After languishing for
years in what one industry veteran calls “the Dark Ages of R&D [research
and development],” water technology innovation could be on the verge of a
renaissance in the U.S.
At least that is the
hope of a small but growing number of industry leaders who are leading the
charge. To succeed, they say, utilities will have to move outside their comfort
zones, abandon past assumptions, and work together in unconventional ways.
“There was a period
of time after the Clean Water Act passed when the water industry was willing to
take risks,” said Jim McQuarrie, operations officer at the Denver Metro Water
Reclamation District (MWRD). “Those were the golden years for innovation, and
then nothing changed for 25 years. Wastewater treatment became a commodity.”
for a variety of reasons, McQuarrie and others said. Chief among them was a
lack of funding, according to Matt Ries, chief technical officer at the Water
Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). “A lot of the federal research
money just evaporated,” he said.
The risk-taking that
characterized the 1970s and 1980s also gradually was replaced by a risk-averse
culture focused on meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean
“For a long time,
utilities — including ours — were very slow to adapt new technologies,”
McQuarrie said. “Our first responsibility was to protect the environment, and
we weren’t willing to try anything that had any less than 100% chance of
Utilities in other
parts of the world, meanwhile, did not have that same luxury, according to
Ries. Multiple European countries were under pressure to address the nutrients
in their wastewater. Australia faced drought. Geopolitical stressors and water
shortages hounded Israel. Singapore needed to wean itself off water imports
“These places were
forced to innovate,” Ries said. “And guess what? Now they’re known as water
Getting the ball rolling
Now faced with many
of the same environmental and water supply challenges, U.S. utilities are in
the position of playing catch-up. They are following different tactics to get
MWRD is what
McQuarrie calls an “opportunistic innovator,” noting that “We look for clever,
incremental improvements. If there is an opportunity to do something smarter
and better and cheaper, we’ll try it.”
This is different
from some of the more methodical approaches that such utilities as Hampton
Roads (Va.) Sanitation District (HRSD) and DC Water (Washington, D.C.) have
become known for.
“If you look around
the country, the utilities that are doing the most work in treatment
technologies are the ones who must spend a lot to update their treatment
plants,” said Charles Bott, chief of special projects at HRSD. “When a $150
million capital project is looming, it’s a lot easier to justify a project that
looks at a new technology, particularly if it will save a lot of money.”
HRSD has eight such
projects under way, each focused on ways to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from
wastewater more cost-effectively, Bott said. Some involve scaling up work done
in a lab. Others involve bringing technologies developed and tested elsewhere
to the North American market. Several, Bott emphasized, are being conducted
jointly with nearby DC Water.
Finding new ways to foster collaboration
knowledge-sharing, such as that between HRSD and DC Water, are key if the U.S.
is to regain its position as a water technology leader, Bott said.
technologies have been piloted 15 times by 15 different utilities,” Bott said.
“Our industry has got to get beyond that. It’s expensive, and it slows things
down.” It is also unnecessary, he added.
“For any one utility
to take on a new technology, it’s a big risk,” Bott said. “By doing research,
you can learn ways to manage that risk. Once you gain experience with a
technology, you should share it with others.”
don’t compete with one another, they have all the more reason to collaborate,
This is a question
people like Jeff Moeller, senior program director for the Water Environment
Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.), have given serious consideration
in recent years. It’s what led last summer to the formation of the Leaders
Innovation Forum For Technology (LIFT), a joint effort of WEF and WERF.
“Our members had
expressed a need for utility R&D directors to work together to accelerate
new technology adoption and water industry innovation,” Moeller said.
This is precisely
what LIFT is designed to do. Its Technology Evaluation Program (TEP), for
example, enables utilities to share the cost of new-technology demonstrations.
Work groups are being formed to enable utilities to share knowledge and
An August 2012 survey
of the original 25 members of the LIFT TEP Working Group identified the five
areas of greatest interest. Each represents a real, practical need: shortcut
nitrogen removal, phosphorus recovery, predigestion, biosolids-to-energy
technologies, and electricity generation from water.
The survey served another important purpose,
Moeller said. It created a networking platform for working group members. “If
I’m testing new nitrogen removal technologies, I can use the survey results to
learn who else is already doing it,” Moeller said.
While LIFT is still
in its infancy, interest in the program is high. Membership in the TEP Working
Group has mushroomed from 25 to more than 100, representing nearly 50 utilities
and industrial end users, Moeller said. More than 55 people from across North
America traveled to Chicago in December to attend the group’s first meeting, a
sidestream deammonification workshop.
Technology clusters, regulators, universities play
leaders also are finding other ways to share information.
In places such as
Fresno, Calif., and Milwaukee, utilities are joining with businesses,
universities, and government groups to leverage their water technology
expertise and market themselves as water technology clusters.
“These clusters are
economic development engines for a region,” Ries said. “They’re built off of
the potential growth and need in the water sector.”
In some cases,
regulators are stepping up to help. A
$5 million investment from EPA,
for example, is enabling the new Cincinnati region
Innovation Cluster to de
velop, test, and market innovative water processes and
It’s necessary for
regulators to be part of the technology development process, Ries noted.
“Utilities need regulatory permits to be written in ways that allow innovation
to happen,” he said.
Collaboration with universities also is
essential. HRSD, DC Water, and Denver MWRD are among a small number of
utilities that hire graduate engineering students to assist in their onsite
Nancy Love, a
professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), said she hopes other utilities might follow
“We want students to
have field experiences that give them practical connections to the industry,”
Love said. She advocates the formation of a national database of utilities and
consulting firms willing to fund graduate engineering degrees and internship
These programs do
more than support research, Love said. They also can be a powerful recruiting
tool. “Seventy-five percent of water professionals are expected to retire in 10
years, and the people coming in behind them aren’t there,” Love said. “This is
a way to get them interested in the industry.”
A changing mind-set
Trusting the results
of another utility’s pilot test, funding graduate degree programs — these are
outside-the-box approaches for many water utilities.
But finding ways to
take controlled risks is becoming necessary, especially in light of tighter budgets
and more-stringent water quality requirements. “We are living in a
resource-constrained world, and that goes for water resources, nutrient
resources, and financial resources,” Ries said.
have to be a ‘widget,’” McQuarrie said. “It also means recognizing an
opportunity. We have an obligation to our ratepayers to innovate and challenge
the conventional way of doing things.”
— Mary Bufe,
Study finds the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA present in WRRFs
microconstituents in wastewater continue to be a growing public concern and
there is a greater push to remove these trace contaminants, recent research
findings show the water sector may be facing yet another challenge: the
“superbug” methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Researchers at the University of Maryland (College Park) School of Public
Health and University of Nebraska (Omaha) Medical Center discovered MRSA at all
of the four U.S. water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) they tested, though
MRSA presence decreased with treatment.
In some ways, the
researchers’ findings aren’t new. Swedish researchers made a similar discovery
when they tested for MRSA at WRRFs in Sweden, but this is “the first study to
investigate U.S. wastewater as a potential environmental reservoir,” said Amy
R. Sapkota, assistant professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied
Environmental Health (College Park) and research study leader, in a University
of Maryland news release.
can be transmitted through a multitude of pathways, including feces, which is
why it may be making its way to WRRFs, the researchers speculated. But the
bacteria pose a big threat because, according to the news release, the superbug
“is well known for causing difficult-to-treat and potentially fatal bacterial
infections in hospital patients, but since the late 1990s it has also been
infecting otherwise healthy people in community settings.”
The team collected
wastewater samples from four WRRFs in the United States — two in the
mid-Atlantic and two in the Midwest. According to the news release, these
facilities were chosen in part because their treated effluent is reused for
spray irrigation. The researchers wanted to know whether MRSA remained in the
They found that MRSA
and its related pathogen, methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA),
were present at all four WRRFs, with MRSA in half of all samples and MSSA in
55% of samples. MRSA was present in 83% of the influent at all plants.
The researchers noted
that the percentage of MRSA- and MSSA-positive samples decreased during
successive steps in the wastewater treatment process. Only one WRRF had the
bacteria in the treated effluent leaving the facility. This WRRF does not
regularly use chlorination.
of the MRSA strains and 29% of MSSA strains that were isolated from the
wastewater were resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics, “including
several that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has specifically approved
for treating MRSA infections,” according to the news release.
“Our findings raise
potential public health concerns for wastewater treatment plant workers and
individuals exposed to reclaimed wastewater,” said Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein,
an environmental health doctoral student in the University of Maryland School
of Public Health, in the news release. “Because of increasing use of reclaimed
wastewater, further research is needed to evaluate the risk of exposure to
antibiotic-resistant bacteria in treated wastewater.”
The study findings
appear in the November 2012 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
— LaShell Stratton-Childers,
smart technology and community education in preparation for expected changes
Both within and
outside the U.S., more municipalities and governments are implementing
long-term flood protection and management measures as a means for better
preparing lowland and urban coastal populations for storm surges,
higher-intensity weather, and rising sea levels associated with climate change.
As was demonstrated by the widespread devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy,
the need for greater adaptation measures for protecting vulnerable communities
is becoming increasingly more urgent.
indicates that coastal cities and low-lying urban populations may be at
considerable risk in the years to come. For example, according to the findings
of a recent study by researchers at the Center for Technology and Systems
Management (CTSM) of the University of Maryland (College Park), current trends
and predicted increases suggest that Washington, D.C., is likely to face
flooding and infrastructure damage in both the short and long term from
sea-level rise (SLR) and associated increases in storm intensity and rate.
information system (GIS) tools and government agency data, and applying a
linear trend analysis to historic data measurements, the researchers found that
an SLR of only 0.1 m by the year 2043 would flood 103 properties, causing $2.1
billion in damages. A longer-term SLR of 1.0 m would affect 180 properties,
resulting in $4.2 billion in damages, but for a more than 2.5-m SLR, the
estimates “become staggering … at 5.0 m SLR the numbers increase to a dramatic
1225 properties and at least $24.6 billion,” according to the research report.
estimates are actually very realistic if we compare them to the
recorded surges and dollar amount of damage resulting from [Superstorm] Sandy,”
said Bilal Ayyub, University of Maryland professor of civil and environmental
engineering and CTSM director, who led the study.
But despite the
levels of forecasted risk, predictions may still be underestimated. “The rate
of SLR used was a conservative estimate, and the inventories evaluated were
incomplete, because some key existing asset layers were unavailable to the
study,” Ayyub said.
The report concluded
that “decisions must be made in the near future by lawmakers or city planners
on how to reduce the impact of and adapt to SLR. A planned retreat is not an
option when dealing with SLR in such an important area.”
In response to
greater concerns associated with flooding and storm surges, Leslie Shoemaker,
senior vice president of corporate strategy at Tetra Tech (Pasadena, Calif.),
said climate change adaptation studies are increasingly linked to action or
adaptation readiness. “Five years ago, adaptation studies were primarily
academic in nature, but the studies we are conducting now are more oriented
toward the concept of ‘smart-readiness,’” Shoemaker said. “Cities, utilities,
and governments are becoming more aware of the need to incorporate the smartest
measures to better prepare populations.”
adaptation plans also are becoming more multidimensional. “In addition to the
potential impacts from SLR and storm surges, there are also risks associated
with flash flooding events and from flooding caused by higher tides pushing
excessive water up river systems,” Shoemaker said.
Tetra Tech is
developing a climate change adaptation study for Rhode Island water utilities,
examining implications related to SLR, storm surge, and coastal and riverine
flooding. The study also includes the development of management strategies to address
changing conditions, as well as the identification of hazards and the assets
that should be protected.
effort includes the Coral Triangle Initiative, a climate-change adaptation
program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development that
involves Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea,
and the Solomon Islands. “These governments are starting to develop action and
readiness plans, since many communities in these countries would be profoundly
impacted by only small increases in SLR,” Shoemaker said. “Response measures
integrate science with community education. It is not just the hard
engineering, but also education and awareness [that are] needed to build a
community’s resilience to climate change impacts.”
instrumentation and smart technology have made a significant difference in the
ability of cities and utilities to incorporate higher levels of preparedness
and flood management, according to Shoemaker. “With more-sophisticated
modeling, we can better anticipate where impacts will occur, where to build
shoreline protection structures, and how to manage them more efficiently in the
event of flooding,” she said. “Part of a successful flood management system
includes correctly mapping, identifying, repairing, or re-engineering existing
systems and finding the most optimal places to invest in new infrastructure.”
Adaptation planning for Los Angeles County
California, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW) is pursuing
several planning and response initiatives in preparation for expected shifts
related to climate change. The measures include adaptation plans related to
flood management, SLR, and adjustments to expected changes in weather patterns,
including higher-intensity storms.
planning is not a stand-alone approach; we are incorporating it into all of our
planning assumptions,” said Mark Pestrella, assistant director of DPW.
Based on a minimum
future SLR of 0.6 m (2 ft) estimated by a University of Southern California
(Los Angeles) climate change study, DPW is considering potential effects to the
region’s rivers, dams, and coastal infrastructure systems, including possible
impacts to the groundwater basin, where recycled water is introduced to create
a subterranean barrier to prevent saltwater intrusion.
Marina del Rey, which has a large community that could be impacted by SLR, we
are preparing a long-range adaptation plan that includes looking at the need to
reinforce or potentially raise existing sea walls,” Pestrella said. “Beach
erosion is another significant component. We are working with the [U.S.] Army
Corps of Engineers on developing an erosion model that predicts impacts for Los
DPW also has begun to prepare for more-severe
weather patterns, including higher-intensity storms over shorter time periods.
“We are anticipating a fundamental change in the nature of storms,” Pestrella
"Currently, our systems are set up for slow-moving storms that might
deliver rain over a 3-day period. But in the future, we are projecting more
sudden and intense rains that can cause excessive flooding all at once. With
the increased potential for these types of events, we need to equip our
maintenance, operations, and facilities to handle that kind of rainfall,
including building more capacity into our relief drains.”
ate and local approaches in Massachusetts
potentially serious risks to the state’s coastal infrastructure, businesses,
public health, and natural ecosystems, the State of Massachusetts in 2011
released its Climate Change Adaptation Report, a comprehensive overview
of observed and predicted changes to the state’s climate that provides a
framework for analyzing strategic, long-term solutions for adapting to
potential impacts associated with climate change.
Drawing on long-term
data sets and trends of recorded changes, the report outlines several
cross-cutting strategies for adaptation, such as developing risk and
vulnerability assessments, building adaptation thinking into current capital
planning, and encouraging adaptation planning at the ecosystem level, said
Bruce Carlisle, director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
and a member of the report steering committee.
“The report places a
premium on the importance of using current and accurate data for identifying
risks associated with flooding, inundation, or hydrologic changes, leading to
improved planning and decision-making,” Carlisle said.
Consistent with the
strategies outlined in the adaptation report, the Office of Coastal Zone
Management launched the Storm Smart Coasts Program for helping coastal
communities address challenges arising from storms, floods, and SLR. “Most
critical land-use decisions in Massachusetts are made at the local level, so
there is a strong focus on working closely with local governments in providing
direct training, such as webinars, GIS workshops, and instruction in the use of
tools that can be used to identify hazards and better prepare for them,”
according to Carlisle. “The program also emphasizes planning, local regulations
and standards, and mitigation, including retrofitting buildings or elevating
structures above base flood levels.”
One project being
initiated in collaboration with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration’s Coastal Services Center includes using high-resolution
light-detection and ranging technology in the development of a Web-based
visualization tool for modeling different possible SLR intervals.
is a great example of how technology and information can improve our efforts
toward floodplain and shoreline management,” Carlisle said. “We have coastal
communities facing chronic erosion, flooding, or storm surge problems that will
only be exacerbated by climate change. It’s important to put better information
in their hands.”
— Jeff Gunderson,
©2013 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.