September 2008, Vol. 20, No.9

Farm Bill Boosts Conservation Funding, Emphasizes Partnerships

The new law establishing the federal government’s farm policies sharply increases spending for conservation programs on agricultural lands. Several of these programs are intended, in part, to improve U.S. water resources, including a new program specifically designed to spur farmers and units of local governments — including water and wastewater agencies — to work together on issues related to water quality and quantity.

Debating the Cost, Overriding Vetoes
Formally titled the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the legislation is more commonly known simply as the farm bill. In mid-May, the U.S. Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact a previous version of the farm bill (H.R. 2419). Afterward, it was discovered that one of the bill’s titles inadvertently had not been included in the version sent to President George W. Bush. To rectify the situation, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a new version (H.R. 6124) containing all 15 titles. On June 18, the president vetoed H.R. 6124. The same day, the House and Senate, respectively, voted 317–109 and 80–14 in favor of overriding the veto.

Chief among the president’s objections was the cost of the legislation, which authorizes dozens of programs related to agriculture, nutrition, energy, rural development, trade, and research. “At a time of high food prices and record farm income, [the $307 billion bill] lacks program reform and fiscal discipline,” Bush said in his initial veto message sent to the House on May 21. “It continues subsidies for the wealthy and increases farm bill spending by more than $20 billion, while using budget gimmicks to hide much of the increase,” according to the message.

On Capitol Hill, the farm bill afforded a rare instance in which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle jointly opposed the Bush administration. “The White House repeatedly tried to veto this measure, but could not stand in the way of critical farm, food, conservation, and energy investments becoming law,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa) — the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry — in a June 19 statement. “Not only did this bill pass both chambers with an overwhelming majority, but with the override votes, we held our majorities,” Harkin said. “This proves we have a good, strong, bipartisan farm bill.”

Investing in Conservation
Overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the farm bill’s conservation programs largely provide financial incentives to farmers and other landowners to conduct certain conservation measures or implement environmental management efforts on their lands. When it came to conservation programs, Congress was in a generous mood, increasing total spending by $7.9 billion, compared to levels in the previous farm bill passed in 2002.

For water and wastewater agencies, the farm bill’s “most important” provisions concern its conservation programs, said Pat Sinicropi, legislative counsel for the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). The programs “have a substantial water quality component,” she said. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helps finance efforts by farmers and ranchers to implement such key practices as soil conservation and nutrient management, particularly in relation to livestock operations. The new farm bill includes $7.325 billion for EQIP over 5 years, an increase of $3.4 billion.

Another conservation program receiving additional funding is the Wetlands Reserve Program, which protects and restores wetlands by means of easements and cost-share agreements. Congress funded this program at $1.3 billion over 5 years, increasing its maximum enrollment to 1.23 million ha (3.041 million ac), up from the previous level of 920,669 ha (2.275 million ac).

Working Together for Water
Responding to a sustained push from a coalition of groups interested in water quality, Congress created a new conservation program within EQIP to facilitate cooperation between agricultural interests and certain partners, including water and wastewater agencies. In addition to WEF, the coalition included such organizations as the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA; Washington, D.C.), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA; Washington, D.C.), the American Water Works Association (Denver), the Association of California Water Agencies (Sacramento); and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF; Annapolis, Md.).

Dubbed the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), the program is intended to “promote ground[water] and surface water conservation and improve water quality on agricultural lands,” according to H.R. 6124. To this end, AWEP enables USDA to enter into agreements with farmers or with certain partners to finance “agricultural water enhancement activities,” including the development of water quality or water conservation plans, water conservation projects, efforts to restore or enhance water quality or quantity, irrigation improvements, and drought mitigation activities, according to the bill.

In addition to partnering with farmers, USDA could enter into agreements with agricultural or silvicultural associations, state governments or a “unit of local government,” or a federally recognized Indian tribe, according to the bill. AWEP is “particularly of interest to water and wastewater utilities because it would allow them to directly receive funding as a partner with farmers to help mitigate potential adverse effects to water quality caused by farming activities,” Sinicropi said.

Under the program, USDA will award grants to partners on a competitive basis, giving priority to proposals that meet certain criteria or are located in states with “water quantity concerns.” For example, priority would be given to projects that “result in high levels of applied agricultural water quality and water conservation activities.” To fund these and other efforts, the farm bill provides a total of $280 million for AWEP through fiscal year 2012.

Collaborating on Solutions
For many, the appeal of AWEP lies in its potential for stimulating new alliances and approaches for addressing issues related to water quality. “Certainly, AWEP can be beneficial, because it involves collaboration and working on a broader watershed basis,” said Susie Bruninga, NACWA’s director of legislative and public affairs.

Because it can be used to fund efforts by water and wastewater agencies to work with farmers, AWEP is “one of the most important provisions” in the farm bill, said Charlie Stevens, director of the City of Rifle (Colo.) Utility Department and vice chair of the Legislative Subcommittee of WEF’s Government Affairs Committee. “The more partnerships we can form with the agricultural producers, the better,” he said.

Rather than spending millions of dollars on wastewater treatment plant upgrades that result in only minor improvements in water quality, publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) can help farmers implement more cost-effective measures, Stevens said, such as riparian buffers that reduce sediment and nutrients in runoff. “That can be done much cheaper, and you get a lot bigger impact in the watershed than you do from regulating POTWs,” he said.

In creating AWEP, Congress deliberately left “open ended” the provisions regarding potential projects, said Dan Hartnett, AMWA’s manager of legislative affairs. In this way, Congress “invited creativity on the part of the water community and the farming community to put their heads together and think about what types of projects” would benefit both groups, he said.

Boosting the Bay
The farm bill also added a major new program specifically designed to address agriculture’s deleterious effects on Chesapeake Bay. Known as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, the effort provides $188 million over 5 years to help farmers implement “conservation activities” that improve water quality and quantity, as well as improve “soil, air, and related resources” in the watershed, according to the bill. In particular, the program will fund efforts to control erosion, reduce sediment and nutrient levels in groundwater and surface water, and conserve and restore habitat.

Funding provided by the program could reduce nitrogen pollution within the Chesapeake Bay watershed by as much as 18 million kg (40 million lb) annually, according to a May 15 CBF press release. “The bill provides the federal government’s largest single contribution ever to reduce pollution and restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, a national treasure,” said CBF President William Baker, according to the release.

In other actions, the farm bill reauthorized the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control, providing $20 million over 4 years. Created in the early 1990s, the program has funded hundreds of demonstration and technical assistance efforts.

Left Wanting More
Despite the farm bill’s major boost in conservation funding, some observers had hoped that Congress would do more to help farmers improve the environment. “The main disappointment is that the farm subsidies basically did not get changed,” Stevens said. He would have liked for Congress to move away from issuing commodity payments to farmers in favor of what he called “green payments.” Rather than subsidizing crop prices, federal farm programs should “convert that money over to more conservation payments,” he said.

To support his argument, Stevens pointed out that the number of farmers seeking to participate in federal conservation programs routinely exceeds available funding. “There’s a huge gap,” he said. Switching from commodity payments to rewards for conservation would ensure a “win–win situation,” he said.

Jay Landers, WE&T 


Desalination Innovations

Emerging technologies aim to lower cost barrier, open up new water resources

Escalating water shortage concerns in the United States and elsewhere are prompting government agencies, cities, and municipalities to take a closer look at desalination and how it can be a reliable source for generating future water supply. According to Desalination: A National Perspective, a report recently issued by the U.S. National Research Council discussing the state of desalination in the United States, generating fresh water from seawater and brackish water is a realistic option for increasing U.S. water supplies. However, desalination is still constrained by financial, social, and environmental factors.

Although desalination technology has undergone considerable advances in bringing down energy costs, there is still potential for improving the efficiency of reverse osmosis (RO). The report concludes that more approaches have to be developed in order to understand the environmental impacts of desalination and to lower its costs so it can be a more viable option in locations where traditional sources of water are in short supply.

In line with these expectations, the International Desalination Association (Topsfield, Mass.) and Global Water Intelligence, a journal specializing in the international water market, hosted a London conference earlier this year that addressed global water scarcity and emerging technologies that could help solve the world’s increasing water shortage problems. The conference, titled Water, Finance, and Sustainability 2008: New Directions for a Thirsty Planet, also featured approximately 30 new water technologies that are under development or being implemented. A judging panel recognized three winning and two “highly commended” technologies that hold the most promise for reducing the costs of developing new water resources.

According to Tom Pankratz — director of the International Desalination Association, editor of Water Desalination Report, and judging panel chairman — the spectrum of emerging desalination technologies holds strong potential to reduce energy consumption and contribute to lower equipment costs. However, because of increasing energy and materials costs, the technologies are not anticipated to bring about significant price reductions in desalination. Rather, they will work to contain cost increases in an overall sense. “In this current environment, with escalating energy and materials prices, we are not expecting any quantum leaps with price improvements due to new technology,” Pankratz said. “Any changes are likely to be more incremental.”

As pump and membrane technologies are improved, it will become easier to control the performance of desalination plants. “Specifically, by adjusting a plant’s operations based on changes in feedwater temperature and salinity level, the plants’ overall efficiency can be improved,” Pankratz said.

The technologies evaluated at the conference are in various stages of development. While some are in the pilot test stage, others likely will not be commercially available for 3 to 5 years. Some will be applicable only to new facilities, while others are retrofit technologies.

Pankratz said that for most of the new technologies under development, there are still many issues to consider. “Will they be reliable? Will they stand up? Or, how will they work in concert with other technologies?” he asked. “But questions aside, we do know that as environmental concerns escalate and energy prices continue to increase, these technologies will only become more practical.”

Axial-Piston Pressure-Exchanger Pump
Ocean Pacific Technologies (Ventura, Calif.), one of the award winners at the conference, has developed a high-pressure pump and energy-recovery pressure exchanger called the X-pumpTM. The X-pump combines an axial-piston pump and pressure-exchanger energy recovery into a single, compact unit specifically designed for use in RO systems. According to the company, the technology is simple in its application yet at least as efficient as isobaric energy-recovery technology.

Ocean Pacific President John P. MacHarg said the pump is simple to implement and will essentially turn RO facilities into on–off systems. It “will replace three major components in a typical RO system,” he said. “[The] technology does not require many of the instruments and controls that are typically used in RO applications. The unit produces flows that are fixed at specified ratios and rates, and precisely regulates the recovery of the system.”

According to MacHarg, the device has distinct advantages over both small-scale and larger RO systems. “For smaller-scale systems, it all comes down to cost, simplicity, and reducing the complexity of the parts,” he said. “Most small-scale systems cannot afford highly trained operators, so it is more beneficial to have a system that is easier to manage.”

The pump, which uses water as its hydraulic fluid, is an axial-piston device with pistons arranged around a central axis of a rotor similar to the revolver of a gun. A simple port-valve design enables the pump and energy-recovery chambers to go through their fill and discharge cycles with each rotor rotation.

Funding for developing the technology was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The device is still in development, but MacHarg estimates that it will be available on the market by mid-2009. The pump initially will be available for feedwater flows up to 132 L/min (35 gal/m) and pressures up to 8274 kPa (1200 lb/in.2).

Nanocomposite Membranes
The concept behind NanoH2O’s winning nanocomposite membrane technology is to take existing polymer membrane chemistry and make it perform better. The Los Angeles-based company is developing an RO membrane consisting of thin-film composite membranes with nanostructured material. In order to apply this technology, the existing polymer membranes of an RO system would be replaced with the new nanocomposite membranes.

“This is a true retrofit scenario,” said Jeff Green, company CEO. “By upgrading the existing membranes, a system will be able to realize a benefit due to increased performance.”

The company says its new technology has proven to be more productive than traditional polymer membranes at the same operating pressure. “Operators will have the choice to either increase the productivity of the system while keeping the operating pressure the same or to save on the energy consumption of the system by reducing the overall pressure but still producing the same amount of water,” Green said. “Another key benefit of the technology is that the new nanocomposite material will increase the fouling resistance of the membranes.”

NanoH2O is conducting initial pilot testing with commercially manufactured prototypes and plans to bring the technology to market by late 2009. “We see the membranes being very applicable for treating seawater, wastewater, and brackish water,” Green said.

Clathrate Desalination
Award winners Water Science and Mouchel (Surrey, England) are developing a desalination process called clathrate desalination, in which fresh water is separated from seawater by trapping water molecules in carbon dioxide molecules. At 3000 kPa (435 lb/in.2) and less than 80°C, these water–carbon dioxide molecule bonds will crystallize and form what are called clathrates.

Along with this process, the two companies are developing a multipass solution for separating and cleaning the clathrate crystals that requires very little energy use due to the thermodynamics of salt solutions. This new separation and cleaning process is estimated to reduce energy consumption to less than 1.3 kWh/m3.

Although the technology is still being developed, Mouchel and Water Science aim to have a commercial plant in operation within 2 years.

Dais Analytic Corp. (Odessa, Fla.) was highly commended at the conference for advancing a new method of low-temperature, low-pressure desalination that combines membrane and vapor compression technology to extract fresh water from seawater.

The low-cost process, called NanoClear, uses commercialized nanotechnology and a solid polymer membrane to filter dissolved solids by size, polarity, and diffusion concentration. According to Dais Analytic, the membrane used in the process is environmentally practical because it does not scale or support marine growth. The technology can be used in applications with capacities up to 10,000 m3/d.

Megawatershed Development
Only one company among the five awardees was not recognized for desalination-related technology. Instead, the highly commended EarthWater Global (New York) locates and develops entirely new, large-scale groundwater resources that the company manages for long-term sustainability.

Company President Robert Bisson, who previously worked in the oil and gas industry and also as an oceanographer with Jacques Cousteau, has taken fracture-system exploration strategies used by the oil, gas, and mineral industries to develop an approach for detecting “megawatersheds,” vast groundwater systems existing within bedrock fault and fracture zones in Earth’s crust. According to the company, these systems are naturally replenished at significantly higher rates than conventional hydrology assumes and often extend over tens to thousands of square kilometers.

“We use high-resolution satellite imagery, confirmed by extensive conventional geological research, to identify the location and recharge of these high water-bearing fractures and then conduct extensive field exploration using sophisticated geophysical techniques to pinpoint sites for fracture-well drilling,” said Cameron O’Mara, a partner at EarthWater Global. “We then overlay multiple data sets, such as population density, areas of projected growth, and location of existing water and electrical infrastructure, to determine the best economics for the precise positioning of the high-capacity production wells we develop.”

EarthWater Global establishes a safe yield for each of its production wells and extensively tests the potable water produced for quality and characteristics. “In exchange for financing full development of our large-scale projects, EarthWater contracts to provide the water to governments over long periods of time at service rates that are highly attractive relative to the costs of developing alternative sources for new potable water,” O’Mara said.

The company has identified locations for potential large-scale megawatershed development in more than 100 countries and has successfully completed several projects in various locales, including Trinidad and Tobago.

Jeff Gunderson, WE&T