COMMENTARY: The Power of One and the Promise of Many

By Zeynep Erdal

One and a half centuries ago, a rancher, naturalist, explorer, environmental philosopher, writer and conservationist named John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Much more recently, the water industry began to focus on the interconnectedness of our natural resources. The insight that water resources are inextricably tied to other resources – energy, nutrient and food – leads us to examine solutions under a wider lens. Our focus is shifting from meeting individual critical human infrastructure needs to water-management decisions that consider the bigger picture. We have begun to think more holistically about resiliency and about integrated solutions for the future.

Just as it’s impossible to understand a water system without understanding how the individual components of that system interact, it’s essential to consider the interconnectedness of everyone and everything to preserve a healthy environment for the future. As we move away from centralized waste management to distributed management and optimal recovery of resources, one thing becomes very clear: We can’t secure the resiliency of our water future without also securing the resiliency of other essential resources.

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The water industry is working to achieve this on many fronts. One Water was a giant step in the right direction. According to One Water Roadmap: The Sustainable Management of Life’s Most Essential Resource, released by the U.S. Water Alliance in 2016, One Water is an approach that suggests all water resources should be managed in a sustainable, inclusive and integrated way. Watershed-based planning, the increasing inclusion of water recycling in water supply portfolios, and even the 2016-2018 integration of three highly respected research collaboratives into the Water Research Foundation exemplify the One Water paradigm shift. The One Water report showed additional foresight by stating “While our focus is water, our goals are thriving local economies, community vitality, and healthy ecosystems.” The inclusion of “sustainable agricultural systems” as one of six arenas for action illustrates the broader vision of One Water. In National Water Reuse Action Plan: Collaborative Implementation (Version 1), published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on March 3, 2020, agriculture and industry also figure into the equation for water-supply reliability and resiliency.

Water services are energy intensive – and energy services are water intensive. Water utilities manage energy costs and consumption in myriad ways, and collaboration between water and electric utilities can be mutually beneficial for resource resiliency and cost control. Nearly half of the water utility respondents surveyed for Black & Veatch’s 2019 Strategic Directions: Water Report said they have an energy plan in place, 60 percent reported energy-efficiency improvements over the past three years, 76 percent are considering renewable energy, and 45 percent partner with electric utilities on demand-response programs to take advantage of lower off-peak rates. The oil and gas industry also intersects with the water industry.

We can’t secure the resiliency of our water future without also securing the resiliency of other essential resources.

In the resource-recovery paradigm, one low-hanging fruit is the implementation of improvements in water reclamation. For example, the technology shift away from energy-intensive treatment processes towards low-energy, sustainable technologies that facilitate both resource recovery and net-zero or energy-positive operation is helping utilities better manage nutrients while consuming less energy. Carbon redirection and anaerobic processes are proving to be successful paradigm shifters for water resource recovery. These technologies effectively tap into embedded energy in organics, and specialized organisms process pollutants using energy-efficient metabolism.

The increasing water-industry awareness of resource interconnectedness is exemplified in the Midwestern United States, where recent upgrades to a water reclamation facility are enhancing biosolids-processing performance, increasing operations efficiency, and enabling recovery of more resources through thermal hydrolysis, anaerobic digestion, combined heat and power, struvite recovery, and other technologies. Construction of a high-strength receiving station for the future collection of food waste offers additional power-generation and land-preservation benefits.

On the other side of the world, a project in land-scarce Singapore exemplifies state-of-the-art integrated solutions and effective multi-resource management. Co-location of the National Environmental Agency’s (NEA) Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF) and the National Water Agency PUB’s (PUB) Tuas Water Reclamation Plant (TWRP) exercises synergies between the two facilities and will maximize energy and resource recovery in both solid waste- and water-recycling categories. Co-location of these large-scale facilities is the world’s first being planned from the ground up and will enable NEA and PUB to reap the benefits of a water-energy-waste nexus. The IWMF will process source-segregated food waste, recyclables, and dewatered sludge in addition to incinerable waste, and the TWRP will enable PUB and NEA to optimize energy recovery and minimize energy consumption compared to conventional plants while recovering precious water for reuse through advanced treatment.

The power of one is about understanding the importance of interconnectedness and multi-resource resiliency. The promise of many suggests that coming together for the common good and future of our planet will yield the most robust solutions. Collaborations—not only within the water industry but also agricultural, oil and gas, electric, and other industries and interest groups – are helping the water industry address resource resiliency across the board. Pulling together to push a common, crucial agenda of integrated solutions for sustainable resource management helps us all develop robust solutions.

Although food security tends to be a greater concern in developing countries, resiliency of nutrient and food resources is important for all of us. Industrial and agricultural water requirements help drive reuse decisions. For example, Black & Veatch is serving the City of Escondido, Calif., as reuse program manager in the planning, permitting and implementation of an expanded, fit-for-purpose water reuse program. The active stakeholder base of avocado and other food growers has added a vital agricultural element to the program. As a stakeholder with specific and substantial water demands, the growers benefitted through planning involvement. But the city also benefitted from the partnership because wet weather ponds on the growers’ properties enable the city to meet outfall reduction goals through water storage during critical storm events and when non-potable irrigation supplies are low.

We are already on the right path. Continuing to help the public understand the value of water, the water footprint of our essential energy and food products, the interconnectedness of resources and importance of resource resilience, and the necessity of integrated solutions will move us forward. And increased collaboration will expedite and ease that journey.

Zeynep Erdal, Ph.D., P.E., leads integrated solutions for Black & Veatch’s water business. She specializes in One Water solutions that integrate resource recovery and resiliency. She is a recognized expert in biological processes and the nutrient-energy nexus, as well as water recycling.

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