Impressions from CWEA AC15

We asked several CWEA members to send us their key take-aways from sessions  they attended throughout the week at our 2015 Annual Conference in San Diego, April 28 – May 1. With another year of improvements to the Annual Conference, these summaries give a first-hand view of how attendees are responding. If you attended, compare your experience with theirs.  If you didn’t attend, learn what you missed.  Next year’s Annual Conference will be in Santa Clara, April 26-29, 2016.

Impressions from CWEA AC15– Opening General Session
By Carrie Mattingly

The music’s bumping, the conversation’s loudly buzzing and lights are down low and colorful. Random swaths of chairs are pointed toward a central stage; round tables, sit or stand, are scattered about. Where am I? Did I land in another association’s conference? I check – nope, this is CWEA. Whoa.

The fuse gets lit for AC15-San Diego. Slam poet David Bowden hops onto the stage, dips and sways; perhaps captivating, offending, intriguing; I’m not sure except what I think – I love it. He’s got a line about the water cycle: “If one part stops the work the whole part stops working.”  He’s got more to say and I wonder – is he one of us with a latent talent or did he do a ton of homework? He tells me later it’s homework. Amazing.

Our content weaver, Jeff Hurt, tells us to make understanding the goal. He encourages us to move from consumers to participants because we actually learn this way. Hmmm…something about how the brain works and Amy [1]. I’m quickly into learning; talking with my table mates about what we’re hearing and what we each think about it. Many perspectives and our brains start to fire.

Assembly member Anthony Rendon video chats us. He’s passionate about clean water and pretty famous for the work he’s done. I think he said he authored Proposition 1 but I need to fact check [2].

“They built it for us, we must rebuild it for them/Invest in water” says Jim Fiedler [Chief Operating Officer: Water Utility Enterprise, Santa Clara Valley Water District] – he’s a water guy with a big picture – he knows we’re one water and he grabs our attention. He and his wife are personal friends – gotta tell her he rocked. Jim hands us several keys to engaging in partnerships that work to educate on the value of water. He shares regional approaches that resonate. Gabriel Mendez from Leucadia tells everyone at my table discussion “I would LOVE to have recycled water at my house.” We all nod; us too. We’ve come a long way.

“Narraphor” – a new term I learned that’s a blend of narrative and metaphor. An effective method to help us learn and retain concepts. Master “narraphorist” Celeste Cantu [Executive Director, Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority] uses narraphors to scare the living daylights out of us with her Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that has now grown to six. Things are bad, very bad. She challenges and pokes at our paradigms. We create elevator speeches and share them out loud so we’re better prepared to help people grow a personal relationship with water when we get back home. It’s kinda awkward but gets us thinking about the impact of one.  OWOW-one water, one watershed is her community’s shared vision for their watershed. What’s yours?

John Helminski with San Diego PURE water wraps us up. I’m called out of the session for a time so I don’t hear all of his presentation but I’ve been to the PURE water plant – it’s impressive and worth checking out. Tours are easy to book.

What an opening session! I’m thinking there’s lots more good stuff in store at this conference.

Deep Dive – 21st Century Leadership

How do you know if you’ve learned something? You can put it into your own words! Jeff Hurt [Executive Vice President, Education and Engagement, Velvet Chainsaw] challenges everyone’s assumptions about learning and tells us much of what we’ve learned about learning is a myth. That sounds crazy so I’m a wee bit skeptical until he starts in on the science of our brains. Okay, I’m a believer. He shows us dendrites (info roads in the brain) that look like aliens and I come to realize where headaches comes from – our brains really like being lazy and fight back at us when we attempt to learn – way easier just to memorize.

Physical changes happen in the brain when we learn. No wonder we’re tired after a long day of thinking.

Taking knowledge transfer serious and creating organizational learning was the message from Kysa Cronrath [Associate Civil/Environmental Engineer, MWH]. She encouraged us to make succession planning something that happens throughout your whole career. Searching for and finding a mentor is a point of frustration for some she knows. We’re encouraged to get involved in professional associations (like CWEA) or to look for other types of mentors like people who write articles we find interesting.

How do you feel when you make an emotional connection with something? Think of your favorite sports team, your spouse, child, a beautiful sunset over the ocean. How do you make an emotional connection to a workplace when it’s filled with not-so-happy employees? Before you embark on this journey, believability is critical to success according to Nancy Rosenfeld [Internal Brand Manager, Organization Effectiveness Specialist, Public Utilities Dept, City of San Diego]. If you don’t have it, STOP and create it. None of the agencies and all of the consultants at this session had internal and external branding and training to back

it up. Branding forms the foundation and basis for a strong culture. Internal branding is a value strategy that increases morale and pride.

Stephen Tilson [President, Tilson & Associates, LLC] tells it like it is with humor and audience participation – HOOWA. He’s insightful into the challenges and choices of the human condition. Here’s a new tool for the toolbox – an ethical barometer called “WWGT” – “what would Granny think” about that thing you just decided to do?

We’re given the gift of a speed-dating opportunity with our presenters who rotate to each of our tables and frankly answer our probing questions.

Some bonus tips I picked up because my table of overachievers stayed late thanks to a very curious Trent from Roseville.  From Stephen Tilson: Check out Louis Broussard (try to hear voice recording first) and his book of short stories – I Haven’t Understood Anything Since 1968. From Jeff Hurt: Make It Stick, The Science of Learning seems important to greater understanding. Jeff Hurt’s blog on might be interesting to you.


Carrie Mattingly, Utilities Director, City of San Luis Obispo, CWEA Past President 2013, Collection Systems Maintenance Grade 4, Environmental Compliance Inspector Grade 4


[1] Amygdala definition: a ganglion of the limbic system adjoining the temporal lobe of the brain and involved in emotions of fear and aggression.

[2] During his first term in office, Assembly Member Anthony Rendon chaired the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee and authored Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion state water bond, which voters passed by a 67% to 33% margin in the November 2014 election.

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