Sustainable Excellence

A long-term sustainability program at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority saves substantial water and energy through dedicated team effort.
Sustainable Excellence
Ned Pesce inspects the seal on a sodium hypochlorite tank that was being repaired at the Southboro treatment facility.

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When the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) embarked on a long-term sustainability program in 1984, its goal was to conserve precious water resources. It ended up achieving much more.

As of 2012, the Authority has saved $350 million in avoided costs from water efficiency, saved $24 million annually on energy and improved the quality of rivers and aquifers.

“Starting in the 1970s, water demand increased with the growing population,” says Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, director of planning. “Water was inexpensive and not well managed. As a new agency in 1986, rather than try to expand our water resources, we decided to focus on demand management.”

The focus on water efficiency evolved into controlling costs for customers and enhancing environmental sustainability. Programs such as leak detection and repair, improved water metering and monitoring, energy audits at facilities and renewable energy projects have had a huge impact on customers, the environment, water and wastewater treatment plants, and the people who operate them.

“Almost 50 percent of the energy used at the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is generated on site, and solar panels at the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant produce 5 percent of the electricity used each year,” says Estes-Smargiassi.

Dave Coppes, Carroll plant manager, adds, “The green power and increased efficiency have been embraced by our staff, and we’re proud of them. We think about energy from reservoir to outfall. Meeting regulatory targets is a given, but meeting energy targets is a way for operators to excel.”

Highly decorated

The MWRA has been rewarded for its conservation efforts. It received a U.S. EPA renewable energy award in April 2010 that recognized the photovoltaic project at the Carroll plant. The authority’s long-term sustainability program won an award in 2013 from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE).

MWRA received the Leading by Example Award from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in 2007 and 2011. The agency also received awards for its renewable programs from The Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Besides saving energy, the Carroll plant produces a quality product, winning the 2011 New England’s Best Drinking Water taste test from the New England Water Works Association. The plant also won the Massachusetts Public Drinking Water Award from the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and a number of water fluoridation quality awards over the years from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Serving the community

The MWRA provides wholesale water and sewer services to 2.5 million people (890,000 households) and more than 5,000 large industrial users in 61 metropolitan Boston communities. It supplies about 200 mgd on average and treats 350 mgd of wastewater.

Water is sourced from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs and is treated for most MWRA communities at the 405 mgd Carroll plant in Marlborough. Built in July 2005, the plant treats the water with ozonation and sodium bisulfite, sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydrofluorosilicic acid, sodium carbonate, aqueous ammonia and carbon dioxide addition. Water for Chicopee, South Hadley Fire District No. 1 and Wilbraham is treated at the Ware Water Treatment Facility with chlorine disinfection only.

Besides the two water plants, MWRA operates the Clinton wastewater treatment plant and Boston’s Deer Island facility, which also houses the MWRA central laboratory.

Reducing water demand

The MWRA and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation keep a daily watch on levels at the Quabbin (412 billion gallons) and Wachusett (65 billion) reservoirs. Although Wachusett levels are kept relatively stable, Quabbin levels fluctuate with precipitation and watershed runoff. The system is large enough to withstand short and medium droughts, but from 1969-1988, MWRA customers drew more than the safe yield of 300 mgd.

MWRA’s long-term sustainability program reduced levels below the safe yield by 1989, through a number of initiatives:

  • Leak detection and repair on MWRA and other community pipes.
  • Retrofitting of 370,000 homes with low-flow plumbing devices.
  • Water management for businesses, municipal buildings and nonprofit organizations.
  • Extensive public information and school education programs.
  • Change in the state plumbing code requiring new toilets to be 1.6 gallons per flush.
  • Meter improvements that helped track and analyze community water use.
  • New water-efficient technology that reduced residential water use.
  • Water pipeline replacement and rehabilitation projects.

These efforts reduced average water system withdrawals from 340 mgd in 1980 to less than 200 mgd in 2012. This dramatic reduction in demand allowed MWRA to reduce water supply stress on the area’s rivers and aquifers by reevaluating existing supply arrangements. The authority was also able to extend service to adjacent communities.

A major challenge was motivating towns to fund water conservation projects. “In the 1980s, we were losing a lot of water from leaks,” says Estes-Smargiassi. “We wrote regulations that required leak detection every two years. A survey of the towns showed that many water superintendents really wanted to do this.”

MWRA made it easy for people to change their behavior, hiring contractors on an as needed basis to repair leaks and install water-saving devices. “Our staff went door to door, and those who were interested in water-saving devices like low-flow shower heads and toilet displacement devices could have someone there in 15 minutes,” says Estes-Smargiassi.

The authority boasts 59 percent penetration from the program and high approval ratings. “We wanted to reach the maximum number of homes and give people the opportunity to do the right thing,” Estes-Smargiassi says. “We wanted them to use the water they needed, but to think about how they could be more efficient in the process.”

Saving energy

The MWRA generates a weekly status report on plants’ green power devices, so they can track how much energy they save. Explains Estes-Smargiassi, “We review the charts and say to the staff, ‘You did a great job — how did you do it? Let’s write about it and get the message out there.’ Or, ‘What’s the story with this unit being offline all week?’ ”

Renewable energy projects and on-site power generation have yielded savings and revenue of some $177 million since 2001. Facility energy audits, energy efficient design for new facilities, and green technologies in power, vehicles and computing have saved $1.95 million a year over the past five years, with a $2 million capital investment.

Biogas cogeneration at Deer Island replaces 5 million gallons of diesel fuel a year and 27 million kWh ($2.8 million) in utility electricity. Hydroelectric power supplies 23 GWh ($1.8 million savings), while wind energy saves 5 GWh ($580,000) and solar 1.4 GWh ($240,000). Money for energy projects has come from the Federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, state grants and energy efficiency rebates from electricity suppliers.

The reduced energy demands of the water systems and high use of renewable energy have reduced the system’s carbon footprint, which is only 0.04 grams of CO2 per liter of water produced.

Efficient operation

Energy efficiency has reduced operating expenses at MWRA facilities. Carroll staff questioned whether they needed mixers that were designed for lime addition, but were being operated with sodium carbonate. “We tried an experiment and shut off the mixers. We found there were no undissolved chemicals at the bottom of the tanks,” recalls Coppes.

MWRA owns many below-grade structures, such as valve chambers the size of a football field. Chamber ventilation and heating are SCADA controlled or monitored. Explains Coppes, “We turn on the ventilation and heat before an operator gets there, and shut it off after they leave, or in some cases we can check to see that locally controlled ventilation and heating was turned off.

“We are very cost conscious. Rates have increased quite a bit and we want to show that we are efficient and not wasting energy. When we take someone on a plant tour, we stress that it’s not just a water plant but one that uses green power and saves energy.”

MWRA wants to keep the momentum going. “The temptation is to say, ‘I saved energy by doing such and such, and now I’m done,’” says Estes-Smargiassi. “Management needs to say, ‘That was great, but what have you done for me lately?’”

Balancing act

Balancing the job of water and wastewater treatment with water and energy sustainability is tricky. “Bottom line, our job is treating water and wastewater,” says Estes-Smargiassi. “We can’t compromise that. We could operate where we just meet the permit, but we don’t want to fall below our safety threshold.”

The Carroll plant has mastered this balancing act, meeting regulatory requirements and winning water-quality awards while saving substantial energy. The plant’s 496 kW solar array generated $77,000 worth of electricity in 2012, and the plant saves $200,000 a year from eliminating the sodium carbonate mixers.

“Ozone disinfection consumes around two-thirds of all the electricity we use,” says Coppes. “Optimizing our ozone feed to reduce ozone use by as little as 0.1 mg/L can save us $56,000 a year in oxygen and electrical costs.” To meet new regulations, the plant will add UV disinfection (Calgon Carbon) in early 2014. The increase in energy for the UV process will be almost fully offset by energy savings from reducing the ozone dose.

In good hands

The operations staff, including management, and many of the maintenance staff hold drinking water operator licenses. An instrumentation engineer and four instrument technicians supplement the operations team. Operations team members are:

  • Ken Perry, senior program manager of operations
  • Jim Muri, senior program manager of process engineering
  • Russ Armstrong and Gil Machado, operations supervisors
  • Alex Fallavolita, Mike Joyce, John McNulty, Frank Miller, Tom Patriarca, Len Pelletier, Ted Stavropoulos and Jay Polk, senior treatment and transmission operators
  • Chuck Beike, Paul Flaherty, Brian Hunt, Mark Landolphi, Bill Lewis, Al Parker, Ned Pesce, Derek Pesce, Jim Riley, Dave Rota and Vanessa Smith, transmission and treatment operators.

The plant treats drinking water for 2.3 million people in 44 communities. Equipment consists of four ozone generators with diffusers, four concrete contact chambers (1.3 million gallons each), and two 22-million-gallon storage tanks. A rigorous maintenance program keeps the equipment clean.

“It’s an unfiltered plant with a lot of large tanks,” says Coppes. “Things settle in the tanks and we have to clean them. The challenge is to take only portions of the plant out of service while we perform maintenance. When we make modifications, we try to engage the operators as much as we can. It’s all about ownership. If the plant looks good and runs well, you feel better about your job.”

Operators perform bacteria sampling and chemical delivery tests. “We receive 90 to 100 chemical loads a month, and we want to make sure we are getting the right chemicals,” says Coppes. MWRA laboratory staff members perform regulatory testing.

“The operators’ greatest strength is their ability to troubleshoot or adapt to conditions, figure out what’s important and put things back on track,” says Coppes. “They take pride in their plant and the quality of water they deliver.”


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