July 2008, Vol. 20, No.7
U.S. EPA Water Office Unveils Draft ‘Response to Climate Change’ Strategy
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water in March issued a draft of its National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change. For wastewater utilities, the projected impacts have implications for planning both day-to-day operations and the design of new facilities. Expected changes include increasing water pollution problems, such as decreases in dissolved-oxygen levels and heightened toxicity of some pollutants, as well as heavier precipitation in some areas and reduced rainfall in others.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water in March issued a draft of its National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change. In his foreword to the document, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin H. Grumbles notes that it represents a preliminary step toward developing efforts to reduce and adapt to likely effects of climate change on water supplies and water quality. The current “scientific consensus on climate change” requires a reassessment of long-held assumptions about how to manage and protect water resources, he says.
“Changes are coming about as a result of climate change that we need to be aware of and begin to understand which may affect our decisions in the future in a number of areas,” said Michael Shapiro, EPA deputy assistant administrator for Water. “The focus of our recommendations is that, first, this is something we need to continually pay attention to, and in the future we may need to modify some of the ways we go about planning and managing infrastructure to take into account some of the impacts.”
For wastewater utilities, the projected impacts have implications for planning both day-to-day operations and the design of new facilities. For example, expected changes include increasing water pollution problems, such as decreases in dissolved-oxygen levels and heightened toxicity of some pollutants, as well as heavier precipitation in some areas and reduced rainfall in others. In areas where precipitation increases, more nutrients, pathogens, and toxins will be released into surface waters.
These changes may affect how treatment facilities plan for and manage peak flows, as well as how pollutant levels are determined for discharge permits and nonpoint source pollution control programs, the document states. For this reason, adaptation to climate-change impacts is one of the strategy’s three core goals for the EPA water program. The other key goals are mitigation of greenhouse gases produced by water utilities and conducting research on climate change that complements research performed by other EPA departments, as well as other agencies.
The document also identifies two subsidiary goals: educating water program professionals and the public about how climate change affects water programs and resources, and establishing “management capability within the National Water Program to engage climate change challenges on a sustained basis.” Forty-six “key actions” (such as reviewing how climate change may affect discharge permitting) are identified to help fulfill the five goals.
Immediate concerns. Adaptation to and mitigation of climate-change effects both have immediate relevance, said Howard Neukrug, director of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Office of Watersheds. However, he added, “the crisis is on the adaptation side at this point.”
Neukrug said his department is “recognizing a stronger need to move toward mitigation, but we serve a customer base, and we need to be able to adapt. For example, adapting costs us a quarter-billion dollars in new storm-flood relief sewers to handle the new type storms that we’re getting.” On the other hand, he said, mitigation “is what we should have been doing for the last 50 years.”
Water and wastewater utilities account for only 3% of all energy use in the United States, according to EPA. Nevertheless, when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, “every little bit counts,” Shapiro said, “and we think there are opportunities that are smart in terms of good business practice, as well as reducing carbon emissions, that utilities can examine and increasingly will be driven to do.”
These include taking energy-conservation measures and generating energy for use onsite by capturing methane gas produced in wastewater treatment. “Drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities have the potential to achieve 15–30 percent energy savings … by implementing energy conservation measures alone, and even more with on-site energy generation,” the document notes.
Reducing water utilities’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions should be as immediate a goal as adapting to climate-change impacts, said Dirk Apgar, project manager in the King County (Wash.) Wastewater Treatment Division. “One of our obligations is being a part of the solution and not just adapting to the problem that’s coming,” he said. Taking into account the wastewater utility’s contribution to climate change “is becoming a routine part of our decision-making in King County,” he said.
One observer said EPA’s draft strategy places undue emphasis on adaptation, as opposed to mitigation, while overlooking a potentially more comprehensive approach. “The strategy is really good at explaining how climate change affects the water program, but the issue of how the water program affects climate change is maybe of even more importance,” said Norman E. LeBlanc, director of water quality at Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia Beach, Va.
“The Clean Water Act is one of the most carbon-intensive environmental acts in the way it approaches pollution control, with the issues of nutrients and the push toward nutrient removal at [treatment plants] versus nonpoint sources,” LeBlanc said. “There is a carbon price for that. The pounds of carbon emitted per pound of nitrogen removed is a factor that needs to be brought into the decision-making process. … Energy efficiency is important, and adaptation is important, but there’s a third, overarching issue of rethinking the way we do the business of environmental protection that emphasizes maximizing net environmental gain.”
While agreeing that this is a valid point, Shapiro urged caution in evaluating both old and new approaches. “I think one of the metrics by which a number of regulatory programs … will be judged by in the future will be impacts on energy use and, particularly, on carbon impacts,” he said. “That’s going to be a factor in decision-making, both directly and indirectly, but the other point is that we’re pretty creative as a country … so given a correct understanding of the challenges and opportunities, I’m sure we’ll identify ways of doing things that make more sense in a carbon-constrained world.”
On the horizon. Meanwhile, water industry professional associations are working to ensure that any legislation addressing climate change includes funding and support for water and wastewater utilities’ efforts to confront climate-change impacts. The Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) on May 20 joined seven other national water organizations in calling on the U.S. Congress to include in future climate-change legislation support for research on responding to climate-change impacts, funding for climate-adaptation projects, and incentives for utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (At press time, the U.S. Senate was scheduled in June to begin considering S. 2191, the Lieberman–Warner Climate Security Act.)
Experts agree that integrating climate-change considerations into planning and day-to-day decision-making still lies in the future for most plant operators and utility officials. “I think we’re at the awareness stage at this point,” said Steve Wordelman, president of Jones & Henry Engineers Ltd. (Toledo, Ohio).
Cy Jones, senior associate at the World Resources Institute (Washington, D.C.), agrees. “Some sort of concrete consequence or requirement on the planning horizon [will be required] before you get much interest in climate change on the wastewater treatment side,” he said. For example, “when [plant operators] see that permit writers in the next permit cycle are going to use a different low-flow number to calculate permit limits, that’s going to get people’s attention,” he added.
The draft Response to Climate Change document, an archived May 8 EPA Webcast on the draft strategy, and background information on climate change and the National Water Program are accessible at www.epa.gov/water/climatechange/index.html.
— Jim Bishop, WE&T
The Language of Water
Gaining public approval and trust is crucial for the success of water reuse projects
Decreasing and unreliable water supplies, coupled with increased demand, are prompting many cities and municipalities to pursue innovative water supply projects. Among these are water reuse projects that treat secondary effluent for indirect potable reuse, such as the Groundwater Replenishment (GWR) System in Orange County, Calif., and the Bundamba Advanced Water Treatment Plant in Queensland, Australia, the largest water reuse project in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, because of public concern about the idea of treating wastewater for eventual human consumption, water professionals must be cognizant of their approach when educating the public about water reuse. Indeed, the cumulative impact of public perception — and even a catchy phrase — should never be underestimated, especially when it comes to the public and its drinking water.
The East Valley Water Reclamation Project in Los Angeles demonstrated how quickly public opposition can shut down a water reuse facility. The $55 million indirect potable reuse project, approved and built in the 1990s, was slated to provide 43 million m³/yr (35,000 ac-ft/yr) of highly treated wastewater to recharge the natural underground reservoir in the northwest San Fernando Valley. However, when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced the plant’s completion in 2000, the project was met with protest from local politicians. Then, after Homeowners of Encino President Gerald Silver characterized the project as “toilet to tap,” public opposition intensified, and the recycling plant was shut down.
“The term ‘toilet to tap’ not only carries a negative connotation, but it is very misleading as well, because it does not take into account all the processes in between,” said Anthony Wachinski, senior vice president and technical director of the Water Processing division of Pall Corp. (East Hills, N.Y.). For this reason, he said, it is highly important to educate the public about the water treatment process. “The public can handle a bit of technology,” he said. “They need to understand what microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and UV [ultraviolet disinfection] entail so they will be able to ask questions which will help them reach decisions on their own.”
Educating the public about water quality used to be quite different, according to Linda Kelly, managing director of public communications for the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). “In the past, public outreach revolved around limiting the information given, because water treatment technology can be very complex,” she said. “Instead, it was based on trying to gain public trust. However, that approach eventually did not work when the public started losing confidence in policy-makers.”
Kelly said that successful outreach programs should have an authentic public involvement process with consistent and straightforward communications. “The best way to reach the public is through practical and no-nonsense language,” she said. “People are smart enough to appreciate straight talk. That will also help establish the credibility of the person or the organization giving out the information, which is very important.”
It is equally important that the media understand how to present reuse correctly.
“At times, the media’s coverage of this topic has been very misleading,” Kelly said. “Public outcry against reuse has largely been a result of inaccurate and exaggerated language in the media. It can be complex for reporters with limited time to accurately depict the reuse process — they tend to jump to the obvious conclusions. That’s why it’s so important for water professionals to improve the way they talk to reporters about water reuse, because they are the best conduits for getting information out. They are the ones who allow us to reach the masses.”
Negative branding, including such headlines as “Toilet to Tap,” “Recycled Sewage,” and “Recycled Toilet Water,” prevents unbiased thinking and generate fear, stigma, and disgust. That’s the premise of the paper “Stigma and Fear — Changing Mental Models About Reuse,” written by Linda Macpherson, reuse principal technologist at CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.) and chair of WEF’s Public Communication and Outreach Committee, and Paul Slovic of Decision Research (Eugene, Ore.). However, if people are given the opportunity to reframe their understanding of the water cycle, they gain a sense of confidence in water reuse technology, according to the paper.
Macpherson and Slovic say that many water quality professionals believe the public’s lack of water knowledge is the single-largest barrier to sustainable water management. To overcome this hurdle, they say, water professionals should improve their use of language and imagery to create a deeper understanding of how water is used and treated. Indeed, success or failure of new source development projects can rest squarely on an organization’s capacity to relate to the public in a meaningful, thoughtful, and trustworthy manner, they note.
Macpherson and Slovic refer to the NEWater Visitor Centre in Singapore, which took an innovative and clearly different approach to building public support. This world-class visitor center uses state-of-the-art interactive computer touch screens and videos to promote a more holistic public understanding of water issues. The center provides information on the full spectrum of water supply solutions needed to address shortages of fresh water, highlighting reuse as an important solution. This innovative outreach program shows how educating the public about indirect potable use can be done successfully.
With the lessons of the Los Angeles experience still fresh, it is clear that building public support is critical for the success of indirect potable reuse projects. The Orange County Water District (OCWD; Fountain Valley, Calif.) in partnership with the Orange County Sanitation District recently completed construction of the GWR System, a $481 million indirect potable reuse project in which purified water will be used to replenish a large groundwater basin in northern and central Orange County that currently supplies 70% of the water for more than 2.3 million people.
“Everyone around the world is talking about water shortage and drought,” said Gina DePinto, spokeswoman for OCWD. “At this point, it is recognized as a global problem, and the public is more or less being pushed to consider alternative options for water supply. Due to this, we are in a great environment for the acceptance of these kinds of projects.”
Still, recognizing early on how quickly public opposition can close down a project, the joint agencies launched an extensive and well-planned outreach campaign, including the formation of a Community Leadership Advisory Council, which worked to educate the public, as well as community leaders in legislation, business, environment, media, and agriculture. Community leaders also were recruited to act as spokespeople on behalf of the project.
“Due to the sensitivity and recent history associated with indirect potable reuse, we knew that public outreach and education would be paramount for the success and acceptance of the GWR project,” DePinto said. “After the media latched onto the phrase ‘toilet to tap,’ it became critical to get the correct information out to the public.”
The campaign included more than 1000 presentations, as well as more than 600 letters of support from every city council and chamber of commerce in the agencies’ service area. Thousands of cards were distributed throughout the communities for residents to sign, stating that they supported the project. The agencies also hired a consultant familiar with the different cultural segments of Southern California who effectively acted as a liaison to various minority-based organizations.
The outreach program also focused on securing support from national health and medical experts to establish a high degree of credibility behind the project. In addition, a panel of experts from around the world was assembled to review the agencies’ methodology for project implementation. “We wanted to show a high degree of transparency,” DePinto said.
Prior to building the new project, the agencies developed an 18,925-m³/d (5-mgd) filtration process in Water Factory 21, the now torn-down water treatment plant that was located at the site of the new project. The filtration method was a small-scale version of the GWR System and consisted of the same components and three-step process. “We were able to accumulate 2 years of data that helped benchmark the quality of the water being produced,” DePinto said.
The GWR System went on-line in January and will treat enough water for 500,000 people each year. So far, the overall public outreach and campaign effort has been a success: Since the GWR System was conceived in 1998, it has encountered no public opposition.
— Jeff Gunderson, WE&T