Frank A. Brigano, Ph.D. is industry advisor & principal for Brigano Consulting LLC. He is also a member of the Water Quality Products (WQP) Editorial Advisory Board. Brigano can be reached at [email protected].
Nov 02, 2020

Women Make the Difference: A History of Women in Water

A brief history of women propelling the water industry forward in past & present

woman in water

In many ways, the water improvement industry was birthed by women. In water industry lore, while Anna Culligan was giving birth to her first child in 1921, her husband Emmett was in the bowels of the hospital learning about zeolite water softening from a hospital maintenance man. The hospital used a natural zeolite sand to treat boiler water. Intrigued, Culligan went to work developing a synthetic zeolite. In 1936, he opened a water softening business first using “faucet” softeners (a bucket hung over faucets) and later portable exchange water softening (tanks filled with water softening media that needed to be hauled into and out of homes or businesses and exchanged on a regular basis to provide softened water). 

However, Culligan needed to market and sell his portable exchange softening systems. Since he was a family man, he sought out entrepreneurial families to market his technology and developed a franchise network that spread through word of mouth. Because the franchises were family businesses and because women often made the purchasing decisions for water treatment equipment, women were integral to the success of Culligan’s water softening franchises. From the birth of a child, an entire industry was born. 

Starting the Conversation

It goes without saying that like most industries, the water industry has been and continues to be dominated by men. However, women have always been integral to the industry’s success, from being active in trade associations to advocating for higher water quality and safety standards. 

One of the most well-known women to make an impact on American thinking about the environment and water is Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring,” raised awareness of the adverse environmental toll of pesticides and launched many environmental campaigns, including the campaign against the use of DDT. Nearly 60 years since its publication in 1962, it continues to be a touchstone of environmental activism and thought. In fact, in 2014, natural historian Sir David Attenborough said that after Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species,” Carson’s “Silent Spring” was the book that has most changed scientific thinking. 

Unfortunately, the 1970s and 1980s were somewhat of the wild west in the water industry. Unethical practices were used to market and sell products to consumers to soften water and remove harmful chemicals. Some of these products even leached more chemicals into the water than they removed. Municipal system operators were not thrilled about the marketing of systems intended to improve their product, and some states were developing their own regulations for water treatment systems. If these states were successful, it would have made the process of certifying systems onerous as manufacturers would have had to jump through multiple hoops to market products across the U.S. Eventually, the industry realized that it needed a way to bring legitimacy to products’ performance and material safety. 


Spearheading Product Certification Standards

Four women were instrumental in bringing independent performance/material safety standards and third-party performance testing/product certification to the industry: Nina McClelland, Nancy Culotta, Donna Cirolia and Loretta Trapp. 

Nina McClelland was the president and CEO of the National Sanitation Foundation, now known as NSF International. Under her leadership, NSF began an initiative to develop product standards for drinking water treatment systems. Nancy Culotta was the general manager of the Drinking and Wastewater program at NSF, and she led the standards development effort. 

“I was intimidated to be the only woman in the room with all these men,” Culotta said of the effort. “However, I was in the right place at the right time. We worked together to bring about order to the industry and develop standards that are international in scope and still working today.” 

Under Culotta and McClelland’s leadership, six standards were crafted that were adopted internationally and remain in use today: NSF/ANSI Standard 42: Drinking Water Treatment Units – Aesthetic Effects; NSF/ANSI Standard 44: Residential Cation Exchange Water Softeners; NSF/ANSI Standard 53: Drinking Water Treatment Units – Health Effects; NSF/ANSI Standard 55: Ultraviolet Microbiological Water Treatment Systems; NSF/ANSI Standard 58: Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Treatment Units; and NSF/ANSI Standard 62: Drinking Water Distillation Systems. 

Donna Cirolia was the director of Government Affairs at the Water Quality Association (WQA) and led a campaign at the federal and state level to gain acceptance of the NSF standards under development. She brought new respect to the products and services that the water industry offered. 

“It was an exciting time to be part of the industry and develop public policy,” Cirolia said. “We faced the challenges head on through testimony before federal and state policymakers along with groundbreaking educational seminars across the country with regulators, NSF and water utilities to demonstrate our commitment to product efficacy through independent standards and a Code of Advertising.”

Loretta Trapp was the product review supervisor for the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations in the state of Wisconsin. Trapp worked to develop tough drinking water product standards for Wisconsin and helped develop NSF/ANSI Standard 61: Drinking Water System Components. Trapp led the effort to secure that chemical extraction testing was based on surface area to volume ratio. 

These four women brought stability and unified standards to the water industry, ensuring its legitimacy as an industry and helping to build trust among consumers and regulators. This, in turn, helped the water industry continue to grow and flourish. 

Pushing the Water Industry Forward

Another key figure in water and the environment is Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist best known for bringing Chromium-6 water contamination to light in California. Although she is not a trained scientist or attorney, Brockovich’s efforts resulted in successful litigation against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993. This successful litigation helped ignite water activism across the U.S. and globally, as it showed that corporations could be held responsible for contamination and pollution. The 2000 film titled “Erin Brockovich,” which fictionalized her work and starred Julia Roberts as Brockovich, helped to bring even wider attention to the role “ordinary citizens” can play in demanding water safety.

Acclaimed scholar and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva has also been working for decades on water safety and quality, among a variety of other environmental issues. Her global reach is large, as she appears often in international documentary films, publishes regularly in international venues and conducts speaking engagements around the world. For many, she is the face and voice of international environmental activism. 

As is 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, who has galvanized an entire generation of young people to speak out against environmental degradation and climate change. Although it would be a stretch to say Thunberg is part of the water industry, her commitment to demanding government and industry action about climate change has resonated with young people around the world, and she is decidedly a force who will be active in environmental conversations for decades to come. 

There is still a long way to go in achieving true gender equity in the water industry, but it should be evident that women have been active in the industry from its founding—from participating in water treatment franchises and bringing consumer attention to water quality issues, to helping create standards by which the water industry holds itself accountable. Where the water industry and environmental action is concerned, women make the difference. 


Women in Water in 2020

The Water Quality Association (WQA) is actively working to promote Women in our Industry (WIN). This program has the goal to advise members and member companies on topics related to the female workforce, encourage women to enter our industry and network. Critical to this effort is a mentoring program using mentors to provide women with the knowledge and advice needed to succeed in our industry.

Women who are impacting our industry today:

Pauli Undesser, WQA executive director, is the first female executive director of the WQA. Undesser entered the industry as a research scientist from the biotech industry and then progressed from a WQA product certification coordinator to become the first woman executive director of WQA.  She left a positive mark on each position she held. Taking over the helm of WQA at a “turbulent” time, she has steered the organization to a new level of professionalism and respect. Her efforts to build bridges with the American Water Works Association (AWWA), state and federal regulators, new level of industry ethics standards, etc. will continue to be impactful for many years to come. Undesser said that she has “been lucky throughout my career to be surrounded by influential men and women who were willing to fuel my strong desire to learn and grow personally and professionally. The uprising of women in the water treatment industry as a result of establishing the WQA WIN Advisory council is one of my proudest accomplishments.”


Denise Urbans, a water industry entrepreneur and business leader, was the first woman president of WQA. As an entrepreneur, Urbans founded her own water treatment businesses, Res-Kem Corp. & General Water Services, and developed them into successful ventures which she later sold. Currently, she leads ShedWater LLC. and Urbans Aqua. Active in WQA on many fronts, she eventually worked her way through the various WQA board positions until becoming president. Most recently, she is chairing WQA’s WIN committee to encourage women in the water treatment industry to become more involved with WQA leadership. She looks forward to seeing more women going though “the chairs” to become the next WQA president. 


Rebecca “Becky” Tallon, engineering director at A.O. Smith, has steadily progressed up the promotion ladder. She has participated and chaired many committees both at NSF and WQA. She sits on the NSF Drinking Water Treatment Unit (DWTU) Joint Committee (JC) and has chaired the WQA Water Sciences Committee, Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF) Emerging Contaminants, and is currently a member of the WQRF Board of Directors. Tallon received the 2020 WQA Award of Merit for her contributions to our industry. 


Margaret “Maggie” Bicking, senior products standards administrator for EcoWater Systems LLC., has been an active member of WQA and NSF since joining the industry. She is a long-time member of the NSF DWTU J. In fact, for most of her tenure on the JC she has been the only woman industry representative. Maggie sits on many WQA and NSF committees and has contributed to the development and continual improvement of our industry’s standards and technologies.


France Lemieux, head, Materials and Treatment Section, Water and Air Quality Bureau at Health Canada, is another long-time member of the NSF JC representing regulators and WQA Public Health Review Board (PHRB). Her contributions to the development and improvement of our industry’s standards and certification programs are immeasurable. She leads or serves on many NSF committees and had a key role in standards development. Lemieux received the 2020 WQA Honorary Membership Award for her contributions.


About the author

Frank Brigano, Ph.D., is retired from Marmon Water Inc. and serves as an industry advisor. Brigano can be reached at [email protected]. Andrea Scarpino, Ph.D., is president & CEO for PVS Associates. Scarpino can be reached at [email protected].