Today's water systems have progressed far beyond their original missions of preventing disease and providing basic necessities, but, for a host of reasons, they are facing new challenges that are forcing some water officials to move past 20th century approaches to water management. This historic shift in the way water use is viewed and managed takes more than the resources of the average water department. It requires a change in the way communities think about water use — from government leaders who set policy to consumers, including businesses and residents.

This century's problems are different than those that affected previous generations. Water shortages are threatening as the population increases and shifts toward urban areas. Environmental issues, such as reducing energy use and minimizing contaminants that enter rivers and oceans, affect entire regions, not just individual cities. Aging water infrastructure just exacerbates the problem, as does residents' resistance to rate increases in their water bills. “It's the perfect storm,” says Andrew Kricun, deputy executive director for Camden County, N.J., Municipal Utilities Authority. “And then, you also have the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers, which affects the management [staff's] institutional knowledge.”

Technology has helped address many of those issues, but simply implementing new technology is not enough to resolve long-term problems resulting from past decisions. To do that, many water officials are reevaluating how water is acquired, distributed, used and reused, and how those steps can be altered to create a healthier, more efficient cycle to meet their areas' complex water needs.

LIGHTENING THE LOAD

Take Philadelphia as an example. One of the city's biggest challenges is managing stormwater, which traditionally has resulted in combined sewer overflows (CSOs) following heavy rain. “The problem is that, while it was OK 100 years ago and even 50 years ago to overflow sewage into rivers and streams, that's no longer acceptable,” says Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds for the Philadelphia Water Department.

To prevent CSOs, the city is looking at its stormwater management system differently. Rather than relying solely on large, costly infrastructure like underground tanks to retain excess stormwater and slowly release it, Philadelphia's goal is to reconnect the natural link between land and water so that “green” infrastructure becomes the city's preferred stormwater management system, Neukrug says.

To reach that goal, the city is increasing pervious surfaces by planting street trees, increasing green-and-open space, installing permeable pavement and building green roofs. The city has launched a comprehensive “Green City, Clean Waters” program that addresses the importance of stormwater management using green methods across all sectors of the city, including streets, schools, parking lots, industry, homes and more. Over the next 20 years, the city plans to invest $1.6 billion to create a green stormwater infrastructure. Philadelphia's overarching Greenworks initiative also supports the water department's goal of creating 3,200 acres of additional pervious surfaces by 2015.

The goals build on current actions. For example, in 2006 the Philadelphia Water Department began a rain barrel distribution program so residents could help capture stormwater on their properties before it enters the system. To date, the city has given out 1,544 rain barrels to residents that attended mandatory 90-minute workshops on how to use the barrels and their benefits for the environment, resulting in the capture of an estimated 5.3 million gallons of water per year. Philadelphia also has installed numerous tree trenches that each manage 1,436 square feet of impervious area, and the city has used pervious materials when streets and sidewalks are replaced through other projects, like street repairs.

“We're cataloging all the land in Philadelphia that is impervious and looking at how we can change that to value rain water, reuse it, infiltrate it and evapotranspire it through greenery and trees,” Neukrug says. “We should have looked at this 150 years ago. But then, it seemed easier to move water away from us.”

DECENTRALIZING THE TREATMENT

Nearly 40 years ago, the Clean Water Act of 1972 encouraged cities to build large central wastewater treatment facilities funded by the federal government, with the goal of improving water quality in streams and rivers. Although central facilities helped improve surface water quality, “It took small plants offline and replaced them with large treatment plants,” says Paul Brown, executive vice president for Cambridge, Mass.-based CDM.

Now, many water officials are changing tactics and establishing smaller operations throughout the utility area that reduce the distance water travels through pipes. Decentralization is helping save energy by reducing the demands to transport water to and from a central treatment facility, which accounts for a large portion of a utility's costs. “The less you have to pump and treat, the better off you are from the standpoint of an energy bill,” says Glen Daigger, chief technology officer for Denver-based CH2M HILL.

Historically, decentralization has been used for disposal systems, such as septic tanks, Daigger says. Yet, those methods do not permit wastewater recycling, which has become more available recently because of technological developments. “You can take water that has been used and clean it to almost any quality,” he says. “The decentralized technology available allows us to do that efficiently and also cost effectively on a smaller scale.”

Membrane bioreactors are one example of that technology. “Membranes are revolutionizing the quality of water that can be provided,” says Todd Danielson, manager of community systems for Loudoun Water in Loudoun County, Va. “There are buildings in Manhattan putting membrane bioreactors in basements to provide water for toilets.”

Loudoun Water took advantage of membrane bioreactor technology when it built a satellite wastewater treatment facility to supplement the treatment provided by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC WASA). Loudoun Water had reached its treatment volume limit with DC WASA, which could not expand, so it opened its new Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility in May 2008.

The membrane bioreactor is coupled with an activated carbon filter and ultraviolet disinfection process to meet stringent quality requirements. More than just treating the water, Loudoun Water also is looking at ways to reduce the energy used in the process. For example, it captures methane gas produced from the digestion of solids and uses it to run a small boiler. As a reclaimed water use system develops around the facility, Danielson says the utility also can start looking at ways to use the geothermal heat created. (For more information on the facility, see sidebar, left.)

Some businesses and subdivisions already have expressed an interest in using the facility's reclaimed water. “Within a two-mile radius, we can easily construct a reclaimed water network and provide water to these customers,” Danielson says. The utility's goal is to use 30 percent of treated effluent for customer's non-potable water needs by 2015.

The utility also recently received $1.78 million in stimulus funds to facilitate reclaimed water use. Loudoun Water will use the funds to construct two sections of purple pipe that will transport reclaimed water to a private office building and to the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation. Both will use the water for irrigation and cooling towers, among other uses. Danielson hopes to tie other customers, like a nearby golf course, into those lines eventually. “If we're now spending less money on conveyance, we can spend more on reclamation,” Daigger says. “We need reclamation to be coupled with increased water efficiency.”

CENTRALIZING THE COMMUNITY

As Loudoun Water demonstrates, a 21st century water management model will not be effective without participation from businesses, residents and community groups that are willing to participate in new water initiatives. In a growing number of communities, groups that support efforts to create sustainable cities are easy to find. “In this severe economic downturn, the excitement for the sustainability movement hasn't died down,” Neukrug says. “It's remarkable and says that we're maybe really there, and it will be different than in the 70s and 80s.”

In Philadelphia, homeowners play a major part in the city's stormwater management plan. In fact, the city had to put a cap on its Model Neighborhoods pilot program, which involves residents in stormwater and watershed improvement projects, because of its popularity. (For more information on the program, see p. 32.)

Involvement from residents also reconnects them more directly to the water cycle — a connection that is lost in most current water treatment networks. “The systems that we have in place are almost designed in a way for the customer to completely take them for granted,” Brown says. “They don't know where water comes from, and they don't know where it goes. They just pay the bill.”

To complement residents' and businesses' voluntary efforts, cities can adopt building codes that require low-water-use plumbing fixtures, and on-site wastewater and stormwater capture and treatment. In 2006, Philadelphia changed its stormwater regulations to require new developers to capture the first inch of rain that falls. “If that's all that happened, over 60 to 70 years, we would see 40 to 50 percent of private land be stormwater-managed,” Neukrug says. “That may not be acceptable as the only thing, but it becomes a nice part with no direct cost taken up by the ratepayer.” Starting in 2010, the city also will start charging non-residential customers for stormwater management based on the amount of impervious surface on their properties.

MANY OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHANGE

With such a confluence of factors contributing to the nation's changing water management needs, numerous opportunities exist for utilities to operate differently. The population may be increasing, but residents are becoming more environmentally conscious and active. Infrastructure may be aging, but the technology to take the burden off of central systems continues to improve. The water supply remains limited, but reusing a portion of it is becoming easier.

“These are challenges that have solutions,” Daigger says. “We have a water supply problem only if we think we're constricted by past practices. We have a water management problem, not a water problem. The solution is to change how we manage water.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.

Sidebars/Case Studies

Related Stories

Loudoun Water

Loudoun County, Va.

Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility

In May 2008, Loudoun Water opened the 11-million-gallon-per-day Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) to expand the community's wastewater treatment capacity. The facility is now treating all wastewater for the eastern part of the county and aims to increase reclaimed water use in the area.

The facility uses membrane bioreactor technology to remove biological nutrients. The water then goes through an activated carbon filter and ultraviolet disinfection process. Reclaimed water for use in irrigation or groundwater recharge is drawn off before the activated carbon. The treated water is discharged into Broad Run, which connects to the Potomac River less than five miles downstream. Last year, the facility treated and released 760 million gallons of reclaimed water without a permit violation.

As part of its sustainability efforts, Loudoun Water has been working to increase reclaimed water use in its service area. "We're trying to find ways to treat water and reuse it so that we have efficient systems for small subdivisions," says Todd Danielson, manager of community systems for Loudoun Water.

Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority

Camden County, N.J.

Delaware No. 1 Water Pollution Control Facility upgrades based on environmental management system

The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) treats 58 million gallons of wastewater per day and operates the Delaware No. 1 Water Pollution Control Facility, New Jersey's second-largest wastewater treatment plant. Nearly 10 years ago, CCMUA implemented an environmental management system (EMS) at the plant, which emphasizes reducing the environmental impact while operating more efficiently. Last year, the utility made major upgrades to the facility, helping to achieve the ongoing EMS-related goals of optimizing plant performance, improving odor control and minimizing operating costs.

CCMUA's approach has been to rebuild the plant — constructed in the mid-1980s — project by project using low-interest revolving fund loans, with the intention of reducing operating costs by increasing efficiency. In that way, the utility has nearly completed the major upgrades the plant will need for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, it has kept rates steady for the past 14 years.

Last year, CCMUA upgraded the plant's sedimentation tanks, installed new aerator blades to boost oxygenation, and added a new gravity belt thickener and belt filter presses, reducing sludge disposal costs and improving effluent quality. At $10 million, paid for with a 1 percent interest loan from the state, the sedimentation tank upgrades were the most substantial. "By increasing reliability, we're improving effluent quality," says Andrew Kricun, CCMUA's deputy executive director.

Next year, CCMUA will begin work on the final three projects needed to finish rebuilding the facility. One is a $27 million sludge drying facility that will turn the sludge into a bi-product that can be used as a substitute for coal. It will reduce operating costs by $2 million, and the debt service will be lower than the annual cost savings.

"The EMS helps optimize internal efficiency," says Andrew Kricun, CCMUA's deputy executive director. "You take the private sector model of efficiency and graft that on to the public sector."

"Underperforming equipment is usually more expensive to maintain," Kricun says.

The utility replaced conveying arms with new equipment and swapped wood and steel parts with plastic ones. CCMUA also installed a system that will prevent a catastrophic failure if the chain overruns.

Philadelphia Water Department

Model Neighborhood Program

Philadelphia launched its Model Neighborhood program this year, which aims to involve residents in stormwater management and reduce combined sewer overflows. "We're looking at ways to keep water out of the sewers in the first place," says Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds for the Philadelphia Water Department. "We are looking at every acre of land and square foot in Philadelphia and seeing how we manage that."

At the residential level, other efforts, like rain barrel use, already have proven successful. Since 2006, the city has distributed 1,544 rain barrels, which prevent an estimated 5.3 million gallons of water per year from entering the city's combined sewer system. To receive a barrel, residents must attend a 90-minute workshop.

Under the Model Neighborhood program, the Philadelphia Water Department is analyzing the specific needs of the blocks involved and then making the improvements necessary to turn them into showcases of effective stormwater management. Changes to the streets include the addition of street tree trenches, bump out and curb extensions, and porous pavement. The department also will recommend measures homeowners can take on their properties to help reduce stormwater.

To become a Model Neighborhood, at least 75 percent of residents on the block must sign a petition. Already, 14 neighborhoods have joined the program, and the department recently had to stop accepting applications because of the large response. Neukrug says the enthusiasm has been encouraging, especially because one goal of the program is to educate residents about the need for greener infrastructure and what forms it will take.

Model Neighborhoods also emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to stormwater management that involves the entire community, as well as other city departments. The water department has worked with Fairmount Park, PennFuture and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, among others, to implement the program. "The final step isn't just about water," Neukrug says. "It's about urban life and the quality of life in an urban setting."