By Laura Martin
The old cliché, “the bigger the risk the greater the reward,” can be a powerful motivator for those trying to bring an innovative new technology to the market.
But when it comes to new drinking water technologies, entrepreneurs take a more cautious approach, says Jim Taft, the executive director for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), which represents the drinking water programs in all 50 U.S. states.
“It can be difficult for purveyors of technologies for drinking water to bring their ideas to life because they are dealing directly with public health,” says Taft. “They need to guarantee that what they’ve created will work no matter what, because you can’t take risks with people’s health. So they have to take a more conservative view toward innovation.”
State regulators can also be hesitant to support less conventional or known drinking water technologies. In a recent roundtable hosted by the U.S. Water Alliance and the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), key policy makers, regulators, manufacturers, industry leaders, and others discussed ways to promote the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies within the water industry.
“The state regulators are fundamentally supportive of innovative technologies, as they are interested in improving water quality and growing the economy,” reads a report summarizing the discussion at the roundtable event. “At the same time, they are admittedly risk-averse as their positions are not structured in such a way that risk-taking is rewarded.”
What can be done to combat the risk-adverse nature of both the regulators and the technology purveyors?
Here are three ways technology manufactures and state regulators can work together to further the development and adoption of innovative drinking water solutions.
Ask And Answer The Right Questions
One of the barriers to state regulatory support of new technologies is a lack of communication between the provider and regulatory sides.
Technology providers often don’t fully understand what regulators are looking for before they ask them to support new innovations, says Taft. One way to make that easier is for regulators to develop a list of questions manufacturers should be ready to answer about their new technologies and provide that to the public.
“We need to make sure manufacturers have a good understanding of what the questions are going to be in a particular state before they propose something,” explains Taft.
The roundtable discussed some of the criteria state regulators are looking for when considering new technologies. According to the roundtable summary document, a new technology must offer improved environmental outcomes, incidental benefits, environmental justice benefits, or lower costs. They must “be a proven fit for the climate, conditions, operation, and maintenance for which they are intended, be presented with compelling results, and include terms in which the risk of adoption will be offset by a reliable and realistic fallback option if they don't.”
Regulators will be less likely to consider new technologies that have crashed before, require highly trained staff, meet community resistance, put a strain on an already burdened system, do not include a fallback plan, result in states getting “stuck” with the problem due to failure, are not permitted by state regulations, or those that require site-specific data where such data has not been developed or provided.
Another barrier to innovation is the difficultly of transferring technology approvals from state to state.
“A manufacturer will have his technology approved in one state, but in a neighboring state they will have to go through the whole process again,” explains Taft. “The first state needs to take the technology through a more rigorous application process that could speed the path for the technology to be approved in a neighboring state.”
That goal is challenging, and will not happen overnight, says Taft. But improving communication between states is a step in the right direction. The ASDWA is considering creating websites where regulators can see recently approved technologies demonstrated in each state.
The EPA’s Water Technology Innovation Cluster program is another way that states can share information about new technologies. So far 12 regional groupings of businesses, government, research institutions, and other organizations focused on the future of water have been identified across the U.S. These clusters are working together to get new technologies off the ground across the country.
“The ASDWA is continuing to support the EPA cluster program and working to further it,” says Taft. “That really offers some promise and I think that there is a momentum around that we can build upon and take lessons learned from.”
A lack of coordination in permitting between states also limits innovation. To combat this, ASDWA and other key policy makers are promoting third-party environmental and technical verification of emerging technologies.
“I think third-party certification needs to be a key consideration,” says Taft. “There needs to more groups that can examine a technology and put it through rigorous testing, and hold it to a high standard. That information then becomes very valuable to state regulators across the country.”