Guest Column | March 28, 2014

Looking Across The Pond For Help Meeting U.S. Water Challenges

By Mike Rosenfeld, UK Trade & Investment

U.S. water utilities are facing challenges on several fronts, from withstanding record droughts to flooding and updating failing infrastructure. Case in point, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently gave the U.S.’s drinking water infrastructure a near failing grade; much of the infrastructure is more than 100 years old and in desperate need of repairs and replacement. As water utilities from around the nation – particularly in major urban centers like Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami – work to address issues related to water conservation and reuse, infrastructure renovation and replacement, and meeting stringent state and federal drinking water standards, they can look across the pond to the UK for guidance and collaboration.

The privatization of the UK water industry more than 20 years ago and a $165 billion private investment launched a dramatic expansion of the UK water sector. With an additional $135 billion investment to upgrade the country’s water networks combined with requirements to meet UK and EU regulatory directives around water and groundwater quality, wastewater treatment, and flood-risk management, the UK water industry has flourished. Despite working within a private water system domestically in the UK, the US and the UK have similar systems for regulating water quality and pollution control, and thus learnings from the UK are applicable in the US.

Today, the UK water sector is a $13.3 billion, world-class industry consisting of more than 500 companies with extensive experience. UK companies have expertise in engineering consultancy, flood and leakage management, network and environmental monitoring, waste and wastewater treatment and water efficiency, among others. UK companies are already putting their knowledge and experience to use in the US to deliver innovative projects and address the many challenges facing the US water industry.  For example:

  • To help the Southern Nevada Water Authority maintain water system capacity in Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the US supplying 25 million people, UK-based Arup engineered a five kilometer, six meter diameter water intake tunnel under Lake Mead to ensure continued water quality and supply amid declining lake levels caused by drought.  
  • British engineering company AMEC currently works with the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) to evaluate and improve on the effectiveness of a concept to create stormwater management enhancement districts (SMED). In an effort to improve neighborhoods and scale up pilot green stormwater infrastructure, PWD developed the SMED concept to create areas of concentrated investment in green stormwater projects.
  • UK-based Modern Water Group, which owns water technologies for producing fresh water, recently announced a collaboration with the University of Central Florida to assist in researching advanced treatment techniques for removing phosphorus from a local river to meet water quality standards.

This type of collaboration between the U.S. and the UK demonstrates how shared knowledge and expertise can lead to innovative approaches to tackling complex challenges within the water industry. And these are just a few examples of work taking place; there is great potential for future collaboration as well. Major urban centers such as San Francisco and Chicago plan to spend billions on green infrastructure projects and new water purification and filtration plants in the coming years. The UK is well positioned to partner with municipalities in these markets and others to deliver the value and solutions they need.

Clearly, the global water industry is facing new challenges in the 21st century that will require updating and adapting current water systems. The problems of climate change, meeting growing demand for water as populations increase, industrial growth, and the need to improve water networks have no quick fixes and will require new and creative approaches from across the global water industry. Together, the UK and the US can work to develop and deploy new sustainable technologies and water infrastructure projects, offering the best chance at solving the diverse array of complex water-related challenges facing the industry.         

About the author: Michael Rosenfeld is Vice Consul – Senior Director USA Clean Technology Sector for UK Trade & Investment, the British Government’s international business development department.

Image credit: ""America is another name for opportunity." Ralph Waldo Emerson," © 2013 betsyweber, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en