other organizations have released studies documenting the rise of water rates
nationally, in October 2013, researchers at Columbia University’s (New York)
Columbia Water Center took this work one step further with the release of
“America’s Water: An Exploratory Analysis of Municipal Water Survey Data.”
study was conducted in conjunction with Veolia Environnement (Paris) and
Growing Blue, a consortium of private water companies, associations, and
nongovernmental organizations. Researchers analyzed data from various sources,
including the 2010 American Water Works Association (Denver) survey, the U.S.
Census demographic data, and climate data from the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). All these data were brought together to
fulfill a major objective: to explain why water rates are increasing.
“The purpose of this study was to see if we could find
correlations between various factors and the rates,” said Edwin Piñero, chief
sustainability officer at Veolia North America (Chicago). “So, yes, rates are
typically published, but we were trying to drill a bit deeper into why they are
what they are.”
said to be able to do this, Columbia Water Center decided prior to conducting
the study which other variables besides water rates it would consider, such as
the U.S. Census and NOAA data.
do realize that there may be other variables in play as well,” Piñero said.
addition to sharing what major factors contribute to water utilities’ rising
operational costs and the subsequent increase in water rates, researchers also
shared ways in which utilities can help stop these increases because
ultimately, there are limits to how high rates can go.
sustainability in our water systems requires a transparent understanding of the
factors that influence rates,” said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water
Center in an Oct. 14 news release. “In the last 30 years, federal funding for
water infrastructure has almost dried up, and it will be difficult for many
utilities to raise rates high enough to pay down existing levels of debt. But
although debt is increasing, the age of our water infrastructure continues to
pose a challenge. We need to rethink what the water utility of the future
should look like and how we will pay for water services and stimulate
sustainable use,” he said.
Mining the data
researchers at Columbia Water Center made several key findings in the course of
their study, such as the fact that debt and water rates increased from 2000 to
2010 by 33% and 23%, respectively, and utility water rates will continue to
increase in the near future. They also discovered that out of all rates,
groundwater seems to be the least expensive. The median groundwater rate for 42
m3 (1500 ft3) is $30 compared to $37, $44, and $42 rates
for surface, split, and purchase/other, respectively, according to the study.
average, the infrastructure and operations complexity necessary to collect and
prepare groundwater is less than for surface water,” Piñero explained. “In
part, this has to with the conveyance from source to plant, as well as the
treatment,” he said.
researchers also found that smaller utilities have the highest operating
expenses and some smaller utilities have the highest debt ratios, which leaves
these entities with a unique challenge.
is difficult to generalize on this point, other than to say they will have to
be more creative and focused on financial matters,” Piñero said. “The rest of
the report does address some possible solutions. But one conclusion of the
study is that simply raising rates continuously is not a viable solution.”
contrast to many smaller utilities, the study found that larger utilities are
more likely to recover the full cost of service through rates.
this is very case by case, but in general, more total revenue comes in due to
greater numbers of users, plus the higher operational efficiencies noted for
larger utilities,” Piñero said.
Finding the takeaway
addition to their findings, the researchers also came to several conclusions.
They determined that to curtail rate increases, water utilities would have to
make several changes. These changes include the following:
operational efficiency at water utilities. “Inefficient utilities cost ratepayers
more money and typically use relatively more energy, chemicals, resource and
manpower,” according to the Oct. 14 news release.
source of a utility’s water directly affects its rates. “Utilities tend to use the
least expensive source to its limit, and then look at other resources,” according
to the release. To reduce costs, utilities with less-expensive water sources,
such as groundwater, should try to ensure its long-term viability.
should explore alternatives to the existing rate structure. “The municipal
solid waste sector developed a sliding scale fee system to encourage waste
reduction by charging a premium rate to those that exceed preset limits. A
similar system could apply to water, encouraging conservation and reducing wastage,”
according to the news release.
should consider all revenue sources. “Other revenue sources include connection
fees, green infrastructure incentives, or [energy] savings performance
contracting. In some cases, the investment community can be recruited to
provide options for transferring liabilities from municipalities to the private
sector,” according to the release.
acknowledged that utilities may be limited in what they can do to reduce
operational costs and subsequently rates, but some are trying.
do not have a handle on how many, but anecdotal input through the study as well
as other inputs tell us that more and more utilities are looking at such
approaches,” Piñero said. “And true, traditionally some of these things would
be out of the scope or control of the utility. [But] participating in raising
awareness among their ratepayers and stakeholders, plus exploring ways of
collaborating with such partners, will increase opportunities to influence what
occurs elsewhere within their jurisdictions,” he said.
— LaShell Stratton-Childers,
Getting the lead out
develop new ways to remove heavy metals, recycle rare earth elements in
wastewater isn’t what it used to be. And it’s becoming more challenging to
treat all the time.
one end of the spectrum is the increasing amount of heavy metal-laden effluent
being produced at mining, fracking, remediation, and other industrial sites
throughout the world. Left untreated, these difficult-to-remove metals,
including selenium, mercury, and zinc, can infiltrate groundwater and pose a
threat to drinking water supplies.
the other end is a surge in industrial wastewater that contains trace amounts
of valuable rare earth elements. Essential to the production of everything from
hybrid cars and flat-panel TVs, to cell phones and hundreds of other “cleantech”
gadgets, these expensive, difficult-to-mine elements are going up in price as
demand soars and the global supply grows more constrained.
cost to remove and, in some cases, recycle both kinds of substances from
wastewater historically has been high and often impractical. But researchers
say that may be about to change.
A new approach
to heavy metal removal
new chemical-based technology is expected to come on the market this summer
that its creators say will remove heavy metals from industrial wastewater more
efficiently and economically than current biological methods.
A&M AgriLife Research (College Station, Texas) and Evoqua Water
Technologies (formerly Siemens Water Technologies, Alpharetta, Ga.) are working
together to develop and commercialize the technology, which is based on an
activated iron process pioneered by Yongheng Huang, a Texas A&M AgriLife
Research scientist. Huang received the Water Environment Federation’s 2013
Rudolfs Industrial Waste Management Medal in October.
The technology, which is being designed to meet National
Pollutant Discharge Elimination System limits, differs from the biological
solutions now in use in several key ways, according to Joe Gifford, director of
Industrial and Electrochemical R&D at Evoqua.
“Biological solutions typically require
extensive pretreatment [with] other physical and chemical treatment methods
that add significant capital and operating expenses,” Gifford said.
new Texas A&M/Evoqua alternative is a stand-alone system that requires no
pretreatment. Instead, chemical reduction is used to remove metals in a single
process that is unaffected by temperature or pH, Gifford said.
The new system is being designed to occupy a smaller
footprint than current remediation treatment systems. It will be more
economical to operate as well, he said.
how much time and space it might save is still to be determined. “The footprint
and cost reduction depend on the market and particular application,” he
now, the technology is being developed with an eye to applications in
environmental remediation, power, oil and gas, and mining — all markets where
heavy metal presence is significant. According to U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency estimates, the U.S. power industry alone faces annual costs of $185
million to $954 million to comply with upcoming effluent limitation
guidelines. Refinery and mining wastewater streams face similar
flue gas desulfurization water treatment for power utilities to heavy metals
removal from [hydrocarbon processing industry/chemical processing industry] and
mining wastewater, there is a clear need for a cost-effective solution
unaffected by temperature or pH levels,” Gifford said.
bench-top and pilot-scale activities now complete, researchers currently are
testing the technology in large-scale demonstration plants, with plans to make
it available commercially this summer.
toxic heavy metals removed by the Texas A&M/Evoqua technology will, in most
cases, eventually be disposed of as solid waste, Gifford said.
there are 17 highly valuable elements of the periodic table that manufacturers
would love to recover from wastewater and then reuse. With names like
dysprosium and europium, these valuable rare earth elements are essential to,
but comprise just a tiny fraction of, many of today’s electronic products. The
rare earth magnets used in cell phones, for example, make up less than 0.1% of
the device by weight. They’re even more highly diluted in wastewater and,
therefore, extremely difficult to reclaim.
a team of scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing) may have
found a novel way to do just that using a nanomaterial known as nano-magnesium
“The raw material adopted in our technology is an
[inexpensive] and environmental material, and the process is very simple,” said
Dr. Yangping Hong, a scientist with the State Key Laboratory of Structural
Chemistry (Fuzhou, Fujian, China).
paper on the research recently was published in ACS Applied Materials and
Interfaces. It describes how the scientists produced particles of
nano-magnesium hydroxide, which was already known for its ability to remove
some metals and dyes from wastewater. To test its ability to remove rare earth
elements, they conducted an experiment during which the flower-shaped particles
captured 99% of the rare earth elements diluted in wastewater.
By varying the solution’s pH, scientists found they could
further separate the immobilized elements from the residual magnesium
hydroxide. In a later pilot-scale experiment using real-world conditions, rare
earth elements also were immobilized at a high flow rate, according to the
new method captured many different rare earth elements, Hong said, including
terbium, a soft silvery metal used in super magnets, and yttrium, an element
used to produce the red color in screen monitors. But it can, in theory,
capture virtually all rare earth elements, Hong said.
expects some of the best applications for the solution may be in his own
technology may be properly applied in industrial wastewater treatment,
especially in rare earth refining industry,” he said. China today mines and
produces as much as 97% of the world’s rare earth element supply.
refinement of the technology is ongoing, with commercialization still a long
way off. If it proves successful, it could be a game-changer for the rare earth
element industry, which today recycles about only 1% of these elements.
Hong believes the technology can create a new revenue
stream for the companies that use it. “Companies can get higher returns by
recycling these rare earth metals, and the cost input of our technology is
low,” he said.
An area of concern?
new study shows the existence of high levels of radioactive sediment near a
WRRF that treats fracking wastewater
a few years, the state of Pennsylvania has been concerned about the level of
total dissolved solids (TDS) found in hydraulic fracturing wastewater, going so
far as to pose regulations mandating water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs)
that treat this wastewater to meet discharge limits for both chlorides and
sulfates. But a recent study by scientists at Duke University (Durham, N.C.)
showed a bigger concern lies with naturally occurring radioactive materials
brought to the surface by natural gas drillers. According to the study
published in the October issue of Environmental Science & Technology,
sediment in Blacklick Creek contained isotopic radium at concentrations 200
times above upstream and background sediment level, thus “posing potential
environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas
Avner Vengosh, professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences
at Duke University and one of the authors of the study, said the data show that
the state of Pennsylvania is focusing on the wrong thing with its fracking
wastewater regulations. “TDS is relevant only to wastewater from domestic
wastewater treatment plants,” Vengosh explained. “This is a very outdated
method of monitoring when it comes to hydraulic fracturing
Gathering the data
the study, the scientists analyzed effluent discharged from the Josephine (Pa.)
Brine Treatment Facility, as well as streamwater and sediments both upstream
and downstream from the effluent discharge site along Blacklick Creek. They
tried to determine both the short- and long-term effects of the fracking
wastewater disposal on surface water quality and stream sediment. To do this,
they analyzed concentrations of alkalinity and major constituents, such as
chloride, bromide, sulfate, calcium, sodium, magnesium, barium, and strontium.
They also analyzed isotopic ratios of radioactive elements such as radium. The
wastewater data then were compared to “background concentrations collected
upstream of the facility, from other streams in western Pennsylvania, and from
published values for produced water and flowback from the Marcellus [Shale] and
other Appalachian Basin brines,” according to the study.
scientists discovered that effluent discharged from the facility increased
concentrations of chloride and bromide above background levels. In contrast,
barium and radium were reduced substantially (by more than 90%) in the treated
effluent compared to concentrations in untreated wastewater usually produced in
the Marcellus Shale. But nevertheless, some radium isotope levels in the stream
sediments at the point of discharge were still very high compared to background
said this was probably due to flowback water from shale gas. “The brine had
very high levels of radiation,” he said. This is because the Marcellus Shale
has high levels of uranium and that chain of decay includes radium, he said.
is very mobile and can be found in the sediment, Vengosh said.
with these types of contaminants, what can WRRFs do to treat fracking
wastewater and possibly remove or reduce these constituents? “The ultimate
solution would be reverse osmosis and thermalization,” Vengosh said. He said
WRRFs also should consider an ion exchanger or resin softener that can remove
radium from wastewater.
all cases, Vengosh said the biggest issue WRRFs will face is determining the
right sequence of treatment and whether they can accommodate the costs
necessary to purchase these technologies.
the next stage of their studies on hydraulic fracturing wastewater, Vengosh
said he and his fellow scientists at Duke are working on a paper about blending
high sulfate water with hydraulic fracturing wastewater to reduce radiation.
They also are researching other constituents found in fracking fluid in
Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia and how these constituents effects
water quality, he said.
— LaShell Stratton-Childers,