October 27, 2020

A Conversation with Steve Hershner, Utilities Director, City of Cedar Rapids, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you?  
Steve: According to my adult children and spouse I am still a water-nerd. I have dabbled in other areas like air pollution and solid waste during my career, but my mind and heart are still most engaged by all things water.
Radhika: You have had quite the tenure with City of Cedar Rapids—you have worked there for 30 years—what has been one of the most rewarding elements of your time working for Cedar Rapids’ utilities?
Steve: Professionally, the opportunity to serve in many capacities on a local, state, and national scale has been rewarding and hopefully helpful for our community. Especially rewarding has been the opportunity to work within the network of some of our professional associations. NACWA, US Water Alliance, WEF, AWWA—these groups bring value and I’ve been so lucky to have been involved with them. On more personal level, it has been incredibly rewarding to have helped establish working relationships and networks that will continue and hopefully expand our watershed focus.
Radhika: Reflecting on the arc of your time in the water sector, what advice do you have for young professionals who are just starting their careers? 
Steve: I would reiterate my comments about professional associations—if you want to be part of something bigger than your company, facility, or community, these groups offer that opportunity. If you volunteer and engage with them, you can gain meaningful leadership experience and implement meaningful change.
Radhika: Last year, Cedar Rapids received the US Water Prize for the Middle Cedar Partnership Project—what was the evolution of that project and what contributed to its success?
Steve: The Middle Cedar Partnership Project was built on various parties taking steps they may not have previously contemplated and developing trust with each step. This project began several years before it was submitted, before even an agreement was signed.  Several of the of key partners started initial steps towards MCPP during development of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. We had some difficult conversations, but we developed a better understanding of each other’s interests and needs.
So we already had started building a dialogue around the concepts of One Water—how clean water is critical for each of us in different ways. We knew working together could benefit everyone, and we knew it would be worth it to figure out how we could do that. From this initial conversation in Iowa, several of us moved into the Mississippi River Nutrients Dialogue where we considered point vs non-point watershed contributions in more detail and on a broader regional scale.
Most importantly, we continued to talk about next steps and whether cooperation or collaboration was possible. Roger Wolf from the Iowa Soybean Association was always part of these challenging and thought-provoking conversations. Pat Sinicropi, now Executive Director of the Water Reuse Association, but at that time with NACWA, had just worked hard to insert the option for water or wastewater utilities to become partners in projects under the new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program recently incorporated in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Pat told Roger and me that we should consider a joint project. The best part about informal meetings like this is you can sit down and talk, and Roger and I started talking and ultimately agreed—Cedar  Rapids and Iowa Soybean Association should apply for a project together. Our discussion boiled down to this question: How can we gain trust for these new relationships and resources with farmers and landowners in our Middle Cedar Watershed?
Engaging farmers and landowners in the implementation of new conservation practices is still front and center in our continuing relationship with Iowa Soybean Association and other partners. We are also fortunate that the amount of financial resources for these efforts continue to expand. More resources are needed both for cities and farmers, but there has been some movement in the right direction.
Radhika: You were a key member of the point source team developing the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy—can you tell us more about that project and your role in leading that work?
Steve: The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy brought together point and non-point representatives to see if it would be possible to develop a combined approach. In these conversations, the constituency I represented was the Iowa League of Cities. Even in 2011-2012, affordability was a critical factor, and it was important to understand how any strategy would affect different communities.
The goal is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus point and non-point loading from Iowa and achieve Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force recommendations. Early on, we incorporated the opportunity for trading and similar strategies in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to provide more multi-faceted watershed benefits. Initially, our interest may have focused primarily on the lower cost of non-point nutrient reduction, but now we can also include source water protection and flood mitigation.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you? 
Steve: To me it can never be just one facet when considering water – it will always in varying degrees be about health & availability, economic development, equity, sustainable agriculture, and recreation. As a practical matter, for us at Cedar Rapids, it will always be about looking at the watershed level.  We need the multi-faceted benefits that can be obtained from upstream engagement that I previously mentioned – source water protection in the form of reducing nitrate runoff that can influence our alluvial well system and encouraging water retention and infiltration to limit flood peaks.
Radhika: As a long-time resident of Cedar Rapids, what is your favorite part of the city?
Steve: We don’t have the foodie options of some larger communities, but we do have some fun places with many great locally brewed beers. However, the most important thing is the fact that our community and region has prioritized investment in bike trails and routes so I have fun, safe, connected, and expanding biking infrastructure to ride on and enjoy!
Radhika: What have you read recently that has influenced your leadership style? 
Steve: Our City Manager and the Director team has devoted a lot time over the past few years to reading a series of books by Patrick Lencioni and to developing the principles of organizational health within our city management team and employees. We have made some progress on the key aspects that Lencioni encourages you to focus on (Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results) and even hired an organizational development manager along the way to help facilitate our efforts. The city management approach that is in place today is very different from what I experienced when I first joined the organization.