Among the prominent advancements in improving public health and environment over the past two hundred years, collection and treatment of domestic wastewater ranks near the top. The traditional view of wastewater treatment has been of a “linear pipeline,” whereby wastewater is collected at one end of a watershed, transported as quickly as practical to the other end, where it is treated and discharged to the nearest waterbody as a disposal byproduct. But in recent years this “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” attitude has been rapidly giving way to a more circular approach whereby the resource values intrinsic in wastewater are recovered and returned to the local community from whence it came, contributing to its environmental, economic, and social sustainability. This radical shift in thinking lies at the core of what is now redefining today’s public utility.
From a technical perspective, it’s easy to envision what our utilities of the future might look like within the context of this new paradigm. Water is reused to minimize impacts of finding and exploiting new sources of supply, particularly in water-scarce regions. Nutrients are recovered in various forms to be applied as agricultural fertilizers, while reducing the long-term environmental damage resulting from over-accumulation of nutrients in waterways. Energy, in the form of heat and electricity, is extracted from organics to offset local power demands. However, as is typical with any type of change, numerous barriers need to be overcome in order for these positive outcomes to be realized as beneficial by the individual utility customer. In a study led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, it was found that prominent barriers include: 1) how we embrace and advance innovative technology that blazes the “change trail” to recovering value benefits in wastewater, 2) how we engage the regulatory process to enable and incentivize the change, and 3) how we secure the financial commitment necessary to get there. While none are insurmountable, each is dependent on the other. Our challenge for the next decade lies less in discovering new technology to achieve full resource recovery, but rather in removing institutional barriers that inhibit it.
Wastewater utilities have traditionally been publicly owned entities, and adoption of new technology is viewed with caution because of the risks associated with the uncertainty of performance reliability of an unproven approach and failure resulting in a loss of trust by ratepayers. Overcoming this slow adoption barrier is for utilities to collaborate in evaluating, testing and implementing technologies with the open, coordinated sharing of applicability, reliability, and performance data. Not only does this accelerate innovative technology into commercial markets, it provides a framework for regulatory agencies to endorse the innovations as part of the permitting process. This is the approach taken by the Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT) initiative recently launched jointly by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF).
In its more than 40 year history, the Clean Water Act has proven to be the most effective environmental legislation ever enacted, but it lacks the flexibility necessary to endorse new technologies designed to convert waste streams to value streams. Updates to the CWA are needed to allow for adaptive management approaches to the implementation of resource recovery technologies within the structure of the permit. Additionally, the benefits of the recovered resources extend far beyond utility boundaries, suggesting that permits must be structured on the basis of the fully integrated watershed approach. Progress in this area has been encouraging, with recent shifts in regulatory policies at the federal level around total maximum daily loads, water quality trading and adaptive management.
Financing our utilities of the future is perhaps the biggest challenge. Utilities continue to struggle with balancing the need to reduce costs and increase revenues for sustaining their near-term solvency with making investments in resource recovery systems to benefit the sustainability of the entire community for the long-term. To date, this concept remains elusive for many ratepayers, but securing their buy-in will come in time through proactive legislation that appropriates secured funding primarily at local levels, that incentivizes public/private partnerships to invest in resource recovery technology, and shapes public policy around community-based utility benefits rather than just services. In the interim, however, creative utility management in terms of leveraging grants, load guarantees, revolving loans etc., is critical to seeding the new paradigm.
The future of the public utility looks much different than it has traditionally. The future is all about recognizing the intrinsic resource value in wastewaters and moving to adopt technology that captures these benefits as soon as practical. Regulatory frameworks and financial mechanisms need immediate reforms in order to incentivize innovation and provide sustainability for utilities and the ratepayers they serve.
Dr. Umble is the Wastewater Practice Leader for MWH and provides technical analysis and support to design teams for new and rehabilitated municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Umble is a leader in initiatives promoting environmental stewardship serving as a technical advisor/reviewer for Water Environment Research Foundation, International Water Association, and the WateReuse Foundation collaborative research projects.