(I wrote this article for TSNN.com and it was originally published as part of their 20th Anniversary series of historic show profiles – Reprinted with permission.)
In the late 1800s, the need for safe drinking water was a critical issue. So, in March of 1881, 22 men representing water utilities in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee met on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis for the first of what would eventually become the Annual Conference & Exposition of the American Water Works Association (AWWA).
Attendance wasn’t officially recorded until 1965 in Portland, Oregon, where 3,857 attended. When exhibits were formally added in 1979 in San Francisco, there were 7,195 attendees and 299 exhibit booths. The event officially became known as ACE in 1984.
Excitement on the show floor amped up in 1986 with the debut of the pipe tapping competition. This high-energy contest is a race against time to drill into a cement-lined, ductile iron pipe and install a tap. That first year, a three-man team from Lima, Ohio, won and were sponsored to return the following year to defend their title. Now that competition has grown to 37 participating teams.
ACE also hosts competitions for Meter Madness (contestants must assemble a water meter from a bucket of parts) and Top Ops (a fast-paced “college bowl”-style quiz tournament), along with the Tap Water Taste Tests.
“It [the Taste Test] almost didn’t happen in 2009,” said Deirdre Mueller, AWWA Public Affairs Manager. “We were in San Diego and all of the competitors had sent their water samples in glass jars (which helps keep any tastes or odors from seeping into the water). Unfortunately, the refrigerator where they were stored was accidentally set too high, and when the water froze all of the jars broke. Luckily, we managed to get in touch with all of the competitors, and ultimately all of them were able to send in new samples. The contest was delayed a day, but it was still a great success.”
At ACE14, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at the Opening General Session, urging water utility leaders and public officials to be courageous in communicating the need to reinvest in water infrastructure, acknowledging that “sometimes it’s a message they don’t want to hear, because it’s a message that says you’re going to have to spend money.”
Additionally, the AWWA president at the time brought his grandchildren to the session, and his young granddaughter was talking to and over Giuliani as he spoke. At one point, Giuliani acknowledged the little girl’s comment and the room roared with laughter.
In the beginning, no women were involved in the association (although wives often accompanied their husbands to the conference).
Today, women play a big part in the industry and represent approximately 26 percent of overall attendance; AWWA’s first woman president served in 2004-05; and for the first time the association will have back-to-back female presidents this coming year.
More than a century after its founding, AWWA is still focused on providing solutions to improve public health, protect the environment, and enhance quality of life. More than 50,000 members now represent water utilities across North America, as well as scientists, environmentalists, manufacturers and more.
At this year’s show in June, 11,624 attendees and over 500 exhibitors gathered in Chicago. More than 50 of those exhibitors have been participating for more than 30 years.
Mueller attributes the continued growth to an ongoing desire among members to continue to protect public health and to make use of the latest and best treatments and tools available.
“As recent events have shown us, the mission to protect public health and provide safe water continues,” Mueller said. “It is critically important that the water sector continue to learn and improve, and ACE continues to be one of the premier events where water professionals know they can do just that.”