August 2008, Vol. 20, No.8

Small Communities

Small Communities - Integrating Beneficial Reuse

Robert Rubin and Ronald Crites

Comprehensive water resource management efforts increasingly recognize the value of integrating water, wastewater, stormwater, and land planning as vital activities to sustain local infrastructure. This comprehensive, watershed-based approach to resource management is driving regulatory efforts nationwide through the total maximum daily load process used by regulatory agencies as a component of the permitting process.

Projects that encourage wise resource management require system designs consistent with environmental mandates; sound, robust technologies; well-trained, competent certified personnel to operate and oversee all aspects of the infrastructure operations; and the ability to manage and sustain that infrastructure. A total water management concept must be applied to water reuse and treatment efforts, stormwater management, water supply management — all in a local watershed context. For many small communities, this approach may present a unique challenge.

Watershed issues. Water scarcity has emerged as a major water resource management issue for planners, regulators, designers, utility operators, businesses and industries, and the public throughout the world. Options for using reclaimed water abound in communities large and small. Implementation of the best economic, ecologic, and socially responsible of these reuse opportunities is a real challenge. Unreasonable regulatory hurdles or barriers, unrealistic public perceptions, and increased community costs are impediments to reuse efforts, but if local officials properly examine the true costs of inaction and correction using traditional systems, the reuse plans may be far more reasonable. These planning efforts should reflect the unique local conditions and resource allocation needs in each community and its watershed.

Technology and engineering issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Guidelines for Water Reuse provides recommendations for water quality and management requirements for successful reuse efforts. Typical U.S. standards for reuse vary among jurisdictions, but, typically, biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids values of 5 to 10 mg/L and stringent limits for bacteria are required. The unique difficulty in meeting such standards in small communities is the reduced level of management capability. Nonetheless, the technology and engineering issues have been addressed successfully by small communities using simpler plans and processes in the form of decentralized systems. Agricultural and aesthetic plant irrigation can be accomplished easily by simple community systems employing less operations-and-maintenance-intensive processes.

Regulatory issues. Many state agencies have comprehensive reuse rules that establish requirements for water quality and system reliability in reuse efforts. These rules encourage reuse efforts as a part of water resource planning and management. These activities are best accomplished in accordance with EPA’s smart growth and decentralized management initiatives supported by agencies at all levels of government. EPA’s reuse guidelines contain a compendium of state reuse requirements and are an excellent resource for small communities to consult before planning a water management strategy.

Cost issues.
Water resource management does exert a cost to communities, but through sound planning and management, these costs can be optimized. Communities planning for reuse may recover costs by imposing fees on development or by developing public–private partnerships with the development community to share costs. Capital and operations and maintenance costs for a reuse system may be higher or lower than those associated with the traditional stream discharge system. Potential cost savings in small communities also may accrue from retention of the natural water cycle, reduced costs for monitoring, and no liability for antidegradation exercises on the part of the state. In all cases, these water reuse costs must be viewed as opportunity costs to be balanced against deferred water supply expansion or water-use restriction costs.

Costs for reuse efforts in large and small communities may appear high when viewed in a vacuum, but the cost of a dry community well is incalculable. In most cases, when the options are honestly explained to the public, residents are willing to pay to protect their community’s future. For instance, a 2001 survey of utility operators, elected officials, and members of the public showed overwhelming support for reuse efforts. Cost was a factor in the decision to support the effort as long as the cost of the reclaimed water was within 25% of the cost of an expanded potable water system.

Personnel and management issues. Trained operators are required to ensure that wastewater systems function properly, and a reuse system is no different. Thus, the choices of technology must consider the available management capability. Although traditional uses for reclaimed water have been associated with agricultural operations, today’s array of reuse possibilities is much wider, especially when stormwater management is integrated into the scheme.

Examples of communities that have used recycled water to replace and conserve potable supplies are many. On Molokai, Hawaii, constructed wetlands are used to reclaim wastewater and supply irrigation water to orchards. At the Water Gardens in Santa Monica, Calif., recycled water is used to replace potable supplies used for landscape irrigation. The Marin County, Calif., Municipal Water District is providing recycled water to industrial laundries, car washes, and other industries in place of potable water.

Many areas of the country have been perceived as areas of moisture excess, but comprehensive review of weather records for the last 10 years suggests this is often an urban (and rural) legend. Recent experiences with severe, recurring drought suggest that water resources are limited, and comprehensive water resource planning is critical to support growth and development in all geographic regions. Resource planners at all levels must incorporate water reuse into local efforts as a viable supply of water for irrigation, nonpotable industrial and commercial uses, and environmental enhancement.