The newly formed Water Environment & Reuse Foundation sets research priorities that focus on a more integrated approach to water management.

The days of looking at water as separate entities — wastewater, drinking water, groundwater, stormwater — are rapidly fading. Consensus is forming that there’s just one water, that all those sources are connected.

In line with that, a year ago the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the WateReuse Research Foundation (WRRF) merged to create the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF).

This not-for-profit organization brings together a $200 million portfolio of research. But now that this new entity exists, where will its research emphasis fall? A key decision-maker is Jeff Mosher, chief research and strategic planning officer.

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Mosher has been in the water field since 1990, previously working on regulatory development as a contractor to the U.S. EPA and on science and technology related to water, water quality, and water treatment. For the last 11 years, he served as executive director of the National Water Research Institute. Before that, he worked with the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and WRRF. He talked about his new organization’s research priorities in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How would you describe the approach WE&RF is taking toward research?

Mosher: The purpose of the merger was to approach water in a more integrated way. Water issues are connected. WE&RF is thinking about managing all the water resources within the urban environment more effectively. I believe one outcome is to build more resiliency into water resources management, both on the supply and demand sides, including water for the environment.

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TPO: What criteria are you using to establish research priorities?

Mosher: We have taken a two-phase approach. In the first phase, we’ve developed a 2017 research plan integrating the current activities of WERF and WRRF into one research program. That is an interim step.

TPO: What does the second phase of research planning look like?

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Mosher: In the longer term we are undertaking a visioning process to help foresee the future of water supply and water management, and to develop research concepts reflecting that vision. We also plan to reach out to our partners, including our subscribing members. That process may include a crowdsourcing approach where we take our initial ideas and vet them with multiple stakeholders. Based on this interaction and feedback, we’ll develop an updated research program to start in 2018 that reflects the shared views developed in the visioning effort.

TPO: How would you describe WE&RF’s immediate research priorities?

Mosher: We’re very interested in resource recovery. For example, we want wastewater utilities to recover water, nutrients and energy. Water reuse, including potable reuse, is a large focus.  Also, utilities need to be energy efficient and should consider solar power and other initiatives to integrate renewable energy into treatment facilities. Beyond that, there is real potential for wastewater facilities to become net zero-energy facilities, generating more energy than they use.

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TPO: What about resource recovery looking beyond energy?

Mosher: Nutrient recovery is an important area. We need to remove nutrients from wastewater before discharge to the environment — there are effluent standards for phosphorus and nitrogen — but can we recover those nutrients? And are there other materials in wastewater, such as metals, that can be recovered?  

TPO: What about research initiatives that take a more holistic view?

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Mosher: We have an initiative called sustainable integrated water management. That’s where we look at ideas on how to manage water supplies holistically, whether that’s wastewater, stormwater, recycled water or groundwater. It also includes green infrastructure. An example of that is on-site water treatment: collecting water from a building or a district, treating it on site and using it for non-potable purposes such as flushing toilets. It’s a question of transforming how we approach watershed management — integrating it with urban, agriculture, forestry, industrial and others uses.

TPO: How does stormwater fit into the picture of water reuse?

Mosher: One question is whether we can treat the initial flushes of stormwater that may contain more contamination using things like passive filters. There’s also a push for decentralized stormwater capture — collecting stormwater on a city block, storing it underground in a manufactured container, and using it for irrigation or directing it to groundwater recharge.

TPO: Where does potable reuse fit into the research picture?

Mosher: We have a very strong program on recycled water, and there is tremendous interest in expanding potable reuse in many states. That includes indirect potable reuse where we recharge the water into the ground or use it to augment drinking water reservoirs. There’s also a trend toward direct potable reuse, in which the water is not put in an environmental buffer.

TPO: What are the challenges to attaining widespread adoption of DPR? Cost? Public acceptance? Technology?  

Mosher: It is a combination. DPR is not just a treatment process. It’s a question of managing the wastewater collection system differently, operating the wastewater plant differently, better monitoring, the use for advanced treatments, and operator training.

TPO: What is involved in running the collection system differently?

Mosher: If you think about how we manage drinking water, we do source protection. We protect watersheds, reservoirs and rivers to keep pollutants out of the water supply. We can apply similar concepts to managing collection systems by building on our current wastewater pretreatment programs.

TPO: How would operation of the wastewater treatment plant have to change?

Mosher: Traditionally, wastewater treatment discharge requirements are based on weekly or monthly averages. On the drinking water side we deal in maximums — such as the maximum turbidity coming out of the filters. Those maximums cannot be exceeded. There are ways for wastewater operators to modify their treatment and monitoring. For example, it’s possible to put an equalization basin at the end of the treatment process to equalize the water quality before it goes to advanced treatment. They could also run the activated sludge process differently to increase removal of trace organic compounds like pharmaceuticals.

TPO: What do you observe about public acceptance of DPR?

Mosher: The key is to go out to your stakeholders early and talk to them about the reason why you want to do this. Once they understand the treatment processes and the benefits, you can get a vast majority of a community to support these projects.

TPO: What areas of research is WE&RF exploring in relation to DPR?

Mosher: We want to better understand the treatment technologies. Part of that is using new and innovative technologies, and innovation is an area where we are very strong. For example, those technologies could be more cost-effective or more energy efficient. Other important aspects are how to monitor and operate the DPR systems.

TPO: What aspects of monitoring are critical for DPR?

Mosher: We need to monitor for compliance, but also for treatment performance and reliability. Online monitoring will tell us in near real time that the processes are performing as they should. We want immediate feedback to be available to the operators. So we’re researching what kind of monitoring we need for each specific unit process in a DPR system. We envision a multiple-barrier concept — for example, not just one treatment for pathogens but three or four barriers. We then monitor each barrier and have procedures to collect and retreat off-spec water.

TPO: What does all this mean for the people who operate collection systems, wastewater treatment plants and advanced water treatment facilities?

Mosher: State regulators have been very good about working with utilities who are thinking about potable reuse. They often ask: Are the operators trained? Do they have the right certifications? Do they know how to run the advanced treatment? That’s part of what is going to ensure success: having great operators who are appropriately trained and experienced.

TPO: What kinds of additional certifications would operators need?

Mosher: We are researching training approaches for DPR operators and the added certification programs that would be needed. We already have water and wastewater certifications. To those we could add programs for advanced treatment, or we could develop a certification program for advanced treatment. In other words, if you have a water certification, then you would get a more advanced water certification. That would be up to the states.

TPO: What about actual training in the site-specific processes?

Mosher: There are organizations developing training programs for these advanced treatment systems, whether that’s advanced oxidation or membrane technology. Sending operators to those programs will be a part of it. Then when these operators are being hired or promoted, the utilities will train them on their specific equipment.

TPO: What about dealing with specific pollutants in wastewater that need to be removed for DPR?

Mosher: A lot of research is going into characterizing trace organic chemicals — chiefly the pharmaceuticals that pass through people and go into the wastewater collection system. We need appropriate analytical methods to detect them, to understand their public health significance, and to what levels we need to treat them. It’s the same with pathogens. We need to understand how much treatment is required to produce safe water.

TPO: What kinds of analytical tools are on the horizon or already here?

Mosher: There are some exciting new monitoring methods coming down. One is next-generation sequencing, which is used to assess microbials in settings from an advanced wastewater treatment process to a drinking water distribution system. This method gives us a list of the full range of microbiologicals present. It’s a game changer in terms of our ability to understand the microbial community in a plant or distribution system.

It really comes down to applying these techniques as they become available to see if they can help in assessing chemicals and pathogens. We have current methods, but it is possible that new methods will give us a better understanding.

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