Consultant's Corner: Municipal, Industrial, And Agricultural Water Partnerships For The 21st Century
By Jason Smesrud, PE, CH2M HILL Global Technology Leader – Agricultural Services
Brett Isbell, PE, CH2M HILL West Region Technology Leader – Agricultural Services
Mark Madison, PE, CH2M HILL Principal Technologist – Agricultural Services
In an increasingly challenged economic climate with acute budget pressures, forward-looking businesses and organizations are searching for ways to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively. At the same time, mounting water, energy, ecosystems, and overall resource competition coupled with the pressures of climate change create serious uncertainty in the basic costs of doing business for municipal and industrial water and wastewater and agricultural production businesses. However, with every challenge comes an opportunity. Forward looking resource managers that can form effective partnerships across business sectors have the opportunity to create sustainable solutions to their most pressing problems that benefit their ratepayers or stockholders, the environment, and their local communities.
Agriculture provides the fundamental service of producing food and fiber to feed and clothe a growing global population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. However, agricultural lands also provide important ecosystems services, water supply balancing opportunities, and nutrient management possibilities that are being valued and monetized for mutual benefit of municipal, industrial, and agricultural interests. This is being demonstrated around the U.S. by developing water quality credit trading markets, regional water banks being established for sharing of water resources between municipal, industrial, and agricultural interests, and municipal and industrial operations that have formed partnerships to provide reclaimed water and biosolids to local agricultural operations.
Several regional water banks have been established around the western U.S. to help in mitigating supply-demand imbalances across water use sectors. One such bank in the Deschutes Basin of Oregon was created through a combined partnership of cities, tribes, irrigation districts, and conservation organizations and has become a model for other basins to build upon. Developed by this group under a grant provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and now administered by a non-profit organization that facilitates the water exchanges, this innovative water bank has helped to provide water for growing cities and industry while protecting important agricultural water supplies. By providing a voluntary and transparent marketplace within which to exchange water, costs have been controlled and agricultural water supplies have been protected against speculators. Several significant irrigation water conservation projects in the basin have also been made possible through the marketplace created by having an established water bank.
With strict nutrient standards being implemented around the U.S., many municipal and industrial wastewater operations are facing large capital expenses to increase the level of treatment or to find alternative methods for offsetting or recycling nutrient loads. CH2M HILL recently helped a municipality in Southern Oregon address this challenge through development of an innovative natural treatment system on local ranch land. Facing a $60M treatment plant upgrade for chemical phosphorous removal, an alternative approach was taken that relies upon high-rate irrigation and soil treatment at a total capital cost of $9M. In addition to saving over $50M for ratepayers, this project provides additional benefits not afforded by a chemical phosphorous removal process such as: additional nitrogen removal; wetland restoration and mitigation credit generation; and improved forage productivity for continued ranching operations.
Non-point source contributions to water quality problems have been historically difficult to address due to the large scale and distributed nature of sources and the lack of funding necessary to compensate land-owners for conservation measures. In recent years, however, innovative programs have begun to develop based on the premise that regulated point source dischargers could fund conservation measures on private lands within their watersheds to meet emerging regulations and offset an equivalent or greater amount of non-point source contribution more cost effectively than they could implement high levels of additional wastewater treatment. Understanding the persistent challenge of providing sustainable conservation funding for private lands and recognizing the opportunity to mutually benefit municipal, industrial, and agricultural interests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S Environmental Protection Agency have provided significant funding opportunities in recent years to further develop water quality credit trading markets around the nation. One effective program in Western Oregon has become a model for this type of project and an inspiration for a new group of non-profit conservation organizations formed to help others implement similar projects. The model is based upon funding stream-side restoration of riparian vegetation on private agricultural lands that can provide shade and cool streams to offset the thermal load contributions from point source discharges. As a result of these projects, streams have been effectively cooled and participating landowners have been fairly compensated for land voluntarily taken out of agricultural production in order to capitalize on the ecosystem services that these lands can provide to the watershed.
Another example of effective municipal/agricultural partnerships has been the development of long-term municipal biosolids reuse programs. The City of Portland, Clean Water Services, and the City of Salem (two large cities and one regional water resources management utility in Oregon) recycle part of their biosolids nutrients at Madison Farms to improve rangeland productivity and to grow canola fertilized with biosolids. The canola is converted to bio-diesel and sold throughout the three service districts that produce the biosolids, including the City of Portland which now requires that all diesel sold within city limits contain a minimum blend of 5 percent biodiesel. The same farm reduces its need for irrigation water diverted from the Columbia River by recycling potato processing water and power plant cooling water to grow canola, potatoes, corn, small grains, alfalfa, and grass. Projects like this can reduce nutrient imports to the watershed, improve soil quality and agricultural productivity of range and crop lands, and reduce our reliance on foreign petroleum interests while benefiting ratepayers and creating rural jobs.
Many of the projects mentioned above have taken years and in some cases, decades to develop and are the result of long-term collaborative efforts between multiple stakeholders, including local, state, and federal agencies. Developing connections and creating alliances through agricultural support interest like agricultural extension, state and county farm bureaus and soil and water conservation districts can sometimes help municipal and industrial operations to bridge communications with agricultural stakeholders in their areas. Involvement of agricultural scientists and engineers in these efforts also helps to guide practical and sustainable water and nutrient management approaches that work for all parties involved.