Article | February 4, 2014

One Water: A Holistic Approach To Water Management

Mark W. LeChevallier

By Mark LeChevallier, PhD, Director of Innovation & Environmental Stewardship at American Water


So far, water utilities have been successful in keeping up with regulations and maintenance, despite stagnant funding and uncertainty about when infrastructure could fail altogether. But the staggering cost to contend with these issues forces a new paradigm — how to best manage the ever-increasing demands on our water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure with fewer dollars.

At American Water, we are challenging our people to think about the broader notion of the term “One Water.” This term describes our long-term strategy of not thinking about individual segments of water, but rather thinking that it’s all water, and it’s all a resource. Additionally, it can be used for different purposes and it’s thinking about the system holistically, from the start of the watershed through to the various points of use.

I was encouraged to read a blog post by U.S. Water Alliance President Ben Grumbles about his resolution to partner with individuals and organizations to help advance “One Water”. It is promising to see one of the top leaders in our industry with such passion to transform integrated plans and actions toward a more holistic approach to all stages of the hydrologic cycle.

According to a Black & Veatch report, sometimes the management of multiple resources is synergistic; sometimes it requires more complex planning or investment; and sometimes tradeoffs are necessary. These divisions also contribute to communications challenges with public and government entities that can confound capital projects and resource recovery efforts. Globally, organizations that integrate water and wastewater functions find it easier to balance their water portfolios and gain public and financial support for investment in water infrastructure.

Additionally, a report issued by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, American Rivers and Ceres, concludes that municipalities and private water systems will need new strategies to cope with emerging problems and threats. The report states, “We have to integrate all water systems to use the 'right water for the right need. We must start extracting the significant resources (nutrients and energy) found in wastewater rather than discarding them as waste.”

Another aspect to “One Water” is financing. In its 2002 Clean Water and Drinking Water Gap Analysis, the U.S. EPA estimated that approximately $277 billion in capital spending across the nation will be needed between 2003 and 2022 to replace aging water infrastructure and comply with stricter water quality standards, and that an additional $388 billion will be needed between 2000 and 2019 to replace aging wastewater infrastructure.  The report also estimated that if investment in water and wastewater infrastructure does not increase to address anticipated needs, the funding gap over those 20 years could grow to $122 billion for clean water capital costs and $102 billion for drinking water capital costs. It also identified a funding gap for operation and maintenance, which was found to be $148 billion for clean water and $161 billion for drinking water. This points to a total gap of over $500 billion dollars. Who’s going to pay this massive repair bill?

The majority of the burden of upgrading our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure falls on the public sector, as approximately 85 percent of water systems in this country are municipal-owned.

One key solution is attracting additional private capital for public water infrastructure projects from investor-owned companies like American Water, as well as private capital that is already in infrastructure funds, pension funds, and other sources eager for the long-term, reliable investments that well-run water utilities provide. The U.S. government can also help bring additional private capital into communities to bridge the funding gap and flood millions of dollars and thousands of new jobs into our economy.

We also invest in innovative solutions to water quantity and quality challenges. The use of innovative technologies will help us maximize our water resources and we are focused on the development and use of innovation and technology to provide solutions to these challenges.

First, we have ongoing water reuse initiatives in a number of regions and our work in this area is also a key element in water conservation and preservation. Drinking water accounts for only one percent of overall water consumption. As such, tremendous opportunity lies in reusing water for a variety of other non-potable (non-drinking) – and in the future potable, purposes.

Our work in this area includes reuse systems for residential use including seven residential high-rises in Manhattan’s Battery Park City; commercial development such as malls and sports facilities like Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass.; as well as for municipalities, such as our partnership with the city of Fillmore, Calif. for a full-sale water recycling program. Each of these systems is unique, yet the laws of scale make larger projects more economical. In New York City there are incentives for reducing potable demand which further benefits the economics of these systems. The Battery Park residential systems have saved an average of 10 million gallons of potable water per building per year.

Another larger socioeconomic benefit is the offset in water supply treatment cost. This is significant in that you’re saving 50% of your potable supply cost. There is an added benefit to the city in deferral of capital expenditure for upgraded water and sewage infrastructure. As the recycling system both lowers the demand for new potable supply and lowers the discharge rate to existing sewers, the city is able to keep existing infrastructure in place without the need for upgrading. This can be a powerful capital planning tool.

Where water is scarce or of impaired quality, discussion tends to focus less on overcoming the “yuck” factor and more on providing the flexibility to match water quality to a specific use. For example, water used to flush toilets or water lawns would not require  the same advanced treatment as water intended for potable aquifer recharge, but does require third-pipe distribution and appropriate regulatory oversight.

According to a GE consumer survey unveiled in October 2012, two thirds of Americans (66 percent) feel positive about water reuse, according to the survey of 3,000 consumers in the U.S., China and Singapore. The survey reports that Americans also think that industry and government should play a stronger role in making water reuse a priority.

Second, with seawater comprising 97 percent of the earth’s water, one viable solution is desalination – the removal of salt from brackish (saline) water or seawater. This technology has been successfully implemented around the world, and has been proven to meet the needs of residents that would otherwise have no local access to drinking water.

American Water, partnering with Tampa Bay Water, operates the U.S.’s largest seawater desalination plant in Tampa Bay, providing up to 10 percent of that region’s total water supply. As desalination technology improves and its costs decrease, it has clearly become a viable alternative to environmentally stressed groundwater and surface water supplies used for drinking water.

Third, with approximately 7 billion gallons of treated drinking water “lost” each day, primarily because of leaks in drinking water pipelines throughout the U.S., a viable solution is leak detection technology.

For water utilities, like American Water, detecting and repairing leaks is one of the main components for water conservation. Results of deteriorating infrastructure, fluctuating water temperatures, soil movement, vibrations and water pressure changes are just some of the factors contributing to water leakage. And not only do leaks account for lost water, but they can also allow contaminants into the system that can endanger public health. It is estimated that up to 10 billion gallons of raw sewage is released into our waterways every year as a result of blocked or broken wastewater pipes.

Over the last several years, many studies have been undertaken to estimate water loss. Regions of developing countries are experiencing greater water loss than regions in developed countries and North America alone is experiencing 12.3 percent of non-revenue water.

American Water has developed comprehensive water preservation and efficiency strategies employing leading technologies, and makes capital investments that directly benefit the community.  We have pioneered the use of leak detection technologies to help detect and stop leaks of treated water before they become breaks. We have been employing this new technology in our systems nationwide and our work in this area limits leaks, improves water pressure and preserves water.

While drinking water, wastewater and stormwater each has a different slot in the water cycle, they are inseparable in the larger context of water quality and supply, and water for future generations. We can no longer look at each sector separately. By continually investing in our systems, as well as innovative technologies that increase efficiency and sustainability, we are committed to addressing these challenges. When the infrastructure is reliable and functioning smoothly, there is less water loss, leaving a larger supply of water available for society. The cycle of water comes full circle.

The bottom line is that we as a nation need to look at water management in a more holistic way – thinking about the whole impact on the environment. However, one lesson should be clear in the minds of all involved in the decision making process—it costs significantly less to maintain and enhance an existing system than it does to build or replace one. If we don’t recognize this, and we continue down this path, we are going to find that we can no longer ignore these issues because the water systems will not continue to sustain us.