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Climate and Environment

As Baby Boomers Retire, The Water Workforce Faces Its Own Drought

A wide angle shot overlooking a large industrial wastewater treatment plant. The ocean can be seen in the distance.
The view towards the Pacific from the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in Playa del Rey.
(Courtesy of Marcel Anaya/LASAN)
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This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which, among other things, made it a legal requirement to clean up sewage to certain standards before dumping it into rivers or the ocean.

The law led to more than $1 trillion being spent on building wastewater treatment plants, which led to a boom in water treatment jobs throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Baby boomers became the backbone of the workforce that keeps these water systems running.

But now, many of those workers are retiring — and the industry is struggling to keep up. The industry group American Water Works Association lists retirements as a top concern, just behind worries about long-term water availability and maintaining old infrastructure.

Drought Resilience Needs A Workforce

Southern California communities are investing billions in water infrastructure projects to adapt to the changes fueled by humanity’s heating of the planet. The state is expected to lose 10% of its water supply in just the next 20 years as the climate crisis reduces the snowpack in the Sierras and dries out the Colorado River.

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Upping water recycling, stormwater capture and desalination can help alleviate stress on those traditional sources. But those new systems also need more people to maintain and run them.

That’ll be a challenge for the four wastewater treatment plants serving the L.A. Basin — 20% of positions are currently unfilled, according to Hi-Sang Kim, the operations director at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, the largest of the facilities.

Alec Mackie, a spokesperson for the California Water Environment Association, said the aging workforce that’s retiring and the pandemic — which spurred a big exodus from the industry — has led to a shortage of specialized workers.

“We can't find these mission critical roles, particularly instrumentation techs, engineers,” he said.

The more people that can have good family-sustaining jobs, the more they'll be resilient in the face of economic and climate impacts.
— Lauren Ahkiam, Water Justice Campaign Director at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy

Every day, the four plants in the region receive some 400 million gallons of sewage. Hyperion gets some 250 million gallons of it — enough to fill the Rose Bowl three times over, said Kim. The waste is treated to a level that’s clean enough for the ocean but not safe for drinking, then piped five miles offshore and dumped into Santa Monica Bay.

By 2035, the city plans to treat nearly all of Hyperion’s wastewater to drinkable standards, then put it back into the water system to supply millions of homes and businesses across the basin. Currently only 2% of L.A.’s total water supply is recycled wastewater. This project is expected to boost that number to 35% — a win for environmentalists who have advocated for recycling more wastewater for years.

To support that massive expansion, Kim said Hyperion will need to boost its workforce by at least 30% — at full staff, the four wastewater treatment plants support about 1,000 jobs, Kim said.

“Within the next 15 years, we’d like to recycle pretty much all the water we can,” Kim said. “And to do that, we need more help.”

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Mackie said more needs to be done to address a general lack of awareness of the industry, which offers good pay, even without advanced degrees, compared with most jobs. Access to affordable training through, for example, trade schools, has also declined.

“The tap is not magical,” Mackie said. “It is interconnected to an entire system in your community that is run by people, by water professionals.”

Water Job Resources
  • Many Southern California water agencies have job openings and training programs. You can generally find information on the career section of their respective websites. 

The nonprofit workers advocacy organization Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) estimated the $16 billion Hyperion project could result in tens of thousands of construction jobs in addition to the permanent jobs.

A regional wastewater recycling project being developed between the L.A. County Sanitation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in the Southland, is projected to generate more than 47,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 permanent jobs when the project is completed.

“A lot of our resilience as communities also comes from our economic resilience,” said Lauren Ahkiam, LAANE’s Water Justice Campaign director. “And the more people that can have good family-sustaining jobs, the more they'll be resilient in the face of economic and climate impacts.”

A bar graph of hourly wages of water jobs vs. all jobs.
A 2016 Brookings Institution analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found water-related jobs pay more on average than most other jobs.
https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Brookings-Metro-Renewing-the-Water-Workforce-June-2018.pdf)

The Green Jobs No One Knows About

A man wearing a blue shirt and yellow hard hat turns a wheel in on top of an industrial facility.
Marcel Anaya at work at Hyperion.
(Courtesy of Marcel Anaya)

Some call wastewater treatment jobs the “green jobs” no one’s heard of. And as the industry struggles to hire, that could have real impacts on the systems so many of us take for granted.

Marcel Anaya, 35, is among the new generation of wastewater workers. He grew up in L.A. and studied engineering at Cal State L.A. He went through a paid apprenticeship program at Hyperion and is now a senior wastewater treatment operator, which means he’s tasked with ensuring the plant is operating as it should.

But with all the vacancies, he sometimes has to work multiple 16-hour shifts a week. After all, the sewage never stops flowing.

“This is infrastructure that you don't see until it becomes a problem,” Anaya said. “A lot of this infrastructure is 100 years old … so there's constantly the challenge of implementing newer technologies or more robust systems to make sure that we're able to continue to do the work that we're doing and move to a future where we're reclaiming all of this water.”

“Even with less we will always have to do the same amount of work,” he added. “But it's very rewarding. I'm oftentimes exhausted, but you still go home feeling like you’re doing something good for the city of Los Angeles.”

The plant is particularly low on operators like Anaya. From mechanics to electricians to water quality analysts to engineers, there’s a need. And Hyperion has several paid training and certification programs to help workers advance in the field as well, Kim said.

“Working next to sewage doesn't sound attractive,” Kim said. “But you serve the people. You protect the environment. Job security. You can apply what you learned. You get this satisfaction, like mastery.”

An avid boogie boarder and swimmer, Anaya now lives only a few miles from Hyperion.

“You know, I jump in this water weekly,” Anaya said. “That's reason enough for me to keep coming in to work for the next, what, 21 years that I have of a city career.”

And with a starting salary at about $100,000, the pay’s pretty good too.

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