Water Consultants Keep an Eye on the Flow

Feb. 12, 2014

Usage and Source Management
One of the most pervasive sets of challenges for many water utilities, particularly those in regions with limited water supply, is finding ways to reduce water usage, supplement existing supplies with new sources, and implement reuse of existing sources.

Cutting Usage
Tim Malooly, CIC, CLiA, CID, and president of Water in Motion in Minneapolis, MN, says a lot of water utilities struggle with finding ways to cut peak summertime water usage in urban/suburban communities. “Most peak summertime water usage is generally devoted to maintaining the urban/suburban outdoor living environment,” he observes.

Technologies have been developed to more effectively schedule irrigation systems for efficient use of water, based on actual plant needs. However, Malooly says that it seems these technologies have been slower to be accepted than expected.

“One reason is that practitioners in landscape irrigation are not comfortable with new technologies, and consumers simply cannot be saddled with the detailed responsibility of knowing how to deliver irrigation to their landscapes,” he adds.

Along the same lines, practitioners of landscape irrigation may not want to implement a new technology until they have seen that it actually works. “In addition,” says Malooly, “there has been some hand-wringing on the part of the water conservation community as to whether these products actually work as advertised, especially when the effectiveness of the products are tied to the knowledge of the user/programmer.”

A key consideration for Malooly is defining “work.” As he sees it, if a properly programmed SMART irrigation controller inhibits irrigation when it is not wanted, while a conventional robotic controller does not, one may reasonably conclude that the SMART controller “works.”

Still, according to Malooly, there are steps that municipalities can take to manage peak water usage. “One thing we do when we consult with municipalities is to help develop ordinances to manage peak summertime usage that are workable,” he says. “By workable, I mean ordinances that are acceptable to the people affected by the ordinance, as well as enforceable and measurable.”

Water in Motion also helps municipalities implement programs to audit irrigation systems and deliver reports on how to improve the systems. “However, our responsibility often ends there, so we don’t know if the recipients of the reports actually implement any of the suggested improvements,” he states.

The assumption is that, if people have information, they will implement recommended changes. However, this is not necessarily the case. One solution is to furnish incentives to implement the changes, such as rebates, and then make provisions to actually investigate whether the improvements have been employed.

In addition, Malooly says most landscape irrigation systems don’t receive periodic proactive maintenance. “When we investigate systems, we often find that they are in pretty rough shape, to the point that attempting to measure or estimate efficiency or even install a SMART controller is not a worthwhile exercise until deferred maintenance is performed,” he explains.

Although irrigation systems should be proactively maintained as a matter of common sense, the fact remains that regular maintenance of irrigation systems by knowledgeable professionals is rarely practiced. “I am not referring to replacing the occasionally noticed broken sprinkler,” he says. “I am referring to the fact that a landscape irrigation system applies water to an ever-changing living landscape and should receive the same amount of knowledgeable attention as we expect is delivered to the plant material itself.”

New Sources
“In areas with too little water, we need to figure out ways to use additional sources of water and improve efficiencies,” says Michael MacPhee, president, Water Division, Arcadis US. “We are working with one utility that wants to find ways to utilize non-traditional water supplies.”

This project involves designing and building a 50-million-gallon-per-day desalination plant, which will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Desalination as an option to augment the US water supply received a lot of attention a few years ago and is now regaining some of that attention.

“One reason is that the costs to deliver have decreased from a few years ago as a result of technological advances that have made desalination more affordable,” says MacPhee. “A second is that regulatory agencies and communities are starting to be more engaged and feel better about the technology and also realize that desalination is a viable option when faced with a water scarcity issue.”

Chance Lauderdale, Water Treatment Director for HDR, Inc. (Denver, CO), acknowledges that “One of the biggest trends and hottest topics these days is water reuse. We are even starting to see this in areas that, traditionally, aren’t water-limited, including the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and Northeast.”

One thing that is helping the trend is that a lot of the initial hurdles have already been crossed by utilities in water-limited areas that have been involved in reuse projects for quite awhile. This means that implementation in new areas is easier.

“Besides just irrigation-quality reuse, we are also starting to see a lot more direct and indirect potable water reuse,” says Lauderdale.

The consulting industry as a whole, including HDR, is helping with water reuse projects in three ways: technologies, planning, and public acceptance. “These are the three legs that are required to successfully implement water reuse,” he says. The public acceptance issue, as it relates to educating the public, is very important, because there has been a lot of negative press on what has been called “toilet to tap.”

Asset Management
“While a lot of focus was placed on capital expenses in years past, we’ve started to see more emphasis placed on controlling operating expenses, given the growing challenges of aging infrastructure,” says Arcadis US’s MacPhee.

Municipal clients are being challenged to find ways to manage their assets in the face of difficulties with breakage, leakage, and systems beyond their useful lives. The key is to prioritize these improvements, based on the specific risks and vulnerabilities of each system. “Every system has its individual set of priorities,” says MacPhee.

Efficiency Improvements
Water Management, Inc. (Alexandria, VA) occasionally works with water utilities on water audits, leak detection, conservation techniques, and best management practices. “Unfortunately, since this involves so much non-revenue water, most of the needs end up being unfunded mandates,” admits Russ Horner, president and cofounder. “Utilities know that they need to get involved in underground leak detection and replace their water meters, but they report that they don’t have the capital funds for those projects, even though they realize that their costs will eventually decrease, and their revenues will increase.”

As a result, a lot of utilities are becoming interested in some à la carte solutions, rather than large capital-intensive projects. For example, they may decide to replace 10% of their meters. Many utilities doing this think that it makes sense to start in one region of their jurisdiction, or replace the small meters (which are easy and less expensive to replace), or go alphabetically.

There is a better approach, though, according to Horner. “We believe that it makes more sense to replace the 10% of meters that are under-recording the most and are in the worst shape,” he says. “However, the problem is, the utilities often don’t know where these meters are.”

As a result, the best thing to do is to start with your largest use customers–industrial and commercial. “You’re not going to gain a lot of additional revenue replacing residential meters where usage is relatively low,” notes Horner. “In addition, as more commercial and industrial customers are reducing water consumption through conservation programs, you may be able to replace large old meters with smaller meters.”

If you replace an old meter with a new one of the same size, there is a good chance that the new meter will be oversized, and oversized meters don’t pick up some of the lowest flows as well as properly sized meters do. “Any time I see a jurisdiction with extremely high rates, it’s almost always a result of the fact that their meters don’t work very well, and, typically, it’s the largest meters that are the problem,” he says. “Shameful as it is, as a result of the higher rates, the residential customers end up subsidizing the commercial and industrial customers.”

Purity Improvements
According to HDR’s Lauderdale, there are growing concerns over inorganics in both groundwater and sourcewater supplies. These include nitrates, perchlorates, arsenic, uranium, chromium, and manganese.

“Manganese is certainly a topic of increased interest,” he says. “Recent reports by the Water Research Foundation have suggested that the current allowable limit of 50 micrograms per liter may need to be reduced to 20 in order to prevent customer complaints of colored water and reduce the risk of legacy manganese in the distribution system.”

Furthermore, according to Lauderdale, some new research has suggested correlations between high levels of well water manganese contamination and potential impacts on health.

In addition, the traditional approach for manganese treatment in a surface water plant is chlorinated filters. “Unfortunately, adding chlorine to surface water creates byproduct issues and regulatory concerns,” states Lauderdale. “As a result, a lot of utilities are moving away from chlorinated filters and toward biological filtration.”

However, this can lead to a problem with legacy oxidized manganese on the filter media, leading to a huge manganese release into the finished water system. The traditional approach to avoid a release event is to perform a full-media changeout before converting to biofiltration–taking all of the media out of the filters and replacing it at a cost of upwards of millions of dollars.

“We have been working in collaboration with another consulting firm and the University of Texas on a Texas utility project,” says Lauderdale. The project involves changing the filter influent water conditions, improving microbial treatment of manganese, allowing the transition from a chlorinated filter to a biological filter without causing manganese release.

“It is achieving success, and we are currently moving forward with a full-scale demonstration,” he adds. “The nice thing is that this might be applicable to utilities across the US, saving tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on media costs.”

Wastewater Treatment
According to Kerry Murphy, challenges in the water industry have been taking a new direction in the last five or six years, primarily in the area of “tough to treat” applications. “Foremost, for us, is process wastewater that is not suitable for discharge or reuse, and turning it into water that is suitable for discharge or reuse,” says Murphy, general manager, global sales, for GE Power & Water, Water & Process Technologies (Trevose, PA). “It is about 50% of everything we do outside of the municipal market space. Inside the municipal space, treatment on the back end, or in lieu of conventional wastewater, treatment is more and more of what we do.”

The technologies that are available have been pretty much the same for a long time, according to Murphy. “Everyone is busy doing refinements on these technologies. From a membrane standpoint, for example, there are more flat sheets than there used to be.”

These days, Murphy notes, the real innovations are occurring in the area of “complex engineering.”

“When our industrial customers have water problems, they all seem to line up the same way in this order of priority: Inside the process, treat for reuse,” he says. “Outside the process, treat for local discharge without volume reduction. Next is offsite disposal with volume reduction. Finally, is volume reduction followed by evaporation and beneficial reuse. The engineering around “˜difficult water’ is a differentiator for a company like ours.” In the municipal space, almost without exception, the focus is on hollow fiber technology for agricultural or agricultural-related reuse.

GE Water & Process Technologies has a coal seam gas customer that has a lot of extra water. “The customer accumulates a substantial amount of high TDS water that is not usable for anything, including ag use, because it is too saline,” says Murphy.

The customer is working with a municipality to treat the water to ag standards and include it with the raw water distribution of the municipality, which primarily has agricultural customers. The municipality actually operates two systems–a potable water system and a supply-to-agriculture system. This water, about 95 megaliters per day, will represent about half of what is in the supply-to-agriculture system. The plant was commissioned in October 2013.

Besides having to deal with providing customers with water and managing the resulting wastewater, more and more water utilities are addressing challenges related to stormwater, such as how to charge for it, how to help customers reduce its impact, and how to manage stormwater resulting from large storms.

Stormwater Fees
According to Water Management’s Horner, EPA’s consent decrees related to stormwater are having some impact. “A total of 730 jurisdictions around the country were given consent decrees that they had to minimize their combined sewer overflow problem,” he says. “Rainfall is conveying from rooftops and parking lots into the streets. Even though the streets only pick up 27% of the rainfall that gets into the storm drains, 70% of that water is coming from rooftops and parking lots.”

The Minneapolis Convention Center has over 30 acres of rooftop and was assessed with a $12,000-per-month stormwater fee by the municipality for its contribution to stormwater runoff into the watershed.

In the jurisdictions EPA targeted, the storm drains were combined with the sanitary drains, which was causing overflow, and the excess water was going into the streams, creeks, and rivers.

“Since these jurisdictions were being fined by EPA, each of them had to come up with a plan,” says Horner. Most of the jurisdictions coming up with plans are water utilities that also handle wastewater and stormwater. They had to come up with a way to charge customers for stormwater. One of the most common ways is to charge for impervious surface area, not for water consumption.

“In other words,” he continues, “it didn’t make sense to charge a stormwater fee based on water meter readings, because the cause of the excess stormwater was the result of the customer’s imperious surface area, not water usage.”

As a result, in many parts of the country, stormwater fees are a separate line item. In order to reduce their stormwater fees, some commercial and industrial customers are installing “green” roofs or getting involved in rainwater harvesting.

Stormwater Management
Beyond creating separate line items for stormwater, many utilities are working with customers to help reduce runoff in the first place. “Some of the solutions to mitigating stormwater include landscape irrigation as a tool–utilizing the irrigation system as a delivery mechanism to prevent stormwater runoff from loading the watershed by distributing the water onto a nearby landscape,” says Water in Motion’s Malooly.

Water in Motion conducted a feasibility study for a convention center in a large metropolitan area to look into ways to be more efficient in its use of potable municipal water both inside and outside. In addition, this facility, which has over 30 acres of rooftop, had recently been assessed with a $12,000 per month stormwater fee by the municipality for its contribution to stormwater runoff into the watershed.

“Part of our study included means by which the facility could harvest, retain, and reuse some of that stormwater in order to reduce the assessment fee, as well as reuse some of the stormwater in ways they hadn’t previous considered, such as landscape irrigation and floor cleaning equipment,” says Malooly.

“We are also involved in another large stormwater harvesting project, where a roadway was recently renovated and enlarged to accommodate growth in the community,” adds Malooly. One challenge was that there was to be no additional contribution of loading into the watershed than existed with the previously sized roadway. The solution was to harvest and deliver stormwater to two nearby golf courses for use in their landscape irrigation systems. This led to a dramatic reduction in the draw from deepwater wells for irrigation of the golf courses, as well as reduced stormwater and associated pollutants into the watershed.

“One key to the success of innovative approaches to stormwater management is to get all of the players involved,” continues Malooly. “For the convention center project, for example, we met with the local watershed representative, city officials, and water utility officials.”

They participated in the feasibility study by furnishing information and opinion. Implementation of ideas hasn’t begun yet, but the study is an excellent example of working with representatives of all parties to develop new solutions to problems. On the roadway project, there are 14 different units of government involved. “More than just getting everyone to sit down together, though, the main key to success is enrollment, which involves gaining consensus and buy-in, especially when thinking outside of the box to develop solutions,” he says.

For example, one unit of government may be reluctant to do something new or as yet unproven, since it hasn’t had experience with it. However, by having several units of government together at the table at the same time, it is more likely that at least one of those units does have some experience, which reduces the level of reluctance among the other participants. Indeed, in the roadway project, the team has a representative of the locality who championed the notion of harvesting and reusing the water upon the golf courses, creating a clearing for others to join in and implement the project.

Stormwater Resilience
As noted earlier, some areas have too little water, while others have too much water, often as a result of floods and rising sea levels. This leads to a requirement for water management. In areas with too much water, Arcadis is working with clients to figure out ways to keep water out of critical infrastructure and municipal assets during catastrophes and manage other stormwater situations that are more routine.

“After Hurricane Sandy, for example, there were many facilities that were completely flooded and not able to operate for several weeks,” states MacPhee. “If I were to summarize the solutions here, I would use the word “˜resiliency.'”

In some cases, resiliency involves building barriers. In other cases, municipal entities are working together to install flood control systems that can protect large areas and regions, rather than trying to do it on an individual plant basis. “For instance, many of the municipal agencies in New York are collectively working together to become more resilient to storm events and rising sea level,” he says.

Water Conveyance
“We have seen a shift from treatment-centric efforts to those that are much more focused on conveyance—’outside the fence,'” says MacPhee. Many drinking water regulations have resulted in system and technology upgrades from a treatment point of view.

For example, nutrient limits are being lowered, driving wastewater treatment plants to make technology improvements. “However, we still have a big issue in this country around stormwater influences and wastewater plant effluent entering water ways and changing the nutrient balance of these ecosystems,” he says.

As a result, Arcadis is collaborating with a number of very interested clients on how to make sure that nutrients don’t enter these waterways in unreasonable quantities and subsequently shift the ecosystem. “For example, we are working with a lot of clients to try to keep the water where it is, utilizing green infrastructure, such as permeable materials, natural areas, and infiltration, versus gray infrastructure, such as pipes and concrete,” notes MacPhee.

Setting Costs
Of course, most of the strategies that water utilities are implementing to address the growing number of challenges involve additional costs. It’s no secret that water utilities have traditionally been underfunded from the beginning, so an additional challenge involves finding ways to gain access to additional funding for new projects, strategies, and other solutions.

According to Water Management’s Horner, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. “The biggest trend I have been noticing in recent years is that people are starting to realize that the cost of water is too low,” he says. “They are realizing that it is one of life’s best deals. Water utilities have been listening to this discussion. As a result, they have been raising their rates, faster than just about anything else out there.”

Across the board, it seems to be a minimum of 5% increase per year, according to Horner. In addition, as discussed earlier, many utilities are starting to add stormwater fees to their water bills, above and beyond water and wastewater fees. “Overall, there seems to be very little outcry from customers about the fact that rates are increasing.”

And, the ability to raise rates can vary significantly. This is different from gasoline and electricity, according to Horner, where there seems to be some consistency in rates across the country. “With gasoline, for example, rates may be 20% to 30% different across the country, or, at most, 10% within a state,” he says. “However, water can be 100% different.”

Still, he notes, there does seem to be more consistency with water prices in certain regions than was the case in the past. “For example, in some metropolitan areas, there may be as many as 10 different water providers. The trend these days is that, if one of them raises its rates, the others decide that they should also raise their rates to match. This is very different than it was in the past.”

Horner recalls talking with a large laundry company in Atlanta a few years ago that did laundry for large hospitals. He suggests, jokingly, that they should move their facilities across the street, where water rates were one-third of what the company was paying in its existing location.
About the Author

William Atkinson

William Atkinson specializes in topics related to utilities and infrastructure.

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