Top Issues Facing Large Wastewater Treatment Systems

Follow the money! Big systems need funding to support wastewater initiatives.
Top Issues Facing Large Wastewater Treatment Systems
Out where the wastewater meets the wet well, so to speak, large utilities share the funding concerns and are even more sensitive to ratepayer relations.

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If money is the biggest challenge facing small wastewater treatment systems, big systems have the same issue — complicated by an ever-changing regulatory environment that presents new rules and limits that add to the cost of treatment. 

“Our biggest issue is affordability,” says Adam Krantz, director of legislative and public affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. 

“And the financial challenges of replacing aging infrastructure don’t exist in a static environment — regulations and enforcement actions continue to change. Utilities need to fund day-to-day operations and maintenance, while new regulations add new cost.” 

Krantz adds that some of the new regulations place limits on specific contaminants that –based on a cost-benefit ratio — represent very small gains in overall water quality. 

Julia Anastasio, sustainability director at the American Public Works Association, agrees that costs loom as the major issue, especially as the Water Resources Act still hangs in Senate and House discussions, and might not get finished and passed for some time yet. 

A key part of those deliberations is WIFIA — the Water Infrastructure Financing Investment Act — that would create to separate WIFIA pilot programs; one operated by the U.S. EPA and another operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The bill authorizes funding up to $50 million per year over five years. 

“There are new funding tools out there,” Anastasio says, mentioning WIFIA and other pieces of legislation, but notes that nothing is definite at this point. 

Out where the wastewater meets the wet well, so to speak, large utilities share the funding concerns and are even more sensitive to ratepayer relations. At the St. Louis (Mo.) MSD, public information manager Lance LeComb points out that as rates go up, utilities are under increasing scrutiny from ratepayers, and that calls for more effective public communications. 

“We need to make sure that we — as wastewater utilities — have a conversation with our customers about the reasoning behind the rate increases, and the benefits of the dollars spent,” he says. 

Often, he points out, the service level to an individual customer doesn’t change as rates increase — they flush the toilet like they always have. The benefits are in infrastructure improvements and better overall water quality, things not as visible to the individual. 

Krantz refers to more “skeptical ratepayers” who have seen rates as much as double over the last 10 years and want to see value. “Coupled with the financial downturn, ratepayers are getting more and more sensitive to rates,” he says. 

Beyond the sheer cost of providing services, utilities face other hurdles. On the regulatory front, new stormwater rules could have a major impact on large communities and their wastewater systems, Krantz points out. Anastasio sees the new integrated permitting and planning framework the EPA put out last year as an opportunity for utilities to prioritize investments but also as a challenge because the framework offers a new approach for meeting water-quality obligations. 

And, as American manufacturers produce new products, wastewater utilities must deal with new contaminants — medical and personal care products that end up going down the drain, as well as flushable wipes and other materials that can create sewer and treatment issues. 

Finally, utilities need to keep looking forward and thinking outside the fence-line. Krantz mentions several systems that are taking a “green” rather than “grey” approach to stormwater and other issues, as well as plants that are making use of the energy potential of wastewater and becoming more energy self-sufficient. 

“Utilities need to be adaptive and aggressive in this area,” he says. “We need to start thinking about our wastewater treatment plants as sustainable community assets.” 

Check out the top issues facing small wastewater treatment systems.


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