Cooley Practices Wastewater Diplomacy

Roger Cooley

There have always been social and political considerations influencing engineering decisions, but if there is one thing Roger Cooley (BSCEE, ’76) could convey to today’s graduates, it’s that those considerations are now a much bigger part of the engineering profession.

All of the engineering elements are still there, but given the economic environment, rapid advancement of technology, and changing environmental attitudes, Cooley says his job as a senior project manager at Wade Trim involves much more time explaining varied perspectives to the many people involved in a project.

Wade Trim provides consulting engineering, planning, and landscape architecture  services addressing a wide variety of infrastructure needs. Cooley focuses primarily on increasingly complex projects regarding wastewater and stormwater.

Many communities still have systems that combine stormwater with sanitary sewers. When it rains, these combined systems overflow into the steams or rivers.  Typically these overflows were managed with gray solutions such as tunnels, storage tanks or remote treatment systems. Increasing communities are incorporating green and more sustainable solutions into the control technology mix.

“The risk management issue is huge,” he says. “Most of what we do now is focused on risk management. In just the last five to 10 years our ability to model the real-world has improved tremendously. But it comes down to cost. How much is a community willing to pay? Yes, it would be nice to plan for a 25-year storm, but that will cost more money.”

On bigger projects each client, and the groups within that client, will bring different priorities to the process. People from the plant, people from the collection system, infrastructure and sustainability side feed opinions into the design. Balancing these interests requires a great deal of communication.

“I find myself spending a lot more time trying to get all these players to understand each other’s perspectives and priorities,” Cooley says. “And no matter how big you build something, mother nature can always defeat it. If you have a 100-year event tomorrow, it doesn’t mean you won’t have one six weeks from now. People need to understand that these are not absolute answers. As you go along and make decisions, it all adds up, so the players need to understand the impact of those individual decisions.

“It’s different from community to community and from one region of the country to another. In Florida they try not to waste a drop of water but here, we have a lot of water, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or don’t use it wisely.”

Cooley grew up in Woodman, Wisconsin, a tiny community not far down the Wisconsin River from Boscobel. His father owned and managed two lumber yards. He grew up around construction and knew he wanted to work outside and be part of things on a larger scale. That led him, ultimately, to civil and environmental engineer.

He serves on the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board and so is in close touch with his alma mater­ – a connection that he renewed several years and one that he has found very rewarding and fulfilling. He knows that enrollment in the department is strong, in part, because students are interested in sustainability and the environment.

“We need to tell our young graduates that communication skills are incredibly important to the profession,” he says. “They have to explain their expertise in layman’s terms. If you get too detailed, people get lost. Just like you expect your doctor to boil it down, we have to too.”

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