By Donna Kreutz
On January 31, Ronald E. Ruef retired from Morton Salt, where he had worked for more than 34 years. Not one to stand still for very long, he became the new Executive Director for the Pacific Water Quality Association a few months later. It was a natural progression. Ruef has worked closely with the association throughout his career since 1982, when he started in the water treatment industry at Ocean Salt, which was later acquired by Morton Salt. Along the way, he served as President of PWQA (2001-2002). He received the Carolyn J. Fahnestock Award in 1992 and again in 2003, which honors those who demonstrate creative leadership in producing meetings, conventions and trade shows; this had become his hallmark. In 2006, he received the PWQA Hall of Fame Award, the highest honor the association confers. And most recently (2014) the PWQA presented him with the Marino Pomares Award for those who demonstrate leadership in the field of public relations.
Now Ruef is leading the 60-year-old nonprofit that began as the Pacific Water Conditioning Association and was renamed in 1975 to better emphasize the membership’s involvement with all aspects of the water quality improvement industry. “It’s not just water conditioning, but POE, POU, filtration…the whole nine yards,” Ruef said. PWQA serves water improvement professionals, predominantly in the western US. Members include retailers, assemblers, manufacturers and suppliers, as well as auxiliary companies. “I’m committed to the PWQA as long as they need me. That’s how strongly I feel. I love the industry. It’s been good to me and I find it very, very interesting.”
There’s plenty of work ahead. This is one of the largest and longest-lived regional WQAs in the nation, along with Texas and Florida. And California, where he’s lived and worked, has long been at the forefront of water industry issues. “Anything that happens in California goes east, across the industry. That’s why it is so important to be involved with trade associations at the local level. We’ve got to take care of our backyard first. We are the eyes and ears of everything.”
Solutions to address water quality concerns
One challenge is informing municipalities, legislators and others so they know about the advanced technologies available in the water treatment industry. “Our industry already has solutions to address water quality concerns: lead, arsenic, TCP contamination, whatever. We as an industry are able to go in and help people take things out of their water.”
Yet many government officials (and legislators in particular) don’t realize this. “We have the technology. We can test. We can clean it up now at a reasonable cost. We can take care of the need immediately” and not wait for cities and counties to discuss the issue, write about it and sell bonds to build a facility, which can take years. “The worry is here today. We can take care of it today. It may not be a cure-all for everything but it can certainly tide us over.” Regulating solutions takes time. “Government likes to have control over its constituents. For example, with RO filters, one of the challenges is who will make sure the filters get changed in six months or a year from now? They need to control that and make sure it happens.”
Meanwhile, water quality remains a major concern. “Here in California, we have hundreds of communities that are getting their water trucked in. How can this possibly be? It’s mind-boggling.” In the state of California there are more than 400 communities with drinking water that does not meet safe standards, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, as of February 2017.
Ruef’s home state has long been a hotbed of restrictions and outright bans, particularly the salinity issue regarding automatic water softeners, which had been banned in some communities. “Then they found that the TDS levels did not go down—that was not the case at all. Farmers downstream thought the discharged sewage treatment water was damaging their strawberries and avocados. It wasn’t.” These misconceptions persist. “Our industry is the low-hanging fruit. It’s much easier to target us than large corporations and other sources. One of the stories we need to get out there is to let people know about the increased efficiency of water softeners. The technology has gotten better—no ifs, ands or buts.”
He spends a lot of time on the phone and at the legislature. One bit of good news for the water treatment industry: William ‘Bill’ Dodd, a former Culligan Man, served on the Napa County Board of Supervisors and was subsequently elected to the California Senate. “He knows the water treatment industry well. Now, if someone wants to talk about the industry, I can tell them to see Senator Bill Dodd.”
From car wash to water treatment
Ruef’s long career in the industry began accidentally at a car wash. “Back in 1982, I was working at a car wash while earning my teaching credentials.” The office manager for Ocean Salt brought in a company car and someone put in the wrong kind of gas, filling it up with diesel. “She was so impressed with how I handled that challenge that she came back later and offered me a job. She said ‘You’re good at this. Have you ever considered sales? Will you ever get a company car as a teacher?’ I thought, Wow, that’s interesting.” He accepted the offer. His first boss, Dennis Gallifent, was actively involved with PWQA and soon Ruef was a fixture at the silent auctions. Over the next three decades, after veering off the teaching career path, he moved from Account Executive to District Manager, then Retail Account Executive. He retired from Morton Salt, just as his late father had done before him.
Ruef’s personality, persistence and passion contribute to his success. “I’m one of those people who likes to be involved. I don’t want someone else making decisions for me. I want to be part of the decision making. And I am always willing to help anybody at any time with anything at all.” He shares that rah-rah enthusiasm with the next generation. He’s an avid soccer referee. “My kids don’t even play anymore. I still referee several hundred games a year—three or four on Saturday and another three on Sunday. I serve on the Mission Viejo area board and am co-director of referee mentoring.” He recalls a hot-tempered girl who was benched. “I told her ‘stay in the game, keep your head clean.’ Her mother thanked him for helping her grow up. She said, ‘Someone else would have tossed her out.’ I enjoy it—the running around, the fresh air, the camaraderie. The atta-boys and atta-girls are really special.”