Challenges For Water Utilities Spur Technology Upgrades

Lee Odell

Lee Odell, Water Treatment Global Technology Lead at CH2M HILL, discusses some of the current challenges that water utilities are facing and how CH2M HILL is well-poised to address them.

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The following is an excerpt from a Q&A with Water Online Radio. Click on the Radio Player above to hear the full interview.

Water Online Radio: Talk a little about things that utilities do or don’t do that cause them to underperform.

Lee: In water treatment plants there are a lot of little things that you have to keep your eye on. For example, the pH of the water can change during the day as algae grow inside the plant.

It can make an impact on the performance. In iron and manganese removal plants, looking at the species of iron and manganese that come through the plant can really give you a clue as to what you need to do to fix it. In lime softening plants, a little calculation like calcium carbonate precipitation potential can really help.

Water Online Radio: Is the typical utility doing enough to monitor these things? Give me a profile of the typical utility.

Lee: I think that we have all kinds of monitoring data. It is whether or not we are putting it to the best use. That is usually the challenge.

Water Online Radio: You gave examples of two or three different plants. Just to clarify, you are saying in typical treatment plants that the right technology is in fact in place?

Lee: Well I think the technologies that are in place by in large work pretty darn well, yes.

Water Online Radio: It really is about using what is already there?

Lee: Yes.

Water Online Radio: This is the obvious question. If I am the plant manager let’s say, and I have already made the investment to put the right equipment in there, why on earth would I not be using it to its full potential? What is keeping me from doing that?

Lee: The predominant mission of water utilities is to provide a safe and reliable water supply. They tend to be pretty risk adverse folks and they don’t really want to push things to the limit where they think it might jeopardize public health or reliability.

Water Online Radio: Talk about some technologies or pieces of equipment that utilities should be looking at to save money.

Lee: We just gave a presentation internally with our company this morning on a new biological treatment system that is in use in Japan. Those folks came over here and it is a chemical-less system that doesn’t use any chemicals and removes iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and arsenic. It can be a real savings for capital and ONM costs that way.

Water Online Radio: Speaking of capital. It might be a great idea to install the technology that you just talked about but the capital constraints are always there. How big of an issue is that in your mind?

Lee: It is a tremendous issue. It is probably one of the biggest challenges for water utilities for several years to come. They are all seeing revenues decline as people use less and less water and the costs of treating water and running a utility continue to grow.

Water Online Radio: Talk about some new or upcoming regulations that are forcing utilities to do some immediate upgrades.

Lee: There are several regulations coming down the pipeline but I always laugh when people use the word immediate because utilities want to evaluate things and see how other folks have done and the regulatory agencies aren’t always known for their speed as well.

But, we know that there are some things floating around about cyber security that could cause some more immediate upgrades. The EPA has announced that they are going to regulate chlorinated VOCs and that could involve some treatment changes for some systems that don’t have the treatment that comes out in the rule.

Then there are lots of other things including endocrine disrupters, perchlorate and hexavalent chromium that are in the pipeline.

Water Online Radio: Should I assume that CH2M HILL is positioned nicely to deal with these upcoming regulations?

Lee: We are definitely working our way there, yes.

Water Online Radio: In what way? What kinds of things are you doing?

Lee: One of the papers that we are giving at this conference tomorrow is on the experience that we have had running a chromium hexavalent removal plant for the last eight years with some pretty useful data for systems that are facing that regulation.

Water Online Radio: Regulation can obviously force the need for upgrades, but what are some other causes that will require an upgrade?

Lee: We used to see a lot of plant expansions and new plants as a result of growth in water demand, but I think now we are predominantly seeing replacement of aging infrastructure and in projects that improve reliability.

Water Online Radio: What are the key things that are driving the implementation of new technologies? You talked about regulation and that is an obvious one, to save money I would think?

Lee: Yes. Technology improvements that can really save operating costs and make business sense for utilities are among those that are going to the front of the line.

Water Online Radio: Talk about financing which is obviously the elephant in the room with all of these conversations. Is there financing for these things? We have interviewed a lot of people on this show and they keep saying that half a trillion to a trillion dollars to get infrastructure up currently. Talk about the current finance struggle that we have.

Lee: The financing needs are great and utilities have been hit hard from a revenue point of view. There is an act that passed the Senate just last month called The Water Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act that would be a new source of funding for water utilities and the American Water Works Association supports that bill as well.

Water Online Radio: New source of funds is federal?

Lee: Yes, federal funds.

Water Online Radio: We haven’t heard about that. I am going to dig into that a little bit more. Do you have a feel for the magnitude of that? How much are we talking about?

Lee: I believe they are starting a pilot project around 500 million but the full blown act would be several billion dollars of new financing and it is really aimed at larger projects over 20 million dollars.

Water Online Radio: I want to shift back. We are sitting in this giant room that is like a temple to new technology. What kind of things do you see coming along technologically that are really game changer kind of deals?

Lee: That’s a great question. I think that we are really starting to see a lot more interest; first I would say from a treatment point of view there are technologies that don’t sacrifice reliability or public safety.

There is a tremendous amount of interest in biological treatment systems that not only remove a multitude of things at the treatment plant but provide a more stable water quality out in the distribution system as well. I think that will be a focus in the future.

Water Online Radio: Let’s just say for argument’s sake that we are sitting here doing an interview at ACE2023, ten years away. What are the big challenges that will have been overcome perhaps in that ten years’ time? In other words, what are the challenges that we are facing over the next decade and how do we get out of those?

Lee: Let me just answer that by saying that new plants that we have seen go in 20 years ago don’t look like the plants that we see go in today. Twenty years ago we had clarification and sedimentation and filtration, and today, we see a lot higher rate clarification, ozone and biologically active carbon filters. I would guess that in another 20 years we will see maybe another leap of technology from that point of view.

Water Online Radio: As long as we are looking at it in the future what struggles do you see? Are there new issues that are arising or that you see on the horizon?

Lee: Yes-there is a huge multitude of issues; everything from the funding that we talked a little bit about. Those are challenges. There are lots of potentially regulated compounds for water utilities and they are trying to run businesses, too, in many cases. It is not one single thing but a multitude of issues facing utilities…

Click on the Radio Player above to hear the full interview.