January 2008, Vol. 20, No.1
State of the Industry 2008
Climate change concerns prompt utilities to rethink water resources, energy use
In Australia, citizens have been urged to eat more kangaroo meat. In Thailand, rice farmers are being asked to drain their rice paddies periodically. Why? Both beef cattle and irrigated rice fields emit a significant amount of methane.
Similarly, U.S. wastewater treatment plant operators are now turning to natural systems for treating waste to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that an overwhelming consensus of scientists now believes are causing increases in global temperature.
In case you missed it, the facts are pretty well in. The concentration of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere has increased rapidly in the past 150 years, accelerating even more in the past 50, noted Perry L. McCarty at the opening general session of WEFTEC®.07 in October. McCarty is the 2007 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate and Silas H. Palmer Professor (Emeritus) of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University (Palo Alto, Calif.).
Within roughly the same time frame, McCarty said, global temperature has risen about 1°C, sea levels have risen 203 mm (8 in.), and glaciers are in retreat.
Coincidence? McCarty and other leading scientists think not.
“Humans are now in control of global climate, for better or worse,” climate scientist James Hansen said at the WEFTEC.06 opening general session a year earlier. Hansen is director of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading expert on climate change and global warming.
“The research out there is based on mathematical models using data sets [and] time and geographic scales that allow us to make some reasonable long-term forecasts,” said P. Thompson Davis, professor of geology and climatology at Bentley College (Waltham, Mass.). “The projections are, thus far, proving to be quite reliable.”
The Global Environmental Outlook released by the United Nations in October 2007 goes even further. The effects of global warming, the report says, are accelerating at a pace that goes beyond the scenarios and models in place. The threat from climate change is now so urgent, it says, that only cuts in greenhouse gases of 60% to 80% can stop irreversible damage.
Mounting evidence points to more precipitation and flooding in some places, more frequent and severe drought in others, and a potential global water shortage. Higher water temperatures, rising sea levels, and subtle shifts in water distribution throughout the world are expected to produce additional consequences that affect both the natural environment and many sectors of the global economy.
Those consequences go far beyond what many people imagine, according to Davis. “We’re looking, for example, at shortages of water to irrigate crops that may otherwise no longer be able to grow in a particular region,” he said. “We must expect additional damage or stress to our existing water and wastewater infrastructure.”
Such “big picture” talk is important. But what does it really mean in your area?
An October 2007 report by the Center for Integrative Environmental Research at the University of Maryland (College Park) is among the first to provide a comprehensive, region-by-region economic analysis of global warming’s impact on the United States.
“We’re not ready to report the aggregate economic impact of everything that global warming affects,” said Matthias Ruth, the study’s lead author, in a conference call with reporters. “We’ve connected the dots as far as the data would allow.”
“The key result, which is universally applicable, is that these impacts are already occurring,” Ruth said. “The costs are significant any way you measure them, and enough evidence exists to indicate a strong need for immediate action to reduce carbon emissions.”
Here’s a snapshot of the report’s findings, particularly as they relate to water and wastewater:
Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — Increased storm activity and a rise in sea level are expected to threaten the coastal infrastructure. The reliability of water supply networks may be compromised, influencing the availability of water for household and industrial uses.
Southeast — Warmer weather means warmer water in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Stronger storms are expected to stress water management systems and cause wastewater system overflows, increasing overall pollution.
Great Plains and Midwest — Both regions are expected to suffer from increased frequency and severity of flooding and droughts. Water demand for municipal uses likely will increase as regional temperatures rise. As supplies of fresh water diminish, water quality is likely to suffer. In one Texas study, increased contamination of water has been estimated to raise the cost of water treatment by 27%.
West and Northwest — Major climate change models predict the winter snowpack will decline and snowmelt will occur earlier, resulting in greater runoff. The ability to store water in aquifers for later withdrawal may be compromised, even as demand for water in the region rises. Groundwater withdrawals have already increased significantly in many western states.
South and Southwest — This region is expected to grow more arid, exacerbating the long-term drought already experienced there. As precipitation levels decrease, water resources for agriculture, industry, and households all will be strained.
Already Feeling the Impact
The redistribution of water caused by climate change presents major challenges — both practical and philosophical — for the water and wastewater industries.
On the practical side, there are questions of how to cope with the consequences of global warming. In the Northeast and other areas where more rainfall is projected, for example, it’s reasonable to expect more stormwater overflows, Davis said.
“Overflows are already taxing the wastewater systems in communities with combined sewers, and it’s only going to get worse,” Davis said. “Climate change is just another reason cities should work now on disconnecting their stormwater flow from their wastewater flow.”
On the other side of the hydrological coin, climate change also means potential water shortages. Despite a predicted increase in precipitation in the Great Plains, for example, higher temperatures are likely to produce more water loss through evaporation. A study of the San Antonio, Texas, Edwards Aquifer Region estimates municipal water demand will increase by 1.5% to 3.5% as regional temperatures rise. As freshwater supplies diminish, water quality is also expected to suffer, raising treatment costs.
In such regions, expansion of water reuse is critical, experts say.
“We’re already seeing a lot of water reuse in California, the Southwest, and other places facing drought,” noted Frank Johns, national technical lead engineer for process and environmental engineering at Tetra Tech EC (Morris Plains, N.J.).
“Ultimately, I think we’re going to see more uses for reclaimed water beyond turf irrigation,” Johns said. “We‘re already starting to see expanded applications for industrial reuse and indirect potable reuse — that is, taking treated wastewater and discharging it into a river or reservoir where it can blend with raw water.”
Communities also are beginning to think outside the box when it comes to identifying water sources. According to Johns, the city of Aurora, Colo., for example, has explored using stormwater as a source for its water reuse program. Other cities are considering using stormwater basins to recharge the groundwater.
A Paradigm Shift
For utilities, the challenge is greater than merely responding to global warming. As reinforced by the climate change resolution passed last year by the Water Environment Federation (WEF: Alexandria, Va.), the bigger question is how to reduce the impact waste handling and treatment have on greenhouse gases.
“Our general goal of solving our wastewater problems by oxidizing organic wastes to carbon dioxide is now open to question,” McCarty said.
Methane and nitrous oxide are also special concerns because together they represent almost one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions, according to McCarty. While these emissions come from a variety of sources, “most of the wastewater emissions result from septic tanks and sewer lines where methane is not collected and burned,” he noted.
In finding solutions, McCarty said, the industry might take a lesson from a small country on the other side of the world.
“In Singapore, they don’t use the term ‘wastewater,’” McCarty said. “They call it ‘used water.’
“It’s an important distinction,” McCarty continued. “In this country, we need to stop thinking of our wastewater as waste when, in fact, it is actually a resource for water, energy, and nutrients. Treatment plants of the future need to be designed with all these functions in mind.”
That means taking greater advantage of natural systems for assimilating waste, such as anaerobic digestion, McCarty said.
“Normal aerobic treatment with sludge incineration produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions as when anaerobic sludge digestion is used,” McCarty told the WEFTEC.07 audience. “Further, if properly designed stabilization ponds are used instead of activated sludge or trickling filter treatment along with anaerobic digestion, emissions are again cut in half.”
McCarty’s point is clear: Treatment plant design can have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
“There are many factors involved in selection of an appropriate design for a wastewater treatment plant,” McCarty noted. “Factors that may have been of less consequence in the past are likely to be of great importance as we strive toward sustainability.”
The benefits of sustainability also will have to be weighed against their costs. Water reclamation processes, for example, while very important, can also be energy-intensive. “Whenever you use energy, you must look at the impact on greenhouse gases,” Johns said.
Such concerns likely will have an impact on where future treatment plants are located.
“If a water reuse application is a long way from the treatment plant, you’re going to have to pump it there, which uses energy and makes the process less efficient,” Johns said. “Building a pipeline to carry the reclaimed water to an application, in other words, may not make good sense.”
In cases like that, Johns said, planners might want to consider decentralized treatment, with smaller satellite plants located near its applications. If a reuse application is near an existing plant, on the other hand, it might make sense to expand the existing plant.
Looking again at the bigger picture, other global changes in thinking might be necessary. “We use fertilizers for agriculture that contribute to water damage and other things that cause climate change,” Ruth noted. “And yet some states don’t tax them.”
U.S. officials also may need to think beyond our own borders and offer more assistance to countries that lack access to clean water and proper sanitation, McCarty said. “Perhaps we should be subsidizing countries to treat their waste in ways that cut down on emissions of methane gas and help them achieve better sanitation in the process,” he suggested.
Of course, the strategies to curb emissions — whether they involve changing technologies, consumption, or land use — are all expensive, Ruth said. In Hawaii alone, the rise in sea level will require drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades projected to cost nearly $2 billion during the next 20 years.
“Not making the changes is costly as well,” Ruth added. “We are already experiencing that in the water and energy sectors. And we are paying for damage to the infrastructure; we must retrofit or expand water treatment systems and increase maintenance costs — and pay to rebuild after weather events.”
McCarty quotes an ancient Chinese proverb to make a similar point: “‘Unless we change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.’ Where we are headed does not look good. It is up to all of us to work toward changing the direction of greenhouse gases.”
Difficult market conditions drive utilities to investigate new resources
Last year, booming global construction affected the water and wastewater sector by driving commodity and raw material prices higher. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continued to diminish supplies from the Gulf Coast, increasing the demand for and prices of certain materials from that region, including construction products. Also, the availability of skilled labor was in short supply, as a considerable amount of development across the United States absorbed qualified workers.
Community growth was the main driver for new facility construction while alternative delivery projects, although newer in the United States, began to generate more interest among utilities. The lack of funding limited many projects and operations, including the need to upgrade or repair aging infrastructure, especially in the Northeast. Many of these same trends are expected to shape the direction of the water and wastewater industry for the coming year.
As was the case last year, worldwide demand for commodities, largely fueled by rapid construction in China, continues to put upward pressure on equipment and commodity prices. Greg Chung, an associate wastewater engineer at Kennedy/Jenks Consultants (San Francisco), said China’s demand for natural resources has made people look at different project delivery methods, including design–build, to help reduce costs. “Design–build typically results in lower overall project construction costs, because price escalation does not have as large of an impact,” he said.
Bruce Allender, North American director of business development, engineering–procurement construction, for the water business of Black & Veatch (Kansas City, Mo.), expects 2008 to be a robust year for design–build activity. “Design–build … provides cost and schedule control through value engineering,” he said. “It allows the owner to make the decision to prepurchase equipment earlier in the project before final cost is agreed upon.”
Allender said Florida and California continue to be very hot markets with significant design–build potential, and he is also seeing more opportunities in Texas.
“On Sept. 1 , legislation was passed in Texas that allows design–build for new water and wastewater infrastructure projects,” Allender said. “San Antonio will likely go alternative delivery, but we probably haven’t seen the full impact of that legislation yet in Texas. Utilities there are still considering where they can apply the design–build procurement mechanism to benefit the delivery of their capital improvement programs.”
In the Northwest, Allender sees increasing opportunities in Oregon and said Seattle will continue to be a leader in alternative delivery. Overseas, he said Australia and the United Kingdom continue to lead in collaborative and alternative delivery. “A good example of Australia’s leadership in alternative delivery is found near Brisbane, where the Bundamba Advanced Water Treatment [AWT] plant produced purified recycled water for the first time in late August, achieving a significant milestone for Australia’s largest recycled water scheme,” Allender said. “The first stage of the Bundamba AWT plant was delivered … in only 10 months.”
Along with commodities, energy prices continue to climb higher. Chung said these escalations, along with concerns over climate change, are pushing many cities and municipalities toward more “green” initiatives, including finding ways to make current operations more energy-efficient. “As energy costs escalate, the industry as a whole will need to start thinking more in terms of sustainability,” he said.
“I think [energy recovery] will be an area of booming research and project execution,” Chung said. “Wastewater treatment plants can utilize codigestion of grease-trap waste and produce digester gas from anaerobic processes that can be used as fuel to produce electricity and heat. Plants can also receive revenue from waste haulers in the form of tipping fees. It also reduces the potential for illegal dumping by providing a more convenient place for haulers to dump their waste.”
Chung said that currently only a small percentage of wastewater treatment plants are using these processes. “Out of 16,000 wastewater treatment plants across the nation, around 3500 have anaerobic digesters, and only about 2% of those are utilizing digester gas to produce electricity,” he said. “It’s important to switch our mode of thinking so that wastewater is considered more of an energy resource, rather than simply a waste that must be treated.”
The No. 1 priority for established cities in the coming year is to make necessary repairs to their infrastructure, steam, wastewater, and water pipes that are nearing the end of their useful life, according to Joseph Husband, vice president and national wastewater treatment technology leader for Malcolm Pirnie Inc. (White Plains, N.Y.). “A lot of money has been put into construction and building over the past 100 years, but not much has been allocated towards upkeep, repairs, and replacements,” he said.
When funds are strained, Husband said, deferred maintenance is the first and easiest way to reduce the budget. “People tend to justify it by assuming they can squeeze one more year out of an aging piece of equipment or pipe,” he said. “However, much of this equipment and infrastructure within our wastewater treatment facilities was designed in the ’70s and constructed in the ’80s and needs to be upgraded. This has the potential to become a hidden cost that will end up taking much more of our ratepayers’ dollars.”
“By all accounts, the water and wastewater industries are having an exceptional year,” said Doug McKeown, CEO of Woodard & Curran (Portland, Maine). “That being said, funding that is needed to replace or repair our aging water infrastructure is grossly insufficient. ... Rates communities charge for water or wastewater are not significantly different from where they were 10 to 15 years ago.”
Chung said the lack of funding has forced many industry professionals to be more creative in how they fund and finance projects. “Third-party financing has the potential to become very big business as financial firms race to help municipalities fund projects to improve aging infrastructure. Several contracts that I have seen or heard of in California have a financing component or have asked third parties to come in and assist with securing funding.”
Work Force Trends
The shrinking labor pool also continues to drag on the industry, especially in relation to qualified workers. “The biggest challenge facing us for the coming year relates to supply and demand for skilled people,” McKeown said. “The problem isn’t finding the workers but the workers with the skills and experience we need.” He said this stems from the limited number of students entering the engineering and science fields. “Overall, the number of potential workers entering the work force is smaller than what it was during the baby boomer era, and within that available employment pool, there [is] a smaller percentage of technically degreed candidates,” he said.
Although construction has begun to taper off, McKeown said it has had little effect on the water and wastewater industry. “The general sense is that while there may be some slowdown in the residential and commercial building industries, the employees from that field do not typically align with the skill sets and experience we are looking for,” he said. “So the demand for [construction] employees seems unaffected.”
Husband said the lack of skilled labor and challenges in finding personnel who are trained and certified to work in the industry have made automation an attractive concept to many utility managers. “Often, this industry requires off-shift hours, and it can be difficult to find people that are willing to do that,” he said. Labor retention is another significant issue. “Once people build up a skill set, they become more attractive to industry and private operators,” Husband said. “Competition has become much higher. That’s why automation is such big buzzword right now. With such a tight labor pool, many in the industry are considering this.”
Husband said there is also a strong perception that if labor requirements are reduced in relation to operations and instrumentations, then the tight labor problem can be relieved. “Of course, in order to do this, operators would need to initially invest in equipment, and a different skill set would be required to maintain this automation,” he said.
Some of the benefits that automation can bring include greater efficiency, higher-quality effluent, and cost savings because of tighter chemical feed control. “Many in the industry who are moving into utility management are comfortable and trusting of technology,” Husband said. “Also, industry has responded to this demand with new and more robust systems. So we are moving toward a more automated operation, but we still need that head operator who can assess and determine the best corrective actions.”
Jeff Gunderson, WE&T
Sewer overflows and security are among the water quality issues the U.S. Congress faces in 2008
In its first year, the 110th U.S. Congress examined a host of issues pertaining to water quality, including new programs to address nonpoint source pollution from agricultural lands, federal requirements for monitoring and reporting sewer overflows, and the question of which waterways are covered under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Because Congress has yet to resolve these issues, lawmakers will have no shortage of water-related topics to occupy their attention in 2008.
Down on the Farm
Approximately every 5 years, Congress enacts agriculture-related legislation commonly known as the farm bill. Recent farm bills signed into law have included a growing number of programs intended to help agricultural producers protect and conserve wetlands, forests, and other natural resources. Farm bill proposals developed in the House and Senate in 2007 continued this tradition, and they include a new Regional Water Enhancement Program (RWEP) that would provide grant funding to farmers and government entities that partner on efforts to reduce nonpoint source pollution from agricultural areas.
Because nonagricultural groups are not allowed to receive funding as part of current farm bill programs, RWEP “fills a hole in the existing conservation programs,” said Pat Sinicropi, legislative counsel for the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). Enactment of the program is one of WEF’s major legislative goals for the current session of Congress.
Although similar in many respects, the House and Senate versions of the farm bill differ in terms of how much funding they would provide for RWEP. Passed by the House in July, H.R. 2419 would include a total of $300 million for 5 years. By contrast, the Senate’s version, which was not yet approved at press time, would limit funding for RWEP to 5% of the overall funding allocated to certain farm bill conservation programs.
In addition to enjoying bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, RWEP is favored by the White House, which included it as part of its farm bill proposal submitted to Congress in early 2007.
The program should help curtail the growing problem of pollution from nonpoint sources, said Sandra Ralston, senior associate at Malcolm Pirnie Inc. (White Plains, N.Y.). “If we’re going to seek to improve water quality at the watershed level, we’re going to have to have more participation and programs involving entities that generate nonpoint source pollution,” she said. “It simply is one more method by which to obtain better water quality.”
However, RWEP is a minor piece within a major bill that still must clear many hurdles before being finalized. For example, the White House has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions, in part because of their spending levels.
Overflows and the Right To Know
Introduced in May 2007 by U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop (D–N.Y.), the Raw Sewage Overflow Community Right-To-Know Act (H.R. 2452) would amend CWA to require publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) to implement a “methodology, technology, or management program that will alert the owner or operator to the occurrence of a sewer overflow in a timely manner.” Following a sanitary or combined sewer overflow that “has the potential to affect human health,” a POTW would be required to alert public health authorities immediately and notify the public within 24 hours of learning of the event. The legislation also includes requirements for reporting overflows to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or state authorities. In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D–N.J.) introduced similar legislation (S. 2080) in September.
“No one is against giving the public more notice when overflows occur,” Sinicropi said. In fact, alerting the public about such events can help raise awareness of the need to fund improvements to wastewater infrastructure in general, she said. However, many POTWs already conduct such monitoring and reporting, and most states require that public health authorities be notified in the event of an overflow. And notification requirements pertaining to combined sewer overflows already exist at the federal level, Sinicropi noted.
Instead of legislation that considers simply the issues of monitoring and reporting of overflows, some would prefer to see these subjects addressed as part of a broader rulemaking effort. “We have been encouraging EPA to put together a comprehensive regulation on sanitary sewer overflows, which would include monitoring and reporting requirements,” said Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (Washington, D.C.). However, EPA’s previous attempt to do so has languished since the start of the George W. Bush administration.
Some question whether the legislation’s monitoring requirements would divert scarce resources away from efforts intended to address the overflows. The bills would require that communities “spend resources on monitoring that will not directly fix the problem,” said Nancy Wheatley, an independent consultant based in Siasconset, Mass. “It may get lots more public information out there, but it’s not necessarily going to improve the overflow situation.”
Although neither bill has yet to attract significant numbers of co-sponsors, lawmakers may be inclined to support the legislation if it comes to a vote. The bills have the staunch support of several environmental organizations, and the legislation offers lawmakers an opportunity to burnish their “green” credentials. “It’s an easy vote for them,” Sinicropi said.
Clean Water Act Confusion
In the wake of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 limiting the federal government’s jurisdiction over certain wetlands, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D–Minn.) — the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — in May 2007 introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act (H.R. 2421). According to the legislation, the bill seeks to “clarify” the types of waterbodies that Congress intended to be regulated under CWA Sec. 404, which authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate the discharge of dredged or fill material into the nation’s “navigable waters.”
Although CWA defines navigable waters as “the waters of the United States, including territorial seas,” federal regulations issued since the law’s enactment have broadened the definition to include waters that are not navigable in the traditional sense of the word. However, in its recent decisions regarding wetlands regulations, the Supreme Court cited the act’s use of the phrase “navigable waters” to limit federal jurisdiction over certain non-navigable waterways and adjacent wetlands.
In response, H.R. 2421 would amend CWA to replace “navigable waters” with “waters of the United States.” The legislation defines this term to mean “all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing, subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution.”
Even among some of its supporters, the bill’s broad definition has raised concerns that certain water features not previously covered under Sec. 404 might fall within its regulatory purview if the legislation were to become law. In a Nov. 6 letter to Oberstar, WEF President Adam Zabinski expresses the organization’s support for the bill. However, Zabinski clarifies that this support is conditional on the “understanding that the original jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act would not be expanded” beyond what it enjoyed before the Supreme Court decisions, according to the letter.
For example, Zabinski notes that some WEF members have expressed concern that H.R. 2421 “may jeopardize regulatory exemptions allowing certain manmade wastewater treatment systems to be considered outside the statute’s recognized jurisdictional limits.” At the same time, members also have questioned whether “certain methods for stormwater retention” would be subject to regulation under Sec. 404, “preventing use of these methods in treating stormwater pollution,” according to the letter.
However, such concerns are likely to remain hypothetical for the foreseeable future. At press time, Oberstar had yet to succeed in getting the bill passed out of his committee. Although U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold (D–Wis.) introduced similar legislation (S. 1870) in July, the bill had yet to receive a hearing. Furthermore, even if passed by Congress, the legislation likely would not enjoy sufficient support to override a probable veto, Kirk noted.
Chemical Security May Receive Scrutiny
Federal regulation of hazardous chemicals at water and wastewater utilities is another area that could be subject to change in the future. “There’s been interest at the cabinet level” of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as the leadership of the House Committee on Homeland Security, to include the water sector in the department’s existing framework for regulating hazardous chemicals, said Michael Arceneaux, deputy executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (Washington, D.C.). If such a change were made, utilities using large amounts of such chemicals likely would be “regulated much like chemical manufacturers,” Arceneaux said.
Before any regulatory changes are made, it is important to note that utilities handling large amounts of hazardous chemicals, such as gaseous chlorine, are required to develop risk management plans to address potential threats, said Rebecca West, director of technical services for Spartanburg (S.C.) Water. “The existing programs that we have in place allow for us to continue to manage the chemicals we have onsite,” West said. Moreover, utilities require a certain amount of flexibility to decide the best approach for meeting the needs of their communities. “Utilities need to be able to make decisions based upon their own given situation at the local level,” West said.
Jay Landers, WE&T