Kim Adamson, Director, Business Development - Water, Liberty
Water is a vital shared resource that is essential to life. Access to clean, safe water has been designated as a basic human right and is also a base need for industrial and agricultural activities. The global water demand has doubled since 1960, and that demand is growing at over 1 percent per year due to population growth, socio-economic developments and changing consumption patterns. Yet for something so important, we think very little about water until it’s no longer available.
In the United States, the invisibility of the water industry is a double-edged sword.
It speaks to the reliability of water utilities over the past century yet results in a major challenge for addressing a looming crisis. This is starting to change with the issues in Flynt Michigan receiving widespread media coverage, but the average citizen is unaware that water and wastewater pipes in the U.S. are 50-75 years old. In many locations, They’re much older. It’s not unusual for a utility crew to discover a section of an old wooden pipeline.
Likewise, water and wastewater treatment facilities are in areas not frequented by the public resulting in a critical infrastructure that is invisible to the public and our elected officials.
Today we are losing two trillion gallons of potable water each year through leaking pipes.
The men and women taking care of those pipes respond to 240,000 water main breaks per year. There are also 23,000 - 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows per year resulting in property damage and impacts to environmentally sensitive areas.
We are dealing with challenges from pollution, aquifer depletion, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and microplastics in our water and wastewater. The U.S needs to invest $743billion over the next twenty years to keep up with growth and maintenance needs. But the industry will have to change in order to achieve water security.
First things first, all water is recycled water. The oxygen and hydrogen in each water molecule have existed since the dawn of time. Since all water is recycled water, let’s just drop the “recycled” description. Same for water treatment. Whether we're talking about filtration, sterilization or purification, all these processes exist in nature. Soils filter rainwater as it travels down to the water table. Sunlight is the original water purifier. And distillation is achieved through evaporation, precipitation, and condensation, the very definition of the natural water cycle.
Therefore, water and wastewater treatment process whether for potable water, water reuse or desalination all provide processes found in nature. We in the industry need to move from defining water by its treatment process to a “One Water” philosophy. This will have the dual benefit of breaking down silos in the water industry and allowing us to communicate to the public with a larger, unified voice.
We also need to transition to a centralized planning process, yet implementation will need to be decentralized to effectively transform our industry to meet the huge challenges we’re facing. Currently, we address individual water problems without looking at the big picture. Water planning typically exists in a vacuum because of federal and state laws and because most agencies are dedicated to a singular mission. Even funding opportunities are often limited to narrow categories. As an industry, we need to recognize that the way we manage water in one area is connected to water availability in another. And we need to bring more public visibility to this. The challenge is that while we are recognizing that aquifer or watershed management is necessary, these regions typically cross multiple jurisdictional boundaries from cities and counties and even states. The result is a lack of clear, consistent messaging to the public about the importance of regional water planning. Even the fact that we don’t use a standardized use measurement results in the public not having enough information to understand their regional water situation. We are all familiar with the terms: gallons, CCF, MGD, acre-feet and the extremely vague “units” which appears on most rate schedules and customer bills. We as an industry must develop the vocabulary, messaging and encourage public involvement that will help everyone understand the value of water security for all.
Decentralized water supply and treatment is already widely in use in rural areas. Every domestic well and septic system is a decentralized water source or treatment process. Yet urban areas, which see the most growth rely on large facilities with miles of pipe to transport and collect water. These facilities and the ageing network of pipes make up the bulk of the $743 billion investment needed over the next twenty years. But these systems aren’t quick to respond to change.
Growth ends up located in parts of the network that have adequate pipe size to absorb it rather than in the most suitable planning location. This may result in additional costs related to other infrastructure needs or the loss of critical environmental areas. In urban areas relying on groundwater, there is already some decentralization of water supply. But when we picture a decentralized future, we would expect wastewater treatment and reuse for neighborhoods and isolated communities to be located at or near the point of waste generation. Treatment will result in water that can be used for groundwater recharge, irrigation or potable water supply. While we think of large regional treatment plants providing economies of scale, the cost of collection systems can result in decentralization being comparable if not less expensive. In addition, without long runs of pipe, breaks will be greatly reduced, making decentralized operation more affordable. Finally, decentralized treatment is not “out of sight, out of mind” like large regional facilities. It is in the community, visible to its residents. This results in more public awareness of the value of their water.
Technology isn’t the limiting factor in addressing our water challenges. The biggest hurdle is our siloed industry, decentralized water use planning, inflexible centralized treatment systems and lack of visibility of all things water. We will have to change the industry before the industry can change our water reality.
Kim holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on collaborative governance. Kim spent nearly a decade as a consulting project engineer in Washington state. In 2005 Kim made the jump to public utility management serving as General Manager for public water and wastewater districts in Washington and California for a decade. In 2015 Kim transitioned back to the private sector and is currently Director, Business Development – Water for Liberty Power, a subsidiary of Algonquin Power and Utilities.