True cost of wastewater infrastructure hits home

Oct. 1, 2013

Residents of the beautiful Fox River valley west of Chicago, which includes the cities and towns of Aurora, St. Charles, Batavia and Geneva, recently received by morning mail something of a rude awakening.

Residents of the beautiful Fox River valley west of Chicago, which includes the cities and towns of Aurora, St. Charles, Batavia and Geneva, recently received by morning mail something of a rude awakening.

A letter from their Fox Metro Water Reclamation District informed them that to meet its financial obligations, Fox Metro would immediately increase its user fees by 30%. After that, user fees will increase by 5% each year for a period of ten years. The net effect is that the average user in the next year will see fees go up about $100 total.

What the valley’s inhabitants had awoke to was the current state of the water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States.

"The real issue is that municipalities haven’t been pricing for the real cost of water and that infrastructure is failing," says Mark Leinmuler, water-wastewater segment manager, Schneider Electric. "In some places wooden piping is still in place. Sewage is getting into waterways. And the most damning statistic is the estimate that municipalities lose on average about 16% of the water they put into distribution."

The Fox River is listed as "impaired" by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fox Metro has told its dwelling owners. "Despite the fact that Fox Metro meets or exceeds all of its permit limits and conditions, Fox Metro has been mandated by the state and federal EPA to make major improvements to its wastewater treatment processes to further improve the treated discharge to the Fox River."

Hopefully, the note of denial of responsibility in the above statement is meant merely to deflect blame for the situation to far-off Washington D.C., and doesn’t reflect a fundamental split on whether action really needs to be taken.

Get busy

Fox Metro and all other dischargers along the Fox River basin — including wastewater treatment plants, municipal combined and storm sewer pipes and rural field tiles — will be required to implement an aggressive 20-year plan to attain water quality compliance. In addition, part of Fox Metro’s aging infrastructure will need to be upgraded to meet new safety and environmental compliance standards.

Fox Metro says it has already begun implementing some needed improvements, but concludes by noting that $262 million will need to be spent over the next 10 years to meet the unfunded EPA mandates.

Above and beyond mandates, and things that must be done, what will the future hold, and what should the future hold, for Fox Metro and other U.S. municipalities and utilities?

Across the country the U.S. water infrastructure is in crisis, says a convening report from "Charting New Waters," an alliance of organizations calling for action, under the auspices of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, based in Racine, Wis. In its report, the Foundation’s perspective on the challenges ahead and an emerging framework for a continuum of change is presented.

The U.S. faces profound problems of aging components, stressed natural systems and outdated technology, says the Foundation’s report. Systems for drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and groundwater are struggling to meet current needs and are ill-equipped to handle the impacts of climate change.

For those interested, in this regard, a report from Climate Central, released in April 2013, includes data on treatment facility failures caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Most built systems are highly centralized and vulnerable to single-point system failures, the Johnson Foundation report continues, while overflows of combined stormwater and sanitary sewer systems continue to regularly contaminate water bodies in hundreds of municipalities.

One reason for the situation are fragmented and inflexible governance structures as well as substantial financial and public perception challenges that inhibit the implementation of technology, management and policy innovations that promise substantial benefits.

To put it in simpler terms, what is most striking to many professionals in the water and wastewater industries is the stark difference between procurement practices in the industrial private sector as opposed to the public sector. The differences are so stark that, to start, most suppliers to both sectors completely separate the two in terms of sales and other important business practices. In the private sector, it is often enough for a supplier to provide a solution that the buyer knows it will stand behind. In the public sector, for obvious reasons, this type of good-faith commitment isn’t near as possible and the drill includes exhaustive specifications and tortuous and often delayed approval processes.

The result, amongst others, is that wastewater treatments plants are not taking full advantage of emerging technologies that convert waste streams into productive resources, such as fuel for energy generation.

"Within wastewater in general there is enough energy to produce the power to treat it," says Leinmuler. "Some sites will provide surplus energy. Instead of an energy hog, it can provide a recoverable resource."

And processors are missing out on a lot of other things besides. The report concludes that decision makers would be wise to consider their need for a system that can encompass acute, episodic events, such as natural or man-made disasters, as well as trends such as population growth or drought. It also says that the application of triple-bottom-line analytical methods that consider environmental, economic and social outcomes is a very useful tool.

Looking for action

Schneider Electric is a global automation supplier with U.S. headquarters in Palatine, Ill., and total revenues of about $24 billion in 2012. It is active in many industrial markets and bills itself as a global specialist in energy management. Energy and water issues are inextricably linked of course. In fact, Schneider cites estimates that state that for many municipalities, wastewater systems can be responsible for as much as 60% of total energy spent.

Based on another estimate —  that global freshwater needs will grow by 20% in mature economies and by 50% in developing economies by 2025 — Schneider Electric is committed to educate, supply expertise and provide solutions to the water/wastewater industries, including work it’s doing with Microsoft Corp.

Earlier this summer, Microsoft announced a new global public service initiative at its annual Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, Texas. Called CityNext, the initiative is meant to help cities plan for sustainable habitats of tomorrow using information technology, including cloud services, applications, and other data platforms that can be used by municipalities and businesses to share data and drive operational efficiency.

Today more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, Microsoft says, and the number is projected to rise to 70% by 2050, putting immense pressure on transport, water and energy, healthcare and security infrastructure.

What can information technology do? Cloud-enabled services can decongest physical data storage and put it online to provide real-time data access and easier departmental sharing and processing. Enterprise-grade platforms that consist of Web-based applications and mobile gadgets allow information access anytime, anywhere. Updates and unique additions to current systems can make it compliant to industry standards or create synergy between different systems.

Schneider Electric already has applications for electric, gas and water utilities that have been developed using Microsoft tools.

Final words

The water sector is still in a relatively "nascent" stage of implementing innovation, concludes the Johnson Foundation report. Experimentation is underway, with innovation occurring in how water infrastructure is designed, financed, constructed, managed and maintained. But today still it is too often done on a small scale or in isolation.

The report’s recommendations for future actions include that municipalities and utilities should look to optimize existing systems, transition to more resilient systems and seize opportunities for more transformative systems.

First, though, water and wastewater utilities need to have a basic understanding of their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, including intense rainfall events and prolonged droughts. The Johnson Foundation points out that the water sector already can draw on vulnerability assessment work ongoing or completed by utilities in Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, Boston and Tampa. The Water Utility Climate Alliance has more information on these studies.

Other tools that "inform the development of a broadly applicable framework and methodology include the American Water Works Association (AWWA) J-100 RAMCAP Standard for Risk and Resilience Management of Water and Wastewater Systems, as well as the U.S. EPA’s Climate Resilience and Assessment Tool (CREAT) and Vulnerability Self-Assessment Tool (VSAT)."

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