Smart treatment, smart investment: New report details impact investment strategies in water

By Peter Yolles and Cynthia Koehler

Newsflash: our water-stressed, climate-changing world is a major resilience challenge for communities. But there’s also an upside to meeting this challenge. Building resilient water solutions can create important, and sometimes catalytic, opportunities for private investors.

That’s especially so in the wastewater treatment world. It’s not sexy, but treating dirty water is essential to a sustainable water future. A lot of money is being spent to do so, and a cutting edge new report details how those capital streams could be deployed for good.

The new report details the investment opportunities associated with a global shift from centralized wastewater treatment (read pipes, pumps, and big smelly plants) to innovative on-site wastewater treatment technologies. These treatment solutions work where the wastewater is generated, instead of miles away at a treatment plant. That means major energy savings (read climate benefits), capital savings, and the ability to right-size a solution for the contaminants at hand. In other words, distributed solutions are often cheaper, more advanced, and more effective.

The investment opportunity in localized, on-site treatment systems is particularly ripe in the food and beverage industry in the USA and other Global North countries. There are dozens of tested technologies and businesses ready and willing to install these systems for industrial customers – ranging from membranes to ceramic-filters to place-based biological treatment that look like botanical gardens. Some systems are mobile or containerized; some even generate clean water for reuse on site.

In general, as fans of the private sector point out, industrial customers are often positioned to deploy faster decision making, appreciate clear returns on investment, and have process engineers on staff to help install and maintain new systems.

We believe that the industrial sector will be a leading edge of distributed solutions for wastewater treatment, and that getting the word out to investors about the major shifts in the wastewater industry is key. At the same time, government has a pivotal role to play in setting the background rules to encourage innovation and to leverage private investment.

For example, municipalities can encourage industrial wastewater customers to install distributed systems by implementing wastewater surcharges on effluent that requires additional energy, chemicals and labor for municipal wastewater systems to handle.

Austin, TX is doing this today with their innovative surcharge program. They are also dangling a carrot as well as wielding a stick, using an awards program to recognize leaders in the private sector. These kinds of interventions effectively nudge companies to invest in localized, on-site systems.

The shift in the wastewater industry is part of a larger pattern of municipalities, business and homeowners moving toward distributed infrastructure, at a time when the expensive, concrete-based systems of the past are reaching maximum capacity. Across the board, communities are seeking less expensive, more effective, climate resilient and easier-to-install solutions for a variety of water challenges.

This broader set of distributed infrastructure solutions are as varied as permeable pavement, bioswales, rain gardens and barrels, internet-connected irrigation timers, water efficient toilet and appliance incentives, and cash-for-grass turf replacement, together promise more resilient communities. Building these distributed solutions can also reduce the load on centralized wastewater treatment plants, so their useful lives can be extended, and new plants deferred or avoided altogether.

Our work together on behalf of these smart, distributed infrastructure solutions lives at Tap Into Resilience, a new project and resource center for municipal decision-makers at all levels interested in exploring these solutions.

Peter Yolles is founder and chief policy officer at WaterSmart Software. He is also the author of the noted CREO report.

Cynthia Koehler is the founder and executive director of the WaterNow Alliance.

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