childhood play as a means of better addressing creativity and innovation when it comes to problem solving within the water sector.

The opening morning of WEFTEC 2013 also included a unique, insightful Water Leaders Session entitled “The Future of Cities and Water: Insights from Great Water Cities.” It opened with an enthusiastic welcome from Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, who thanked the attendees for their dedication and announced a 50-year, $50 million “greener, cleaner” initiative that will improve floodwater management in Chicago. His remarks were then followed by an impressive panel discussion of national and international senior water executives which was moderated by G. Tracey Mehan III of The Cadmus Group (and assistant administrator of the Office of Water/US-EPA). The panelists (leaders from Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, San Francisco’s Public Utility Commission, Perth Australia’s Water Corporation and GE Power & Water) all emphasized the vital importance of reaching out and listening to their communities as well as actively seeking out collaborative opportunities in order to continue the learning curve when it comes to the continuous innovations for sustainable water management. According to one panelist, “we have to stop being engineers with answers and change to listening, which isn’t easy.”

WEFTEC included a number of notable sessions specifically designed for utility leaders. There was a “hot topics” breakfast program that showcased presentations from Kimo Klippen, the chief learning officer at Hilton Worldwide as well as George Hawkins, the general manager at DC Water and Sue Murphy, the CEO of the Water Corporation in Perth, Australia. There were also a number of roundtable  discussions as part of the utility leaders’ and managers’ problem-solving sessions that focused on topics such as branding your utility, how to get technology to work for you, workforce issues, finances and rates, overall system planning and infrastructure. Roundtable leaders included Tyler Richards, deputy director, Engineering and Technical Services, Gwinnett County, Ga.; George Raftelis, chairman, Raftelis Consultants Inc.; Biju George, deputy director, Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati; and Mike Sweeney, deputy executive director, Toho Water Authority, Kissimmee, Fla.

Highlights of WEFTEC 2013 also included an extensive collection of workshops, seminars and technical sessions for all delegates — sessions focused on topics like facility operations and maintenance; stormwater management; utility management; water reclamation/reuse; municipal wastewater treatment process/design; and industrial issues/treatment technologies.

Finally, other notable events at WEFTEC 2013 included the opening of the WEFTEC Global Center by the governor of Illinois. Delegations from over 20 countries attended WEFTEC this year. In addition to arranging critical one-on-one meetings for members of these international delegations, the Center hosted a collection of presentations that addressed topics such as financing exports, the waste water sector in Central Europe, an overview of the Spanish water industry, water efficiency and climate change and the strategy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when it comes to water, sanitation and hygiene. The Global Center also served as host to Robert Kennedy Jr. who spoke about the crucial role played by the water treatment sector when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of nutrients on the planet. He used this presentation to announce the largest nutrient recovery project in the world using Ostara’s nutrient recovery technology at MWRD’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero, Ill.

And last but not least, WEFTEC 2013 showcased WEF’s Inaugural StormWater Congress. This program focused on the recognition that stormwater and wastewater, while separate topics, follow parallel and overlapping paths. Changes in the water sector, such as integrated planning, reflect the growing connection between stormwater and wastewater on the regulatory as well as programmatic fronts. The StormWater Congress also included a separate StormWater Pavilion (part of the WEFTEC exhibit area) which featured a new documentary on green infrastructure as well as a review of stormwater and wet weather products.

WEFTEC 2013 was certainly a unique experience. And clearly a conference program valued by all attendees present.