From The Editor | December 23, 2013

EPA's Top 10 Technology Needs For Water

By Laura Martin
@LauraOnWater

Water drop
This blueprint highlights the EPA Office of Water's plans and goals to address growing issues in the water sector. By furthering the development of new technologies and promoting new applications of existing technologies, the EPA believes it will be on the road to solving current water resource challenges.

The water sector faces a host of complex difficulties. According to the EPA, over 55 percent of the tested waters in the United States are impaired, primarily due to nutrients, sediment, and bacteria. Water infrastructure is also in need of improvement— there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year, leading to approximately $2.8 billion in annual lost revenue, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The issues don't end there. 

“The United States is facing serious challenges to its water resources, including deteriorating infrastructure, continued population growth and development, impacts of climate change, emerging contaminants, widespread nutrient pollution and strains on water supply,” writes the EPA in its recently released Blueprint for Integrating Technology Innovation into the National Water Program.

The blueprint highlights the EPA Office of Water's plans and goals to address these growing issues. By furthering the development of new technologies and promoting new applications of existing technologies, the EPA believes it will be on the road to solving current water resource challenges. The top 10 technology needs are summarized below.

1) Energy Reduction and Recovery at Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants

Most conventionally run wastewater and water treatment plants require a large amount of energy.  According to the EPA, the U.S. has approximately 150,000 water treatment plants and 15,000 wastewater treatment plants, which consume 4 percent of the nation’s total electricity. To cut down on consumption, the EPA plans to encourage water treatment facilities to take energy saving measures and utilize alternative energy sources using new technology.

Water Online recently reported on several successful alternative energy generation techniques and technologies including  a solar-microbial device that uses wastewater and sunlight to generate clean energy and electricity-producing microbes that treat wastewater and provide a power source.

2) Nutrient Reduction and Recovery

Nitrogen and phosphorus removal during the wastewater treatment process is critical to preventing water contamination. Too much of either nutrient can negatively impact aquatic ecosystems and human health and result in toxic algae blooms.  To combat this problem, the EPA aims for levels of total nitrogen to be 3mg/L for biological nutrient removal (BNR) and enhanced nutrient removal. Along with this initiative, the EPA also plans to highlight more energy efficient nutrient reduction practices and nutrient recovery technologies that are cost-effective and sustainable.

3) Water Infrastructure Improvements

Water and sewer infrastructure updates are also a priority for the EPA.  The agency organization estimates it will cost over $650 billion to implement the changes needed to make all U.S. water systems efficient, safe, and fully functional.  The EPA’s goals include encouraging more cost-effective leak detection and rehabilitation techniques, identifying decentralized approaches that can reduce pumping and treatments costs, and maintaining an increased emphasis on green infrastructure for stormwater management.

To understand why stormwater is a priority for the wastewater industry, check out previous coverage “Ten Reasons Managing Stormwater Is Different From Wastewater”.

4) Water Reuse

The United States is a nation that uses a lot of water — over 9.5 trillion gallons are discharged per year.  These increasing water demands, combined with drought, make water scarcity a real issue and a top propriety for the EPA.  Water reuse promotion is among the EPA’s top goals for the future.

“There are significant needs for technologies and approaches that foster substantially greater water reuse, which in turn can reduce pollution and conserve energy,” the EPA states in the water innovation blueprint. To learn more about what is causing the need for water reuse and the different reuse methods being considered, check out our previous coverage.

5) Effective and Less Expensive Monitoring

Due to the expense of traditional water quality monitoring, less than 30 percent of the nation's surface water bodies are assessed by the EPA, states, or tribes. The EPA plans to explore smart sensor technology, telemetry, and remote sensing, which have the potential to generate more data at less cost.

6) Improving Reliability of Small Drinking Water Systems

Over 93 percent of public drinking water treatment systems serve fewer than 3,300 people.  These small systems can be complex and costly to operate and maintain. The EPA aims to discover new technology and operational controls that will lower the cost of maintaining these small systems with greater reliability.

7) Technology Evaluation and Performance

Implementing new technologies in the water and wastewater industries has always been a slow process. Many technology providers have to face a complex system of federal, state, and local requirements that discourages acceptance, adoption, and use. The EPA aims to break this cycle by promoting technology and addressing the need for evaluations by independent third-parties to assess performance for a variety of water-related technologies.  Water Online previously reported on a Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) program known as “LIFT” that has similar goals.

8) Reducing Water Impacts from Domestic Energy Production

The water impacts of fracking have only recently begun to be investigated, and there is still a long way to go to determine the best course of action in approaching and regulating shale gas production. Current fracking techniques often involve significant water consumption, treatment, and disposal. Large amounts of water are also used for other types of energy production, creating produced water that must be disposed of in a safe and effective manner. 

The EPA aims to determine which methods and new technology can help alleviate water quality and quantity issues related to energy production. One solution may be waterless fracking, which Water Online previously reported on. Check out our Water Online’s Produced Water page for other solutions.

9) Resiliency of Water Infrastructure

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy revealed just how big of an impact a natural disaster can have on water infrastructure. While it is a tough lesson to learn, the silver lining of the event is that it may promote much-needed change. In its goals for the future, the EPA includes technology innovation, updating, and rebuilding efforts that will allow water treatment plants to achieve greater resiliency.

10) Improving Water Quality of Our Oceans, Estuaries, and Watersheds

Due to pollution less than half of the nation's surface waters can be used for potable water supply, swimming, or fishing. Groundwater is also at risk for contamination. The EPA plans to explore new technologies and partnerships that can help address nonpoint sources of pollution, help rebuild ecosystems, restore watersheds, and address threats from invasive species and other impacts.