Reuse Roundtable Sparks Discussion of Water Sustainability Challenges and Solutions

In October 2009, Black & Veatch hosted a roundtable discussion on water reuse with 14 water and wastewater industry leaders attending the WEFTEC conference in Orlando, Fla. Dan McCarthy, president and CEO of Black & Veatch?s global water business, presided over the event. ?

?This is a very special event that we?re hosting to explore some interesting concepts that continue to move the token forward around the water industry,? McCarthy said in his opening remarks. ?I refer to the water industry in the broader sense because water, stormwater and wastewater is all water at the end of the day, and we all touch it in various fashions.?

Professor Robert Glennon, a water law professor at the University of Arizona and renowned author of ?Unquenchable: America?s Water Crisis and What To Do About It,? opened the roundtable with a presentation about how clean, safe water is becoming increasingly scarce while water demands continue to rise. He cited specific recent examples of water crises in large municipalities and small towns across the United States. ?

?There is a crisis in the United States, and it?s really very intense,? Glennon said. ?We humans have an infinite capacity to deny reality. The imbalance between supply and demand is what?s driving it, and population is the elephant in the room. We nudged over 300 million a couple of years ago. The Census Bureau predicts we?ll hit 420 milllion by 2050; that?s an additional 120 million people.?

Glennon said that one of the many reasons why we?re using more water is the increasing production of ethanol.

?Even in a modern ethanol refinery that recycles its water, it takes four gallons of water to refine one gallon of ethanol,? he said. ?And first, of course, you have to grow the corn. It may take as much as 2,500 gallons of water to grow enough corn to refine one gallon of ethanol. And the United States has a policy now that we should have 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022.?

He noted the ?profound disconnect? between water and energy, explaining that energy production requires a lot of water, and that conversely it takes a lot of energy to pump, move, treat, cleanse and deliver water.
According to Glennon, the usual response to a water crisis in the United States is to build more dams, divert more water from rivers, and drill more wells. But he said those are not viable solutions. Desalination, on the other hand, is a viable solution, but it comes with hurdles including cost, significant energy consumption and a waste-management issue in the form of brine. Glennon said that conservation can only go so far toward solving the crisis, and reallocation is essential.

As for the focus of the roundtable discussion, Glennon introduced reuse as ?nothing new.? ?
?We?re drinking the same water as the dinosaurs did,? said Glennon. ?What?s new about reuse is trying to change the timing of use and using technology to do so.?

He described challenges associated with reuse, including ?the yuck factor,? costs for treatment and a different set of pipes, the difficulty of installing a dual system of pipes in established communities, legal rights and the low cost and availability of other supplies.

A wide-ranging discussion among the utility leaders identified several barriers to reuse that they have faced and then explored potential ways to overcome those challenges. Among the impediments to increased reuse that they mentioned were population changes, conflicts over water transfer rights and the lack of integrated water/wastewater agencies. To ensure a secure water future, participants agreed, it will be necessary to break away from a silo-mindset and explore regional solutions for water reuse.

Another key to the future success of reuse is a change in public perception of this important resource, participants said. That includes focusing less on reuse as a way to get rid of treated wastewater and more on its value as a water resource. Admitting the problem with their customers? acceptance of reuse is the first step toward dealing with negative perceptions.

One utility leader shared how his community successfully tackled reuse acceptance by not ?sugarcoating? the topic. Another commented that it?s essential to first educate people about the problem before touting the solution, adding that the many recent headlines about water shortages have helped increase awareness of the issue. Educating the public early, often and through many avenues was seen to be an effective way to promote long-term acceptance of reuse.

Shifting priorities can be a challenge for utilities considering reuse, participants pointed out. One industry leader mentioned the paradox that utilities that successfully encourage water conservation are actually reducing their revenue, which leads to less funding available to implement reuse with the current financial structure for water.

If future water needs are to be met, participants agreed, reuse will soon shift from being merely prudent to an absolutely critical part of an integrated water portfolio. Participants also agreed on the importance of educating the public about the true value of water.?? ?

Cindy Wallis-Lage served as moderator for the reuse roundtable. She is a vice-president and managing director of technical solutions for the water business of Black & Veatch. Transcripts and highlights of the reuse roundtable event can be found on the ?Info for Media? page of the conference blog www.weftecdiary.com.

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