Clean-Water Agencies Earn Praise for Exemplary Success in Protecting Waters From Nutrient Enrichment

NSmart recognition program honors clean-water utilities for exemplary and innovative efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in effluent.

Clean-Water Agencies Earn Praise for Exemplary Success in Protecting Waters From Nutrient Enrichment

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Nitrogen and phosphorus from clean-water plant discharges and a variety of other sources are a growing cause for concern, since they can foster harmful algal blooms in lakes, streams and reservoirs.

As a consequence, regulatory agencies are ratcheting down effluent limits in facilities’ discharge permits. Earlier this year, the Water Environment Federation, in collaboration with the U.S. EPA, launched the NutrientSmart program to encourage reduction in nutrient loadings to waterways and recognize utilities that lead the way.

NSmart began as a pilot program, supporting the adoption of enhanced nutrient management practices and distributing information on tools and methods for effluent nutrient reduction. To take part, utilities need to demonstrate intent or actions to limit nutrient releases to waterways.

The program has components for utilities to engage with their communities through outreach, and for reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus releases. The program recognizes utilities that implement innovative strategies to achieve reductions.

NSmart is a voluntary program for water resource recovery facilities, and potentially for industries and other entities in partnership with them. Patrick Dube, practice lead for resource recovery with WEF, talked about NSmart in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What was the origin of the idea for this program?

Dube: It started three years ago. The EPA brought together a variety of associations: the Association of Clean Water Administrators, the Environmental Council of the States, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Water Research Foundation, and WEF. They all came together with the aim to develop a program to recognize utilities that are doing a good job of removing nitrogen and phosphorus. WEF is now managing and executing it as a pilot project with an EPA grant.

Why was this recognition program considered necessary or beneficial?

Dube: The negative impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus are significant, harming ecosystems, affecting economies and threatening human and animal health. We thought it was important to recognize utilities that are doing a good job at reducing these nutrients and their potential impacts, and to provide something to strive toward for utilities that may not be doing it yet.

What kind of recognition could utilities receive?

Dube: In January the program opened for two months. In that time, utilities could apply to be recognized for nitrogen or phosphorus removal, or both. The program has two components. One is the recognition for P removal of the nutrients, by which we simply mean the percent reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus from influent to effluent. Depending how much utilities removed, they were eligible to become an Advocate — 30% to 70% reduction — or achieve one of three levels of Partner for greater percent reductions, the top level being platinum for reduction of more than 90%.

Were there also other forms of recognition beyond pure reductions in the nutrients?

Dube: There was a community outreach component to the Partner application. We wanted to spread the word about nutrient removal and the benefits of it, and ensure that utilities doing some type of outreach to their communities or constituents were recognized for that. It could include a website, community events, sharing on social media and similar activities. Another component was an Innovator award with two categories, for innovations in treatment technology and for leadership in management. Here utilities were welcome to provide a narrative to showcase the innovative treatment technologies they were using and what their leaders were doing to promote it nutrient removal.

How did you promote the initiative?

Dube: We promoted it through our technical committees and through our daily newsletter called WEF SmartBriefs. We also had a webcast to enable utility representatives to learn about the program and ask questions, and we promoted it at WEFTEC, our specialty conferences and other events. We had 19 applicants; for a first-year program we were happy with the response.

How extensive did the applications for recognition need to be?

Dube: We tried to strike a nice balance, to avoid overburdening utilities. We tried to keep the nutrient reduction calculation relatively simple. We asked for influent and effluent data over a 12-month span. They did have to support their data with Discharge Monitoring Reports to make sure we could confirm the numbers they reported. So we tried to keep it simple and yet effective and at a high level of quality.

How were the various award winners selected?

Dube: After we received the applications, representatives from the partner advisory group I mentioned earlier scored and judged the different applications by looking at the data utilities submitted. The judges also evaluated the innovator awards. Judging concluded up in April, and we held an awards webinar in May.

In general terms, how would you characterize the quality of the entries?

Dube: Our judges were really impressed with the scope of a number of the projects. Some utilities had been removing nutrients at a high level for ten or more years. We had a large number of Platinum awardees and were happy to see so many utilities achieving 90% or greater removal. It wasn’t just the large utilities doing it; we had some much smaller utilities achieving high levels. It was promising to see.

How would you characterize the general state of play for nutrient removal in the industry?

Dube: It varies. There are some distressed areas, of which the Chesapeake Bay region is one. Areas that have had issues in the past or foresee issues in the future are seeing stricter nutrient limits. The good news is that the technology is there for these utilities to get very high removal rates and achieve very low effluent nitrogen or phosphorus. Often, technologies are limited to larger utilities because of budget, size and scale. So it was nice to see some facilities under 1 mgd achieve high removal rates. The EPA in April came out with a policy memorandum on nutrients, so the subject is top of mind, and it’s an important thing to continue focusing on.

Where do you see the NSmart initiative going in the future?

Dube: This was intended as a one-year pilot program, after which we could gauge the response we got. We hope the EPA supports this initiative going forward, or if not, WEF would like to continue it in one way or another, whether that’s keeping it as a free-standing program or combining it with some of our other offerings. We were happy with the program and excited to see the next phase.   


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