What Happens When Utilities Think Beyond Treatment?

When utilities think beyond treatment, big things can happen.
What Happens When Utilities Think Beyond Treatment?
In Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District provided a $3 million grant for the remake of Public Square because the project includes $7 million in green infrastructure. The project will reduce the amount of water NEORSD needs to treat at its plants.

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Todd Danielson is the chief utilities executive of Avon Lake Regional Water, a utility on the shores of Lake Erie that provides water to 200,000 Ohioans through retail and bulk sales and treats wastewater generated by 30,000 residents. To read more, follow him on LinkedIn, where he often blogs about the challenges faced by water utilities.

Do more than just exist.

Maybe you've seen this quote before. Hopefully, you are already doing it — helping your children become better people than you are, living life to the fullest, helping the world become a better place.

The quote applies to more than people. Some water utilities, which are doing more than just providing water and wastewater services, are embracing it, too. They are creating fertilizer that they give — or sell — to the users of their systems. They are creating environmental learning centers or hosting festivals. They are building sports fields or public parks. They are planting trees. They are doing more than just existing.

There is nothing specifically special about the projects presented here over what other utilities are doing. These are just examples of how utilities can do more than exist, and how they can provide significant additional benefits to their communities.

Operators of wastewater treatment plants always thought they were providing significant public health and environmental benefit by taking in a waste — wastewater — extracting the usable water, and then disposing of a much smaller amount of waste products left over. Gradually, that mindset has changed so that operators are now recovering much more from wastewater. For example, the Town of Leesburg, Virginia, is creating a soil amendment from its biosolids. Residents and contractors love the product, and there is often a waiting list to receive it. The town has embraced the mindset, "What else can we do to enhance value?"

Other utilities are focused on helping their communities learn more about water and the environment. The Prince William County Service Authority is about to open an environmental center that will help students and the community understand the urban water cycle and what it takes to get water to/from customers' taps. Similarly, other utilities such as Avon Lake Regional Water work with local schools to provide tours and conduct lab experiments and/or host festivals to help the community learn more about water and the urban water cycle. 

Some utilities are starting to co-locate their facilities with community amenities. Alexandria Renew recently built new equalization basins with a community sports field on top of the basins. By doing so, it helped meet a community need for adult recreation fields, provided positive publicity for treatment facilities, and received approval for tanks that hold 18 million gallons of wastewater in a highly urbanized area.

Similar to co-location, some utilities are investing in public projects such as parks because they demonstrate goals utilities are working to implement. For example, Cleveland is doing many things in preparation for the 2016 Republican National Convention. One improvement is a $32 million remake of Public Square. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District provided a $3 million grant for the remake of Public Square because the project includes $7 million in green infrastructure that will both serve as a demonstration project and reduce the amount of water that NEORSD needs to treat at its plants.

Still other utilities are helping to improve the environment in ways that provide multiple benefits. Clean Water Services is part of a partnership that is planting 4 million trees and shrubs along the Tualatin River and its tributaries. Originally undertaken to help meet a temperature requirement in a receiving body, the tree-planting and partnership is providing so much more for the community regarding species protection, flood mitigation, community pride and relationship building to name a few. 

By just doing the bare minimum, water utilities are providing an indispensable role of protecting public health and the environment. In fact, two of the CDC's Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century can be partly or wholly attributed to water utilities. That's impressive.

Imagine what could be accomplished when utilities try to do more than just exist.

What should your utility do?


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