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The Blue Economy

New Strategies for Optimizing Our Most Precious Resource

NOTE: This is the second feature of the June 2014 issue of FutureStructure. We'll be posting the other features over the coming weeks but if you'd like to get a PDF of the entire issue you can DOWNLOAD IT NOW.

California is in the grips of one of its worst droughts, reeling from the driest year in the state’s recorded history in 2013 and an equally dry start to the 2014 wet season. The state’s major reservoirs are only half full heading into what will be a long, hot summer, and the snowpack in the Sierra – which typically accounts for a third of the state’s water supply in an average year – is less than a third of normal.

Water managers have cut water deliveries and called for voluntary and mandatory water conservation, putting even more pressure on the state’s urban centers and fertile agricultural fields – which together power the world’s ninth biggest economy.

The situation is dire, and could become more common not just in the California and the rest of the U.S., but also worldwide, due to climate change, population growth and pollution. In fact, the World Water Assessment Program finds that, on a global scale, more than 80 percent of sewage in developing countries is still discharged untreated into rivers, lakes and oceans.

These stressors are threatening current water systems. Fundamental changes must be made that align technology, policy and infrastructure so that people can do more with less water.

The future is not all gloom and doom, thankfully. The U.S. is on the cusp of a new era: big cities and rural communities alike are tackling their water challenges with innovative solutions that were once thought impossible. A new movement is afoot to find new small-scale sources of water in a world that is increasingly susceptible to the unpredictable whims of climate change.

Diversifying Water Sources

At the dawn of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, the U.S. was very skilled at building large, regional water treatment plants that provided service to urbanized cities as well as far-flung, rural communities. But in the 40 years since, water has become more scarce to the point that the monolithic paradigm of a “single-source, single-supplier” water system is beginning to become antiquated. More public planners and social scientists are realizing that climate change and population growth will drive communities to seek water treatment, storage and distribution systems that are decentralized, much like the energy sector is increasingly relying on renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower to augment traditional sources like oil and coal.

What does a “distributed” water system look like? At its core, it’s a decentralized system that provides water at the local level, through an interconnected web of infrastructure such as stormwater catchment basins and reservoirs, grey water recycling, small irrigation ponds at farms, community water tanks or household rain barrels. These smaller-scale water sources are then treated and distributed nearby instead of piped and pumped to a treatment plant far away.

For now, however, distributed systems are not yet mainstream. But among water experts there is plenty of interest in what distributed systems offer.

For example, a distributed system can be more resilient in the event of a natural disaster because it doesn’t rely upon a single source, such as a large reservoir or a groundwater basin.  Because it’s local, it uses less energy distributing the water through pipes and pumps than a traditional, centralized system. In 2010, the U.S. water system consumed more than 12 percent of the nation’s energy, according to a study by University of Texas at Austin research. In California, water treatment and distribution accounts for about 20 percent of energy use in the state.

New remote sensing and monitoring technologies and the Internet of Things are also making distributed water systems safer and more feasible than they once were. This marks a shift in attitudes for the water sector, which has traditionally been very conservative, understandably, because of its focus on public health. But the current resource constraints utilities now face are proving impossible to ignore.

A distributed water system need not be small. The San Diego County Water Authority, which provides service to more than 3 million residents, is a prime example of how a diversified, distributed water system on a large scale can pay dividends. Launched two decades ago to reduce the region’s reliance on imported water from the Colorado River, the Authority has invested more than $3 billion to raise the dam at the San Vicente Reservoir in order to add surface water capacity. The Authority also built the Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant in north San Diego County, which draws water through very fine pores in membrane fibers that are large enough for water to pass through, but small enough to leave behind contaminants and particles. The plant is capable of treating 100 million gallons a day, providing a fallback option in case flows from the Colorado River are interrupted.

San Diego County Water Authority estimates one third of the region’s water supply will be locally sourced by 2020. These measures have helped Southern California cope with California’s serious drought and avoid mandatory water rationing.


Finding Innovative Solutions

One of San Diego County Water Authority’s signature efforts is a new desalination plant under construction along the Pacific coastline. Scheduled to begin service as early as 2016, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant will become the nation’s largest of its kind, capable of delivering 50 million gallons a day using a reverse osmosis treatment process.

Another is Orange County, California, Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS), which has become a worldwide model of how to augment a local water supply. The cutting-edge facility in Fountain Valley takes water from a nearby wastewater treatment plant and sends it through a three-step treatment process of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. After treatment, the water is piped into the water district’s wells to create a seawater intrusion barrier, or it travels to one of the region’s percolation basins, where it recharges the area’s groundwater supply. Since opening in 2008, the plant has produced more than 130 billion gallons of high-quality water.

In the coming years, the water recycling concept proven at the GRS could be used to augment reservoirs or, if state and federal laws were changed, could be added directly into a community’s water distribution system. The initial upfront costs are large, but that could be changing, said Mehul Patel, the GRS program manager and the water district’s principal process engineer.

“The price is definitely coming down and there are more manufacturers in the market. It’s definitely cheaper than when we started,” said Patel. The technology could be cheap enough someday, he said, that a small city or community could build this type of infrastructure.

The water industry typically is slow to change, but San Diego, Orange County and the rest of Southern California has insulated itself from the worst effects of California’s drought by taking a holistic, proactive approach to water management.

For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest district of its kind in the nation, has banked more than 3 million acre-feet of groundwater – enough to provide water for the region in case of a multi-year drought. For years, districts in the southern part of the state have encouraged residents to conserve by offering cash rebates for installing low-flow toilets and other efficient fixtures. And in an age where the construction of new surface storage is difficult, if not impossible, Metropolitan built Diamond Valley Lake. Completed in 2003, the reservoir added 800,000 acre-feet of additional storage. 

By necessity, California is leading the way on water. But it’s by no means the only place where innovation is happening. Cities and regions thought to be “water rich” also are doing their part to become more efficient because it makes environmental and financial sense. The nonprofit Chicago-based Blue Tech Alliance is connecting businesses and universities to new investment opportunities in the “blue economy,” while the nonprofit organization WaterTAP is championing Ontario, Canada’s role as a hub for more than 900 water industry companies, research centers and tech incubators. Boston also is tapping this emerging market: In January, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s administration announced the formation of the New England Water Innovation Network, which is recruiting startups, corporations, academia and investors to spur development of new technology.

“Water should be safe, abundant and affordable” said Earl Jones, chairman of the New England Water Innovation Network. “In reality, a host of challenges – from population growth and urbanization to climate volatility and rising energy demands threaten water resources globally like never before, and will worsen in the coming decades. If we are to address these serious challenges to our water resources we must innovate faster – and not just in our treatment technologies. We must also innovate in how we finance, deliver, maintain and regulate water resources. Yesterday’s solutions simply cannot address today’s challenges.”

The search for new ways of thinking has spread all the way to the nation’s capital.

Paying the Bill Past Due

Even in areas where drought isn’t as much of a threat and water is usually plentiful, the cost of infrastructure is going through the roof. DC Water, the authority providing water and sewer service in Washington, D.C., faces decades of deferred maintenance on the system’s 1,300 miles of water mains, 37,000 valves and more than 9,000 fire hydrants. Some of Washington, D.C.’s water mains date back to the 1860s, built shortly after the Civil War. The region also must spend billions of dollars to clean water discharged into Chesapeake Bay.

“Obviously places like California and Las Vegas have such water supply challenges, that it is by necessity driving a lot of innovation and change because of a very specific and direct capacity limitation. But I would argue the same kinds of issues are driving innovation everywhere in the country, whether or not you’re in a relatively ‘water rich area,’ which is where we are here in Washington, D.C.,” said George Hawkins, DC Water’s general manager.

During the past five years, DC Water has more than doubled its water rates, Hawkins said, and projections 20 years into the future indicate that rate increases that outpace inflation will be needed every single year.

“The scale of the systems and the cost to deliver service even when you have enough source water is extraordinary,” Hawkins said.

Like many water utilities across the U.S., DC Water is considering future modifications to its flat retail water rates, including rates that would go up or down with increased usage via a tiered structure. The issue is a political hot potato nationwide, and many agencies continue to grapple with how to alter rate structures fairly.

In 2002, DC Water was one of the first municipal agencies in the nation to install automated meter reading technology. With the meters, the agency can now see when use spikes in a household, and a computer system automatically notifies the user there could be a leaking toilet or other wasteful problem. DC Water is currently installing second-generation smart meters that allow for two-way communication between the meter and the utility, a technology that someday could support real-time pricing.

Faced with daunting challenges, DC Water is trying to think of itself more like a consumer-oriented operation than a public agency. Hawkins notes that residents ultimately will decide whether or not to pay the utility’s rates and if displeased could decide to switch to bottled water or other alternative sources. Consequently, DC Water has branded itself with a new logo and gone out into the community, organizing a network of hundreds of locations where citizens can safely refill their reusable water bottles. DC Water is also advertising on the side of buses and hosting tap water taste tests outside of metro stations and supermarkets.

If there’s good news to be had in Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country, it’s that Americans appear willing to pay up for safe and reliable water. According to one recent study, 6 in 10 Americans said they are willing to pay a little more each month to upgrade their community’s water system, and 77 percent said they are concerned about the nation’s water infrastructure.

But there’s a lot of work to be done. In the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card on the nation’s infrastructure, dams, drinking water and wastewater all received a D grade, and levees fared even worse with a D-.

In the survey conducted by the Governing Institute, when asked what the key barriers are when dealing with traditional water resource problems, the top response (39 percent) was aging water infrastructure.

Nationally, water and its associated infrastructure are in dire need of attention. But as the many pockets of innovation that exist prove – like DC Water and San Diego – there is still optimism to tap. 


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