What Are the Top 10 Water Sector Technology Innovations?

What Are the Top 10 Water Sector Technology Innovations?

The water industry is continually facing difficult issues. Many factors contribute to these difficulties, including failing infrastructure, population growth and climate change, and the solution lies in technology innovation.

The “Top 10 Issues Facing the Water Industry” article on WSOmag.com discusses general needs facing the water industry, but the U.S. EPA’s recently released Blueprint for Integrating Technology Innovation into the National Water Program outlines the EPA Office of Water’s plan for technology innovation and advancement for water programs. 

“Accelerating innovation and technology will help address the complex challenges facing America’s water resources,” states the blueprint. “Technology innovation presents opportunities to achieve greater progress toward clean and safe water substantially faster with significantly less cost and energy consumption.” 

The blueprint emphasizes these top 10 innovative technology opportunities to improve the industry: 

1. Energy reduction and recovery at drinking water and wastewater facilities

The nation’s 165,000 drinking water and wastewater facilities account for as much as 4 percent of the national electrical consumption, costing about $4 billion annually. Energy conservation and recovery could drastically reduce energy consumption and treatment costs across both sectors. 

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District wastewater treatment plant has been expanding and updating the facility to take full advantage of biogas resources. The plant added a new high-efficiency biogas-fueled turbine in early 2012, and it is already selling excess electricity. 

“It’s exciting,” says Dave Allen, power plant supervisor. “Every time I give a tour, people say ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ They think we just treat toilet water. They’re shocked at what we’re doing with electricity.” 

By 2020, the plant could be selling twice as much electricity as it uses, putting the blueprint’s suggestion for major energy recovery into action. 

2. Nutrient recovery from wastewater

The ultimate nutrient recovery program can be seen at the Durham Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility near Portland, Ore., where nutrients removed from municipal wastewater are helping to restore a salmon fishery in British Columbia. 

Innovative technology from Canadian nutrient recovery company Ostara helps counteract overfishing, which has reduced the population of adult salmon in the coastal waters along Vancouver Island. 

Volunteers bag captured struvite and place it in the headwaters of salmon streams where it slowly releases nutrients into the water. 

Capturing beneficial nutrients in the U.S. and using them for environmental development in Canada is testament to the EPA’s approach for nutrient recovery from wastewater. 

3. Improving and “greening” of the nation’s infrastructure

In Aurora, Ill., the city prioritizes green infrastructure to better manage stormwater in an effort to reduce pollution to a local 202-mile-long tributary of the Mississippi. 

After identifying three stormwater management projects that would treat stormwater through natural processes, the city implemented retention basins and biofiltration, built rain gardens, and created a 6,500-square-foot wetland bioswale. 

Aurora’s innovative and environmentally responsible stormwater management practices are definitely improving and “greening” the nation’s infrastructure, as the blueprint recommends. 

4. Water reuse

Droughts and increasing water demands create a need for a major paradigm shift from disposing to recycling wastewater.    

A great example of the movement lives in California, where the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System processes 70 mgd of treated wastewater into potable water. The district is currently expanding operations that will increase potable water output at the plant to 100 mgd by 2015. 

Public acceptance is one of the greatest hurdles for water reuse programs like the one in Orange County, so switching from “toilet-to-tap” to “water reuse” lingo is vital. Ensure your facility is getting the message across to the taxpayers who fund these programs. 

5. Improved and less expensive monitoring

Monitoring the nation’s water quality costs money, and the comparatively high cost of traditional water quality monitoring can be beyond the budget of some utilities. 

While there are many challenges to collecting water quality data, the EPA’s blueprint advocates smart sensor technology and remote sensing as resources for cost-effectively generating more data. Making this increased data available to a “broader range of applications” is equally important to the water quality monitoring approach. 

6. Improving reliability of small drinking water systems

Public water supply systems serving fewer than 3,300 people are considered “small” by the EPA. More than 93 percent of the 156,000 public water systems fall into this category. 

“Operating and maintaining these small systems can be technically complex and costly. New technology and operational controls offer hope for protecting public health at less cost and with greater reliability,” states the blueprint. 

7. Technology evaluation and performance

Manufacturers have expressed concerns over jumping through regulatory hoops, which creates difficulties bringing conceptual technologies to the market.  

The blueprint suggests a strong push for “technology evaluation by independent third parties to assess performance for a spectrum of water-related technologies” to overcome these snags. 

8. Reducing water impacts from domestic energy production

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, domestic oil and energy production has seen a considerable strengthening trend. North Dakota and other oil-rich states are producing record-high volumes of oil. 

This massive energy production boost has increased water consumption, along with demand for treatment and disposal. Effectively managing the produced water from oil and gas development poses challenges for the industry. 

“New technology can help alleviate water quality and quantity issues related to energy production,” states the blueprint. 

9. Resiliency of water infrastructure

According to the ASCE 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the nation sees a whopping 240,000 water main breaks each year. As a result, an estimated investment of $3.6 trillion will be required to maintain existing drinking water infrastructure by 2020.  

The plan proposes rethinking how and where existing and new infrastructure is rebuilt nationwide to make it more resilient to environmental catastrophes like Super Storm Sandy. Greater infrastructure resiliency could curtail some of the effects of those 240,000 water main breaks. 

10. Improving water quality of our oceans, estuaries and watersheds

With groundwater vulnerable to pollution from increased populations, stormwater runoff and a lack of water source protection programs and funding, improving the nation’s water quality is vital.   

The EPA’s plan suggests new technologies could “help address nonpoint sources of pollution, help rebuild ecosystems, restore watersheds and address threats from invasive species and other impacts.” 

The EPA also recently announced $5 million in funding for areas in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to protect urban watersheds. And a watershed protection program in Syracuse, N.Y. allows the city to enjoy great source water quality from Skaneateles Lake, which helps avoid drinking water filtration and saves millions of dollars annually. 

These partnerships and innovative programs may be just the tip of the iceberg for protecting and restoring the nation’s oceans, estuaries and watersheds. 

Of course, great progress has been made in all areas of the water sector, but the EPA’s technology plan suggests all divisions need to take responsibility for a sustainable and economical future. 

The blueprint states technology innovation can “be an economic driver, help businesses thrive, create jobs and be a source of U.S. exports.” Technology can move the nation forward and transform a potentially stagnant economy into a thriving industry. 

Creating new technologies tops the list of approaches to innovation, but the plan also proposes using current technology for new applications, changes in manufacturing, and “organizational, management and cultural changes that can improve the condition of sustainability of our nation’s water resources.” 

Even though it is considered a global technology leader, the United States still faces much resistance for advancement due to ever-tighter budgets and a lack of public education. Until greater investments are made, the future of our water systems will remain in jeopardy.

How can the nation effectively implement these 10 innovative technology approaches without breaking the budget? Post a comment below. 



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