A conversation with Peter Nicol, Global Vice President, Water, Jacobs, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance
Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization.
Peter: I am a passionate water professional, and I am the father of three boys that make my wife and I very proud.
Radhika: What led you to pursue a career in the water sector, and why should other young professionals join the water workforce?
Peter: Throughout high school and university, I spent my summers working for the local utility in my hometown. I worked on the honey wagon back then, people in the business will know what I’m talking about. It was really through that first job and due to my first boss that I got connected to Jacobs. One winter, the water and wastewater consulting agency Gore & Storrie hosted a curling competition and my boss knew I was a competitive curler so he invited me to join. And through that I met the leader of Gore & Storrie. He asked what I was doing after graduation and I said that I was interested in doing something within the water sector and he ended up hiring me. In 1995 we were acquired by CH2M Hill and then later on were acquired by Jacobs.
To young professionals thinking about joining the water workforce—for me it’s been the best career ever. Water professionals are essential workers—there isn’t a community or business that doesn’t rely on water. It is so rewarding to work alongside my colleagues—the people who work in the sector are skilled, capable, and passionate. It’s also a really collegial environment, and I love seeing utilities and companies working together to tackle the water challenges facing our country.
Radhika: What has been one of the biggest challenges that you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Peter: I’ve done a lot of public events, and one of the biggest challenges is when members of the audience stand up and ask, “Why am I paying for this?” or “Why are you increasing your rates?” I’ve learned that to answer that, it is important to get to the root of the issue. I believe water is their right, but what they’re paying for isn’t the water itself, it is insurance that there is a system in place collecting, treating, and distributing that water. Once people hear about the infrastructure that is behind it all, once they start to understand that you can’t have public health without clean water, it makes answering those questions easier.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Peter: I think of One Water in terms of integrated water management—asking how do we treat water like a resource and how do we manage it so we get the most useful impacts out of it. I think historically water has been treated in siloes, so for me a critical part of One Water is trying to take collective capabilities from across those siloes.
Radhika: What changes and evolutions have you seen in the water sector throughout your four-decade career?
Peter: Water is more visible politically now, and One Water is a part of the discussion. We’ve also seen such a digital evolution in the water sector, with improvements in our ability to monitor water, share data, and use artificial intelligence in decision making. We have technologies in place that have reduced our footprint and increased the quality of the product. And we’ve also figured out that we need to partner with Mother Nature—we’ve tried to understand how to take what nature does and leverage it in such a way that we are more efficient and impactful. I’m optimistic that will continue to move forward when I look at our young professionals today.
Radhika: Earlier this year you were recognized for your exemplary support of the nonprofit Water for People—can you tell us about your work with Water for People and why that work is important to you?
Peter: Water for People is an organization I’m very passionate about. It is important to me to take what I benefit from and to give back in some small way. With Water for People, it’s a partnership to solve joint problems. In 2016, I traveled to Guatemala and I saw firsthand how the organization takes resources and turns it into real impactful solutions on the ground.
I got involved over 20 years ago. Water for People needed a home for their office, so we’ve housed them in our offices in Toronto. It was important to me that we give them our support, and I’ve been an executive lead sponsor working to fundraise for the organization. With how resourced we are in the Americas, if there is some way we can help other parts of the world, we owe it to ourselves to do that.
Radhika: You grew up living near water—what’s your favorite water-based activity?
Peter: I love swimming, but you can’t do that all the time, so I’d have to say that fishing is my favorite. Every year, I go on a fishing trip with a group of friends I grew up with and this past year my two sons joined us. We only keep as many fish as we can eat, so it’s mostly catch-and-release. When recreating, I believe that it is so important to maintain the quality of the water and surrounding environment for the next generation.
Radhika: What have you read recently that’s influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat?
Peter: Right now, I’m studying Indigenous Canada at the University of Alberta. Through the program, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Canada’s indigenous population. It impacts my leadership because I think it’s important to understand history so you can be respectful and work effectively.
There’s a lot of discord and challenges in our world and it’s important to me to think about how we can work together to make this the best place we can.