Guest Column | March 17, 2020

Integrated Solutions Drive Resource Recovery And System Resiliency

By Dr. Zeynep K. Erdal


Traditional approaches or wait-and-see tactics, which at times can save the day, too often result in missed opportunities for incremental improvements that could act as building blocks of a long-term strategy. Integrated solutions can reveal this strategy road map for a resilient and reliable water infrastructure system.

Resiliency and resource recovery are big themes in the water industry (which includes all types of water management), and utilities are at different levels and stages of progress. Resilience is a large and often overwhelming topic that speaks to critical human elements. Resiliency discussions have largely focused on water, energy, and financial elements, but they also increasingly encompass workforce development, data, and information resiliency.

Why Integrated Solutions Are Important

Our industry tends to focus on the most critical elements of resiliency first; we naturally prefer to get our arms around water, energy, and financial resilience before embracing the newer elements. But one of the most effective things we can do is create a foundation from approaches and tools that can integrate existing and additional elements of resiliency in one place.

Because each individual element — or bucket — is individually so large, it is crucial for utilities, communities, and agencies to understand the issues, problems, and gaps associated with their individual buckets. The integration of multiple buckets across an organization necessitates an honest and thorough look before detailed planning ever begins.

Integrating the various elements of resiliency across organizations can ultimately yield water, energy, financial, and other types of resilience along with the ability to plan capital improvements that address needs in a coordinated and phased manner. New approaches and tools can help utility managers with self-reflection and subsequent integration of critical elements across their organizations. Thinking holistically about resource management and resiliency in planning for the future can help water managers identify factors they may have overlooked in the past.

Many utilities that manage potable water systems should already be considering physical resilience. America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2018 requires water utilities to thoroughly assess their vulnerabilities to all types of natural hazards and man-made disasters and develop a detailed plan to address them. In addition to examining each system’s risk from these threats, risk and resilience assessments must evaluate the resilience of all physical assets from source water to distribution systems, including monitoring practices, chemical storage and handling, and operations and maintenance practices. Emergency response plans need to focus on more than merely being able to respond and identify opportunities to help utilities proactively reduce risk. Identifying and evaluating a broader array of threats and preparing a plan to address them will help utilities that have not already done this become more resilient.

Integrated water systems planning encompasses all aspects of water management and system performance and helps close the loop on the water cycle. (Credit: Black & Veatch)

California isn’t the only state that needs to consider the physical resilience of infrastructure assets, but it’s a prime example. The state is home to nearly 40 million people, about 90 percent of whom live in population centers along major fault lines. In December 2019, the United States Geological Survey released new risk factor maps based on improved models and updated population forecasts. Overlaying population centers with seismic-event-damage risk maps shows that infrastructure resiliency needs to be wrapped into infrastructure renewal considerations for much of the western U.S., including California. This may sound like old news, but the rate at which population is growing in the southwestern states — especially California (25 percent over the next 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers) — will not only strain existing infrastructure but also increase the risk of loss or underperformance of assets proportionally.

What’s more, when we talk about physical assets in other areas not as well fortified against damage as those in California, risk factors can be higher for older assets. Some linear assets in cities such as Philadelphia date back to the Civil War, and water mains in cities such as Baltimore were built before the 1940s. We have not even started to roll the impacts of climate change, extreme weather, water supply reliability, regulatory pressures on drinking and used water systems, or future unknowns (financial, organizational, technological) into this equation.

Integrating Discrete Solutions

As an industry, we are developing impressive new tools and approaches that eliminate silos and enable more integration of a myriad of solutions. One thing that rises to the top is resiliency through diversification — not only in supply and outlet portfolios but also in how we manage our systems and needs. Building this type of diversification into our systems provides elasticity to address various conditions.

As one example, taking a broader look at entire systems can help utilities identify and deal with stress caused by climate change and high flows throughout conveyance systems and treatment facilities. Technologies that can help us recover more resources from the system (e.g., shortcut nitrogen removal and advanced water treatment for potable reuse) can be hit hard by extreme-weather-event conditions, but systemwide installation of flow buffering can protect conveyance and treatment facilities.

Some integration solutions entail getting more out of existing assets. The ability to intensify or optimize existing treatment systems can be especially valuable for landlocked facilities that need to extend asset life and use land for other purposes. One such solution is selective wasting; wastewater treatment plant operators can benefit from being able to implement selective wasting such that they retain “good” bacteria and waste poor performers and poor settlers intentionally. How do we couple this with other solutions for continued regulatory compliance even when flows are high? Integrating membrane technologies with selective wasting can be an effective application of this coupling. Another promising solution is the integration of more sensors and smart elements into designs so water managers and treatment plant operators can monitor, analyze, and react to changes early on.

Another example of the need for integrated planning is to improve how we implement water conservation for demand management. Utilities that have implemented aggressive conservation programs are now encountering unintended consequences such as reduced flows through conveyance systems and changing wastewater quality. With so many competing factors at play, building flexibility into water systems as we move forward can make those systems more resilient to physical limitations and hydraulic variability.

We also need to consider nutrients, energy, and water together. As an industry we haven’t looked long and hard at integrating facilities and broader system issues through the lens of climate change or financial resilience. For example, some calculations suggest that we are about to hit the phosphorus peak in 2030 or soon thereafter, with ensuing decline of a nonrenewable resource. Phosphorus is essential not only for industry and environmental preservation but also is critical for our food security as an essential nutrient.

Seizing the opportunity to recover phosphorus at resource recovery facilities for various forms of intentional beneficial end use instead of returning it to the environment via effluent discharges can help us deal with the looming resource supply shortage of phosphorus. Water Research Foundation (WRF) Project No. 4975 aims to address this by standardizing proven enhanced biological phosphorus removal methodologies and how they can be replicated at other facilities. This standardization approach to develop quickly deployable proven solutions could also be readily applied for energy — standardization of demand management and renewable energy production/recovery solutions at existing resource recovery facilities could be replicated widely in North America.

One way to integrate water, energy, and nutrient solutions would simultaneously solve an additional problem: organic waste management and food waste diversion from landfills. Approximately 15 years ago, the California Energy Commission funded the study and implementation of a food waste-to-energy project at a wastewater treatment facility in California. That effort has expanded in the United States. It was used as a model under WRF project OWSO5R07 and currently is being considered as one way of handling the looming landfill-diversion deadlines such as those in Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Canada.

Last but not least, the water industry is integrating solutions through One Water initiatives. Although a few pockets of continued severe drought exist according to the United States Drought Monitor, some may think that droughts are over in drought-prone western regions of the U.S. following the last two years’ rainy seasons and current snowpack. But no one knows exactly what will happen over the next five or 10 years. If history is a model, we can expect this drought and abundance cycle to continue with greater and peakier frequency of events. Members of the water industry are studying and implementing nature-based solutions found in the water ecosystem. This work will allow water engineers to innovate approaches and tools for better-integrated water and resource systems and to build resilience against resource and demand variation.

Integrating Through Digital Solutions

Being able to integrate systems through digital tools, smart sensors and metering, data analytics, and artificial intelligence through predictive analytics is of growing interest and utmost importance for our water and resource future. Developing a digital twin of a facility or system allows us to run scenarios and predict potential problems. This tool can be used for training and operations support as systems come online. A water utility digital twin is also used to optimize performance of existing assets. For example, Black & Veatch is developing a smart digital twin of Anglian Water’s entire system of facilities, pump stations, pipelines, and operations centers so that the UK utility can more efficiently manage assets and address issues. Black & Veatch’s 2019 Strategic Directions: Water Report outlines why we need more good data management examples such as this one.

Integrating Through Collaboration

The great catalyst of any system is the fuel it runs on, and human and financial capital are two catalyzers integral to any industry. The water industry cannot continue to do what we are doing without a strong workforce and sufficient financial resources. We need money, and the problems are growing and expanding across boundaries.

Potable reuse to increase water supply reliability is a good example of how collaboration and big-picture planning can be much more effective than isolated or narrowly focused efforts. Looking outside our own individual boxes and collaborating with other organizations open the door to untapped sources of supply, regional solutions, greater resources, and additional funding options. Utilities, engineering companies, regulators, and researchers have begun to work together more effectively to solve big problems, and water is at the center of it. Increased funding is available from loan and grant programs through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, and State Revolving Funds as well as sources such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and energy savings are offered through initiatives such as Savings By Design in California. This is the time to strengthen our critical human infrastructure with the right tools and approaches. Embedding resilience and reliability in our physical and virtual systems now will make our water systems more robust in the long run.

About The Author

Zeynep Erdal, PhD, PE, leads integrated solutions for Black & Veatch (Kansas City, MO), where she specializes in One Water solutions that integrate resource recovery and resiliency. Dr. Erdal has close to 25 years of experience in water reclamation projects across North America and around the world. She is a recognized expert in biological processes and the nutrient-energy nexus as well as water recycling. Her water industry leadership includes such contributions as the WEF Manual of Practice No. 34: Nutrient Removal and the WEF Energy Roadmap and advising the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI-USA) on greenhouse-gas emissions protocols development for wastewater treatment plants.