"A good citizen is somebody who is willing to participate and take ownership of common problems. You need to, above all else, act with integrity in everything you do. If you do that, you'll be a good citizen."
Water is life. This simple truth has driven Dr. Steve E. Hrudey throughout his career. Steve is an internationally renowned researcher, educator, communicator, author and a tireless advocate for scientific excellence. His work has empowered those who operate our water systems to gain the education and knowledge they need to ensure the health of the people they serve.
Steve Hrudey was born in Edmonton in 1948. Sharing a family affinity for higher education, he enrolled in engineering at the University of Alberta in 1966. Steve developed an interest in the life sciences and was granted permission to take courses beyond the engineering curriculum, in biology and human physiology. Steve graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, with a customized minor in life sciences. The combination set him on a professional path in environmental protection before it was a popular career choice.
Upon graduation, Steve was a recipient of an Athlone Fellowship, which allowed him to study in the United Kingdom for two years. He obtained a Master of Science degree in public health engineering from Imperial College, including instruction in waterborne disease from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 1975, after enrolling in an external PhD program at the University of London, Steve returned to the University of Alberta to do research and to teach in the Department of Civil Engineering. He helped to develop a program in Environmental Engineering and Sciences for applied science graduates. His students included microbiologists, chemists and others from a wide variety of scientific disciplines. Along with his research, Steve’s experience with the students demonstrated to him that environmental issues are frequently driven by human health concerns.
An outbreak of the waterborne parasitic disease giardiasis (commonly called “Beaver Fever”) that struck Edmonton during the winter of 1982-83 raised public concerns about the safety of Edmonton’s drinking water. The issue escalated in 1985 when a local newspaper headline proclaimed that contaminants from spring run-off included carcinogens in the drinking water. The city, province and local board of health asked Steve to lead an independent expert panel to investigate. The panel’s report, A Critical Assessment of Drinking Water in Edmonton, revealed that the city’s drinking water intake location was “extremely challenged for water quality.” With over 100 recommendations, the report was a catalyst for change and helped guide Edmonton’s water utility, now EPCOR, to become a world leader.
In 1988, after 13 years in the U of A’s Department of Civil Engineering, Steve moved to the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry to what later became the Department of Public Health Sciences. There, he established an innovative interdisciplinary research program recruiting, developing and mentoring an outstanding group of internationally recognized researchers in environmental health sciences.
In 1991, his expertise in Edmonton’s water quality challenges had him chairing a specialist group for the International Water Association that was meeting in Australia in 1994. That ultimately led to a sabbatical beginning in 1998, where Steve joined an Australian national research network addressing drinking water challenges including a thorough review of the nation’s drinking water guidelines. The result was a transformation from a narrowly focused, reactionary compliance monitoring model to one based on comprehensive and preventive risk management principles. The work that Steve did in Australia had a global influence through the World Health Organization’s drinking water safety plan, which was developed in concert with the Australian reforms.
In May 2000, an outbreak of pathogenic E. coli killed seven people and sickened thousands more in Walkerton, Ontario. Steve was named to the research advisory panel for the Walkerton Inquiry that exposed systemic problems with municipal drinking water supplies in Ontario. For Steve, the inquiry’s revelations underpinned his commitment to empower all those who operate and oversee our water systems. Walkerton proved the need for education, effective regulation and monitoring, and the need for operators to “know their own systems” for all potential risks to safe drinking water.
Following Walkerton and similar outbreaks that occurred (and tragically still occur) around the world, Steve and his wife, Elizabeth, co-authored a 2004 book entitled Safe Drinking Water: Lessons from Recent Outbreaks in Affluent Nations. In 2014, Steve and Elizabeth published a follow-up book, Ensuring Safe Drinking Water: Learning from Frontline Experience with Contamination. This book is aimed at giving operators practical knowledge by recounting and analyzing real-life disasters. Steve was also one of the founders of the Canadian Water Network (CWN) in 2001, serving as Theme Leader on Water and Public Health and he remains engaged with CWN.
Since Walkerton, Steve has contributed to numerous expert panels, including one on First Nations’ drinking water, one for the B.C. Ministry of Health and one for the international Water Research Foundation. In 2009-10, Steve chaired the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry. The panel’s report was widely publicized and praised for its extensive coverage and even-handed criticism of inadequate environmental protection and misinformed public discourse.
Among his public and professional service roles, Steve particularly enjoyed his 13 years on the Alberta Environmental Appeals Board. The last four years he served as chair, the first non-lawyer in the role. Steve welcomed the board’s focus on mediation as the preferred method to resolve appeals and its fundamental commitment to ensuring natural justice, meaning that every party to an appeal receives fair and equal treatment.
Steve’s dedication to research and the public interest has garnered him many awards and distinctions including a Higher Doctorate (D.Sc.) in Environmental Health Sciences and Technology from the University of London and an Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Alberta. He has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal; the Emerald Award for Environmental Research from the Alberta Foundation for Environmental Excellence; the Albert E. Berry Medal from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering; the A.P. Black Award, the top research award from the American Water Works Association; and the APEGA Summit Award for Research Excellence.
Steve was the Eco-Research Chair in Environmental Risk Management for the Tri-Council (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada / Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada / Medical Research Council of Canada); and a Killam Annual Professor at the University of Alberta. He has been honoured as a Fellow (Honorary) of Geoscientists Canada; Fellow of Engineers Canada; Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering; International Water Association (London) Fellow; Fellow of the Society for Risk Analysis (Washington); and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Academy of Science).
Officially retired from the University of Alberta, Steve remains active as Professor Emeritus in Analytical and Environmental Toxicology, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. Steve capped his years of volunteering for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), which self-regulates its more than 55,000 professional members, by serving as its 97th president in 2016-17. He has recently been appointed as a Director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – Southern Alberta Branch, to lead initiatives promoting and preserving natural landscapes.
For Steve, the essence of being an engineer has always been about identifying and solving problems. When asked how he would describe himself, whether a researcher, an environmentalist, an engineer or a public health expert, Steve feels that “opportunist”, in its most positive sense, fits best. He has always found that the most interesting research throughout his career has been tied to the opportunity to understand and to solve real-world problems. Such opportunities have shaped his career. Throughout he has been guided by the lessons of his parents, first generation Canadians who pioneered in north central Alberta and who taught their family that integrity was by far the most important human value.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence