Written by: Written by Patrick Lynch, JD, MPA, Program Manager, Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center

In summer 2023, 32 water professionals successfully completed the  Environmental Finance Center Network’s (EFCN) inaugural Water Leadership Program (WLP). From April through July, participants from 20 states joined together to hone their leadership and management skills through a series of specialized trainings, one-on-one advising, and career-embedded self-assessment.

WATCH: EFCN released a short video showcasing the pilot program.

“We’re proud of the work both the participants and our guest speakers put into making the first Water Leadership Program a success,” said Averi Davis, Program Manager at the Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center (SU-EFC). “The communities and organizations they serve are lucky to have these leaders, and we look forward to seeing what they do in their careers.”


A Diverse Water Sector

Participants in the WLP’s inaugural cohort came from water sector jobs across municipal, regional, and state levels. Guest speakers also joined the cohort to offer up their expertise during the program, including government and nonprofit representatives from the Philadelphia Water Department, Washington State Department of Commerce, Thrive New Orleans, Earthjustice, and Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University.

In keeping with efforts to improve gender diversity in the water sector, half of the participants who received a Certificate of Achievement (50%) identified as women, compared with just 15% of the country’s water workforce. Going forward, EFCN and its National Water Workforce Advisory Board are developing strategies to continue recruiting a diverse pool of applicants looking for leadership training opportunities.

“I live in Boise Idaho, and I absolutely love the water industry,” says Kristina Gillespie-Jaques, Government Affairs and Funding Specialist at Merrick & Company, and one of the 2023 WLP participants. “We’re trying to do the very best that we can to help all of these communities come up with solutions to very challenging problems.”


Going Digital

All of the live sessions in WLP’s pilot program were conducted virtually. Graduates who completed one of two Participation Tiers also received a Certificate and Digital Badge issued by EFCN. Digital Badges are integrated with LinkedIn, allowing participants to share their achievement with colleagues and employers.

“We’re seeing a lot of value in the Digital Badges we set up for the WLP, including how they’ve been received by state agency officials in our early conversations,” said Cristen Crew, Program Associate of SU-EFC, who developed the badge. “Our team is planning to engage more officials to talk about incorporating WLP trainings into the professional development tools they provide for water operators, building off other training programs we offer through the Network.”

Participants who successfully completed Participation Tier 1 earned the title of an EFCN Wellspring Leader, while those who completed the more demanding Tier 2 were recognized as Geyser Leaders and enjoyed additional incentives.

To learn more about the outcomes of the first Water Leadership Program, download our free summary report.


After the pilot program ended, WLP participants were invited to share what they found most helpful. “I’m planning to use the leadership knowledge I gained to improve my communication skills in the workplace, improve my collaboration skills, and move into leadership roles within the water sector,” said Valerie Lovato, Assistant Controller for the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.

Local leaders also benefited from the program. Jason Randall, Water and Sewer Superintendent for Plymouth Village, New Hampshire, gained “the knowledge to face the challenges of utility management with confidence and improve the quality of life of residents.” Randall plans to use his skills to continue supporting and promoting professional growth through workforce development initiatives in New Hampshire.

As part of the WLP, each participant conducted a career self-assessment to support ongoing growth in their current leadership roles. For Matt Mahler, CEO and Engineer at the Iowa Regional Utilities Association, “the WLP program does a great job of highlighting that intentionally reflecting on experiences is a key part of leadership growth.” Learning to leave space in your day to reflect on successes and challenges is a key aspect of many leadership development programs.

Finally, with so many changes happening in the water sector, participants highlighted the value of connecting professionals across the continent. “The program provided an excellent platform for professionals in North America to build relationships and skills that will help us manage water utilities as we face a challenging future,” said Sarah Bruce, a natural resources professional in Washington who specializes in floodplain management, hazard mitigation, and information architecture.

For Bruce, Gillespie-Jaques and many others, addressing tomorrow’s future means helping come up with solutions today.


Moving Forward

Next steps for the pilot program include preparing for a second round of applicants in early 2024, following up with 2023 participants, and engaging with state agencies that oversee operator credits and other water and wastewater sector professional development programs. Several WLP participants will also be authoring upcoming blog posts for the EFCN website. People interested in applying to the next round can subscribe to the EFCN mailing list to be notified when applications open.

“We encourage anyone in the water sector who is early- to mid-career to keep this program on your radar for the next round,” says Brian Bohnsack, Program Manager at Wichita State University Environmental Finance Center. “Our team across all three University-based centers is looking forward to building up and enhancing this program, so we can provide real value to workforce development programming in the different regions of the country where we all work.”

Water sector professionals attending the closing session of EFCN’s first Water Leadership Program in July, 2023.


Participants who received a Certificate of Achievement from the inaugural round of EFCN’s Water Leadership Program include:


Tier 2 Geyser Leader Awardees (sorted by state)

Arizona: Sandra House

California: Francisco Gonzalez; Andrew Hall

Colorado: Valerie Lovato; Juan Jose Perez Gonzalez; Erik Jorgensen

Georgia: Amir Abdelnaby

Florida: Chakradhar Kundu; Ghazi Ozair; Maria Betancur

Idaho: Kristina Gillespie-Jaques

Indiana: Robert E. Hall

Illinois: Brian Jones; Marianne Evangelista

Iowa: Matt Mahler

Maryland: Julie Paluda

Michigan: Ariel Zoldan

New Hampshire: Jason Randall

New York: Casandra Buell

North Carolina: Harold Brady

Oregon: Sarah Bruce

Pennsylvania: Ran Liu; Matthew Lamb

South Carolina: Julie Johnson

Virginia: Julie M. Floyd

Washington: Shantelle Clark; Amy Sumner

Tier 1 Wellspring Leader Awardees (sorted by state)

Colorado: Paul Young

Michigan: Leo Dion

New Mexico: Karen Pereira; Indira Aguirre

Pennsylvania: Clinton McKinley


Disclaimer: This project has been funded wholly or in part by a grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement 8403510-0 to the Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center. The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor does the EPA endorse trade names or recommend the use of commercial products mentioned in this article.