October 2012, Vol. 24, No.10

Creating an H2O economy

news art

More citites see water in their future

The fashion-conscious crowd assembles every season along the runways in New York and Milan. Coffee drinkers have Brazil to thank for their morning latte, and investors look to Silicon Valley when they want to know what’s next in computing.

If Milwaukee and Cincinnati have their way, they, too, will soon have international reputations as industry leaders — only they will be the go-to experts for something slightly more ubiquitous: water.

Both are among a small but growing number of U.S. cities that are planning their futures around a water-based economy. By marshaling existing local water know-how and investing in water sector research, these cities hope to distinguish their own water management systems while also spurring the development of technologies that can be exported to water-challenged municipalities, industries, and agricultural operations elsewhere.

In doing so, they’re following the leads of such nations as Singapore and Israel, where perennial water shortages have made water conservation both a way of life and a powerful driver of economic growth, according to Eileen O’Neill, deputy executive director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.).

“Singapore is using the environment as a living lab to push water technology and show what can be done,” O’Neill said. “In Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands [which suffers from rising sea levels], they are turning water challenges into opportunities ... using advanced thinking on the future of where water is headed.”

Their efforts are having ripple effects outside the water industry. “We are beginning to recognize that the way a city manages its water can give it a competitive edge as a place where people want to live and industry wishes to locate,” O’Neill said.


Milwaukee: Getting to know its own strength

In Milwaukee, innovative thinking at a local university helped the local sewer district restore a contaminated local beach, strengthening a partnership that continues to bear fruit today.

That project began in the mid-2000s, when University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee researcher Sandra McLellan sought to find the source of the Escherichia coli bacteria that frequently polluted the city’s Bradford Beach, according to David Garmin, who heads the university’s 2-year-old Freshwater Sciences School. By studying the genetic markers in the bacteria, McLellan traced the contamination directly to stormwater outfalls along the beach and other sources.

“Her research enabled MMSD [Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District] to pinpoint the problems and fix them at a fraction of the cost of making wholesale changes,” Garmin said. It also later led to investments by the university and MMSD in a new genomics center that is used to study complex microbial communities in the environment and to track sources of pollution.

Since that time, Milwaukee’s freshwater research community has joined with more than 130 area water technology companies — including global plumbing fixture manufacturer Kohler Co. (Kohler, Wis.) and Badger Meter Inc. (Milwaukee), one of the world’s largest water-meter manufacturers — in forming the Milwaukee Water Council. Its aim is to solidify the region’s position as a hub for water research, economic development, and education.

Last spring, the School of Freshwater Sciences broke ground on a new $53 million addition to the Great Lakes Research Facility it operates, Garmin said. Scheduled to open early next year, the water research and business accelerator will house test laboratories for both the school and local private industry. In addition to conducting scientific research, Garmin expects scientists and engineers to conduct research and development related to agriculture and wastewater treatment, working on everything from advanced sensors and recirculation systems to robotics and automatic sampling.

“Until we got everyone together, the water industry here didn’t know its own strength,” Garmin said. “Add in a hugely supportive local sewer district and a committed local government, and we now have the critical mass needed to perform research and move it quickly to commercialization.”


Cincinnati: Removing barriers to commercial success

Streamlining the process for new product development also is key for Confluence, a nonprofit group formed in early 2011 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Small Business Administration designated the Cincinnati region — including Dayton, Ohio; northern Kentucky; and Southeast Indiana — as a Water Technology Innovation Cluster.

With a $5 million investment from EPA, a 100-year history in water research, and the cooperation of businesses, universities, and government groups, the cluster is focusing on developing, testing, and marketing innovative water processes and technologies.

“It shouldn’t take 10 to 15 years to deploy a new technology,” said Alan Vicory, a principal at Stantec Consulting (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) and chairman of the Confluence board. “That’s why we have strived to understand the barriers to technology development and structured Confluence around eliminating them.”

One of the biggest challenges technology companies face, Vicory said, is proving to others that their technology works. “Companies need test beds to assess the efficacy of their products,” he said. Confluence has coordinated with local water plants, which have agreed to serve this purpose.

Regulatory approval is another hurdle Vicory hopes his group can help streamline. “A municipality can’t use a new technology, no matter how effective it may be, until the states put their stamp of approval on it first,” he explained. The problem is, each state has its own approval process, and it takes time and money for developers to learn and navigate each one.

“If we can get states to harmonize with requirements, that would be huge,” Vicory said. Confluence has a draft agreement in place for Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky that is doing just that.

The group also is organizing forums where technology firms can meet directly with EPA and other regulators. “We want to help facilitate the development of new technologies that support current regulatory policies, as well as keep regulators abreast of technology advances that might drive how new policy is written,” Vicory said.

“This is not just about drinking water,” Vicory said, “but also about food processing and agriculture, sanitation, and recreation. All these things are coming together, and the range of technology needs is immense.”


Taking the long view

There should be no shortage of opportunities for Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and other cities now exploring water-based economies, according to Matt Ries, WEF’s chief technical officer.

“Whether a city has too much or too little water, it can benefit from smarter approaches to water management,” Ries said. “The use of green infrastructure is helpful in places where they’re managing too much water. Smarter ways of managing water and reducing consumption are needed in places where there is a water shortage.”

WEF is taking a lead role in bringing global research and development leaders together to share best practices, collaborate, and increase the international visibility of U.S. efforts, he said.

“Through partnerships with WERF [the Water Environment Research Foundation (Alexandria, Va.)] and LIFT [the Leaders Information Forum for Technology], we are trying to create a more tangible link between leading-edge research and practical implementation,” Ries said. “We intend to provide the forum for them to do so.” 

— Mary Bufe, WE&T




Water management at the click of a mouse 

Two utilities use software systems to streamline their water and wastewater distribution

For decades, water and wastewater utilities have used supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and geographic information systems (GIS) to help automate treatment processes, gather data, and streamline operations. Within the past several years, some municipalities have taken automation and streamlining even further with software programs and sensory and radio networks that make water and wastewater distribution an almost entirely hands-off process that can save operations money in the long run.

In South Bend, Ind., researchers at the University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, Ind.) and IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) are using an embedded sensory network and software to help South Bend better manage its water resources, reduce wet weather overflows by 23%, and reduce dry weather overflows from 27 to 1 during the system’s first year of operation, according to an IBM press release.

And in the West, the South San Joaquin (Calif.) Irrigation District dedicated its pilot irrigation system in June whereby growers can log on to an online platform and schedule irrigation water deliveries from the district’s new pressurized pipeline system to their almond and walnut tree farms. The growers later receive alerts via e-mail and text message before and after the water delivery to confirm volume and flow-rate data, according to a joint press release from the district and Stantec (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada).


Using information technology to cut down on overflows 

According to the IBM press release, “South Bend’s new wastewater management project began when engineers and scientists at Notre Dame designed an embedded sensor network with distributed logic on battery-powered credit card-sized computers. Graduate students in Notre Dame’s research program formed Emnet, the startup company that commercially developed the physical sensor network, CSONet.”

The sensors were later placed in sewer interceptors and trunk lines throughout South Bend, explained Carey Hidaka, a business solutions professional at IBM.

These sensors also were connected to IBM’s intelligent operations center (IOC) for Smarter Cities, which pulls data from them in order to monitor the collection system and show combined sewer overflow outflow data in real time, Hidaka said. “You no longer have to pop off manholes and climb down there with a flashlight to do this,” he said.

The IOC enabled the city’s public works department to detect major obstructions, “like root balls that were causing high [water] levels,” Hidaka said. “They even nicknamed one root ball that they pulled out ‘Cousin Itt’ because it was so large.”

The IOC also is networked with the city’s SCADA system and GIS, enabling South Bend to create visualization and graphics for planning purposes.

One example is the “heat maps” that the city can create now, thanks to the IOC. These maps can “compare groundwater levels and basement elevations to determine the likelihood of flooding in basements,” Hidaka said. Thanks to the heat maps, the city now can direct utility cleaning crews to areas where they are most likely to be needed, according to the IBM press release.

The IOC also is helping the city collect and analyze water supply data from well fields and filtration plants. “They believe there is a correlation between the water supply and overflows,” Hidaka said. The city suspected that poorly timed filter backwashing was leading to overflows and now is trying to better coordinate this with wet weather events.

The IOC also is pulling data from rain gauges, and “it’s pulling info like pump start and stop data for a period of 24 hours and run time,” Hidaka said.

IBM has had the software system installed and running since January 2011. “The project ran for 9 to 10 months for proof of concept first,” Hidaka said. Then the team progressed to the IOC’s official launch. “If the sensors hadn’t have already been there, this process would have taken a lot longer,” Hidaka said.

Because of IBM’s academic initiative, Notre Dame and South Bend get free access to the IOC software as long as it is being used for teaching and research purposes.

Hidaka said South Bend plans to expand the IOC to other departments, such as the city’s department of transportation. “For example, if there is a pipe work being done, they would like to coordinate with the department of transportation insofar as resurfacing or reconditioning,” he said. “They want the system to go beyond water.”


Better fitting customer needs 

South San Joaquin (Calif.) Irrigation District took its software system one step further, not only enabling personnel to monitor irrigation water data in real-time but giving customers a chance to interact with the system.

Sam Bologna, engineering department manager for the district, said the utility decided to automate the distribution of irrigation water for 76 of its customers across 1500 ha (3800 ac) for a number of reasons.

“Our system is a gravity-flow-type system that was built in 1909,” Bologna said, and the system gradually converted from ditches to concrete pipe.

“We could provide water to farmers on a rotation basis,” Bologna explained. “If they passed it up, they basically wouldn’t see the opportunity again for another 12 to 14 days.”

Another downside to the old system was that it was not built for sprinkle or drip irrigation. “It was meant more for flood irrigation,” Bologna said. And it was hard to control the water when it was being used. Sometimes, the unused irrigation water would spill into nearby waterways.

Because of the inefficiency of the system, some local farmers were using their well water for irrigation instead, “even though the district’s water was of better quality,” Bologna said.

Bologna said the district knew its irrigation system badly needed improvements to make the system more efficient and useful for growers. It set about creating necessary upgrades and a new software system. It took 3 years to complete, though “it was the planning part that took the longest,” Bologna said.

The district had to determine what “level of service” it wanted to offer its customers, Bologna said. Ultimately, it settled on a high level of service.

The district built a network of pipelines that would service sprinkle irrigators. “These were built in parallel to the existing pipelines for the flood irrigators,” Bologna said.

Thankfully, most of the technology — such as the existing SCADA system — was already there, Bologna said. “We knew we could get automated valves and use radio controls for the valves,” he said. The district originally had considered fiber optics instead of radio control of its valves, but “we had to scale it down because [the fiber optic option] was so expensive,” he said.

Stantec created the Web interface where customers can order and schedule their irrigation water deliveries.

According to the joint news release, moisture sensors were placed in the ground on each farmer’s property to help indicate optimal ordering times, “when almond and walnut trees are at their greatest need.” All the valves and meters on the customer properties are solar powered, and “the new system will also utilize a 7-ac [2.8-ha] basin for water storage and use,” according to the release.

Bologna said the entire project cost almost $14 million. Most of the funding for the project was the revenue from the district’s power generation projects. The district also received grants: $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that went toward design and construction, and another $1 million from the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service designated to assist growers within the project area to connect to the new pressurized line.

“We weren’t expecting to get them, but they saw that this was a really neat project,” Bologna said.

Bologna said that, so far, the district and the farmers using the new system have been happy with the product. “Initially, [the farmers] were a bit skeptical about whether the system would do all the things we claimed it would do,” he said. But now they’re believers.           

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T




Banking on energy islands 

Could WWTPs help municipalities power through a blackout?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) recently developed a strategy to sustain electrical power to critical services, such as hospitals, cell towers, and water pumping stations. If extreme weather were to cause the electrical grid to shut down, electricity from many small, local sources could be rerouted to form isolated energy “islands.” This type of system could help prevent widespread outages, such as the one that hit the Washington, D.C., area in late June or the massive grid failure on July 30 in India that left approximately 600 million people without power.

This raises the question, could wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) eventually function as emergency power lifelines to hospitals, cell-phone towers, streetlights, or water pumping stations during a blackout?

This concept is not that far-fetched, according to Zeynep Erdal, wastewater technology leader and sustainability coordinator for the U.S. West region of CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.) and program manager for the California Wastewater Climate Change Group, a collaboration of several California state and regional wastewater associations.

“It is very plausible that in the near future, WWTPs could function as central hubs for energy production,” Erdal said. “In North America, there are approximately 1100 treatment plants of at least 5 mgd [19,000 m3/d] capacity. Of these, about 550 employ anaerobic digestion, treat more than 15 combined billion gal/d [57 million m3/d], and are strategically located at power demand centers. Just imagine the energy potential that exists for implementing energy recovery at all these facilities.”

However, power distribution can be a complicating factor. A possible solution for distributing alternative power could involve infrastructure improvements incorporating “smart” grid elements, Erdal said. “The technology exists for accomplishing this today and could begin in areas where renewable energy potential, demands, and emergency facilities coincide,” she said.

Greg Chung, San Francisco regional office manager of environmental consulting company GHD (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), said that “in some cases … critical infrastructure would have to be located in close proximity to the treatment plant or on the treatment plant site so that it’s possible to switch to an alternative power source in an extended outage.”

This strategy already is being implemented in some areas where critical facilities are placed on or near WWTPs, Chung said. “These facilities are typically powered by the WWTP electrical distribution system, which in turn has the ability to run off an alternative power source,” he said.


Grid relief 

Perhaps more attainable than emergency electrical support, at least in the near term, is the potential for WWTPs to help ease the burden associated with energy demands that are exerted on the electrical grid.

“Conventional WWTPs typically represent the highest energy use in a municipality, so the more energy they can generate on their own, the less stress they put on the grid during a high-demand situation,” Chung said.

This is where cogeneration and other renewable energy generation strategies, such as solar and wind, come into play, Chung said. “The ability for a WWTP to go completely off the grid during peak periods would conceivably represent a significant advantage from a demand response standpoint,” he said.

According to Erdal, WWTPs that incorporate higher levels of renewable energy generation will have the ability to implement peak shaving and treat higher volumes of wastewater during nonpeak hours, and also can be optimized to supplement the grid during peak demand, further reducing the likelihood of a blackout.


A successful model  

Demonstrating the present-day technological potential for onsite renewable energy generation is the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD; Oakland, Calif.). EBMUD water operations generate renewable energy through hydropower and solar power, and at the EBMUD wastewater treatment plant, municipal wastewater solids and wastestreams from a variety of sources are anaerobically digested to produce biogas, which, in turn, is used to power a state-of-the-art turbine. With approximately 6 to 7 MW of renewable energy generation, the plant is a net producer of energy — after meeting its own power demands, the facility sells renewable energy back to the electrical power grid.

WWTPs that adopt onsite energy generation will help protect critical loads but, importantly, also will help preserve their ability to treat wastewater if an outage were to occur. “With enough onsite energy capacity, the EBMUD facility can keep critical facilities operational and run in island mode during a power loss,” said Alicia Chakrabarti, associate civil engineer in wastewater planning at EBMUD.

But while the EBMUD treatment plant represents a top-tier example for biogas to energy, the majority of current WWTPs with anaerobic digester capabilities can only produce enough onsite energy to meet approximately 40% to 50% of their own power needs, according to Chakrabarti. “Consequently, facilities that fall into this category may not have the ability to run on island mode and certainly will not have sufficient capacity for exporting power to nearby critical facilities during an outage,” she said.

Still, with continued advances in energy recovery technology and the market for biogas-to-energy poised for future growth, the prospects for greater WWTP energy generation are promising.

“In order to maximize energy capture, communities need to continue to shift their thought processes in terms of treatment planning and design,” Erdal said. “It involves a more innovative and sustainable approach, where wastewater is viewed as an energy resource and not a nuisance.” 

Jeff Gunderson, WE&T 

©2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.