(Photo: David Schmidt)

For years, raw and partially treated sewage flowed unabated across the border from Nogales, Mexico into neighboring Nogales, Arizona, presenting a significant public health threat.

Through a decade of hard work and persistence, Thomas Konner, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engineer, was instrumental in leading the U.S. effort to upgrade the wastewater infrastructure along the border and greatly improve the water quality and the environment.

Colleagues said Konner’s work resulted in major improvements to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant in Arizona in 2009 and the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant on the Mexican side of the border in 2012 that utilizes solar power to save energy and money. In addition, he helped identify and halt the source of high levels of contaminated heavy metals from a Mexican industrial plant that were mixing with the wastewater and causing serious environmental harm in Arizona.

These changes resulted in numerous public health benefits, including a dramatic improvement in the water quality of the Santa Cruz River where fish have returned, and in the quality of drinking water for the region.

“It was a great feeling to see the Santa Cruz River change from a horrible, disgusting, stinking sewer to a beautiful river,” said Konner. “You can’t imagine how good it feels to put so much effort and see it work.”

The Santa Cruz River originates in Arizona, flows into Mexico and then flows back out of Mexico into Arizona. The river provides a significant portion of the water supply to Nogales, Mexico as well as to Nogales, Arizona.

Congress began providing funding to EPA in the mid-1990’s to address U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure needs, but progress in the Nogales area was slowed by disputes before the International Boundary Commission, engineering difficulties, the need for financing from Mexican authorities, and a history of distrust and inaction between parties in both countries.

Repeated delays compounded by an environmental situation had gotten worse over the years as the existing U.S. facility that served both sides of the border aged and as the population in Nogales, Mexico had risen dramatically.

Colleagues said Konner kept all of the participants focused on the ultimate goals, found ways to resolve both technical and political challenges, and never gave up despite numerous setbacks.

Nancy Woo, an associate director the EPA water division in San Francisco, said Konner met the difficult challenges with an unwavering commitment, tenacity and ability to forge partnerships

among people who were often at odds. She said the various projects easily could have been derailed at numerous points in time, but Konner kept everything on track.

“Tom did all this with grace, sometimes as a facilitator when that was needed and at other times as a mediator,” said Woo. “He showed a great deal of patience and a lot of tolerance. He was able to find common ground and unify everyone.”

Douglas Eberhardt, chief of the EPA infrastructure office in San Francisco, said Konner, who is fluent in Spanish, built strong relationships with local, state and federal officials in Mexico as well as with their counterparts in the U.S., and confronted and solved one problem after another.

“It was a remarkable accomplishment,” said Eberhardt. “When he started, raw sewage was flowing across the border into the U.S. We really have solved the problem with the upgrade to the U.S. plant and the construction of the new treatment facility in Mexico.”

Konner said the work was sometimes stressful, and noted that reaching his goals often took longer than expected. At the same time, he said, he had the authority to negotiate projects with mayors and governors in Mexico and to “accomplish things that are often difficult in the federal bureaucracy and that had a real impact.”

Konner has since turned his attention to the U. S. territories in the Pacific, including Guam, where he is focusing on helping upgrade the water and wastewater systems that have been neglected and are in disrepair.

“These are basic necessities that many of us take for granted, but have a huge impact on the quality of peoples’ lives,” said Konner. “There are very few opportunities in our lives to make a difference of this magnitude. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.