Here's What's in Store in Water Research — From Technology to People Issues

The Water Research Foundation undertakes a wide range of projects, from design and engineering to social science, with direct relevance to plant operators.

John Albert
John Albert

When we think of research in the water industry, we tend to picture microbiology, chemistry process changes, instrumentation and controls.

That’s part of research, of course, but there’s a great deal more. The Water Research Foundation, a leading nonprofit cooperative, exists to advance the science of water with the aim of protecting public health and the environment. Its scope includes science and technology but also extends to the human side — how to encourage training and certification, operator recruitment and retention, safe work behaviors and more.

WRF, governed by utilities, offers scientifically sound research and knowledge covering the broad spectrum of water management: drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and water reuse. WRF has funded and managed more than 2,300 research studies valued at some $700 million and at present has more than 300 projects in the pipeline.  

Many of the foundation’s projects have direct relevance to the operator community. John Albert, chief research officer, talked about various operator-focused projects in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: In the big picture, what are the foundation’s key research objectives?

Albert: It’s about connecting the dots. We can no longer manage one aspect of water without looking at all the others. We have to manage water holistically. For example, what happens at the drinking water plant definitely has downstream effects at the wastewater plant. We aim to do research related to all waters. That’s important if we are to help operators and managers responsible for the different water types to manage the resources more effectively.

TPO: Why has the foundation branched out into social sciences and human behavior?

Albert: Many water issues today are people issues. The next horizon in water management is really to get the community involved. Engineers and scientists can only go so far. We can engineer any system to take anything we want out of water. But when you get to issues like finance, social equity and customer satisfaction, we have to go into the social sciences.

TPO: How do you see the results of foundation research applying to operators?

Albert: When we consider how utilities operate, how they engage the community and what that community expects in terms of the level of service provided, that eventually will reach the operator level. When we look at the utility of the future, operators are essential. Regardless of the technology we bring on, we need operators to help support utility functions. They know more about the operations of a utility than anybody else.

TPO: What comes to mind first as a research area that’s important to operators?

Albert: Maintaining an engaged and inspired workforce is a big struggle. One area of our research explores what incentives have been successful. We’ve studied utilities that have succeeded in recruiting and retaining operators. The other half of that story is working with operators directly and asking, “What incentives would work with you? What are you wanting?” As technology advances, operators will need new skill sets. If we can identify the types of operators who have those skills, then recruiting efforts can be focused there.

TPO: What would be an example of the kind of new skills operators will need?

Albert: The science behind analytical sensors has come a long way in the last 30 years. More and more utilities are implementing technology for water-quality measurement or meter reading. Operators will need the skills to deal with that. One area where we could do more research is how and where operators can get that type of training.

TPO: What about research related to the technology side of sensors and metering?

Albert: A big issue is security and communications for intelligent water systems — what we might call smart sewers and smart water networks. The electric utility industry has done a great job of standardizing protocols within the technologies that come into their sector. In the water sector, we haven’t done that. So, how do we handle security when each sensor and each device has a different security protocol? Another issue is looking at communication protocols for all sensors and meters. Today there are no communication protocols or standards that apply across the board. That means operators might have several interfaces to work with — different screens displaying inputs and outputs from the sensors because they can’t be combined into one data display.

TPO: Potable reuse of wastewater is a major issue today. Do your research priorities touch that area?

Albert: We have several initiatives under way. One focus is on what operator training for reuse should look like. There are no specific standards covering certification for reuse. We’re working with the California American Water Works Association section, supplying them with research we’ve done in that realm. They’re developing a guideline for reuse that we hope will evolve into a standard and certification.

TPO: Do any specific areas of water reuse hold special interest?

Albert: There is a huge interest in on-site reuse, which is reuse of rainwater and wastewater at the individual building scale. We have supported a national blue-ribbon commission dealing with on-site reuse for large buildings and how to frame the operator’s role. There are different scenarios. Some focus on the building manager. Others assume the building manager would contract out that work. In that case, what certifications would the contractor need? Still others envision ties to the local utility: Could the utility support on-site reuse as a new area of business?

TPO: What would be an example of research looking at water more holistically?

Albert: We’re looking at ways to coordinate urban water management with urban planning and design. Historically, city planners and water managers have not talked to one another. Two of our projects explored the potential synergies and benefits of those two sides sitting down and planning together. We’re also exploring the barriers that inhibit the two groups from coordinating their efforts. Once we identify the barriers, what are some incentives that could encourage the two groups to work together?  

TPO: Are there any other research projects of special interest to operators?

Albert: Our Workforce Health and Safety: Prevention Through Design project works with operators from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, to create a safety and ergonomic framework that operators can live by. Utilities have found that every dollar invested in prevention yields double or triple that amount in savings on workers’ compensation. It was important to them to focus on that and develop something that will work, and that’s why we’re involving the operators.

TPO: In the long term, how do you see your research priorities expanding and changing?

Albert: Some of the work we do is for rather immediate and short-term needs. However, we also try to plan to meet the needs of the more distant future, looking beyond 10 to 20 years and focusing on the 50-year horizon — especially as it relates to areas like integrated water management, financial management and stormwater management. Much of our work on the social science side looks at both the short term and long term. As communities change, we have various generations coming on board. In relation to operators, a key question is: Where are the incentives for these new generations to come into the water workforce? 


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