September 2010, Vol. 22, No.9

Not just a 'water problem'

News art - sept'10

Investment in U.S. infrastructure systems is critical to keeping U.S. globally competitive, report says

In a recent report, the Urban Land Institute (Washington, D.C.) and Ernst & Young (London) addressed the state of U.S. infrastructure, examining looming challenges related to water delivery, energy, transportation, and measuring America’s infrastructure investment compared to competing countries around the world. Infrastructure 2010: An Investment Imperative, the fourth in a series of infrastructure studies produced by the partnership, explores global infrastructure trends and highlights the need for the U.S. to begin viewing infrastructure as an investment.

Could crumbling infrastructure be detrimental to the U.S. economy? Indeed, the report declares that the U.S. is falling behind global competitors — countries such as China, as well as others throughout Asia and Europe, that recognize the infrastructure investment imperative. America must now act and take a similar approach, the report says, by building the infrastructure investments that are needed to ensure future economic prosperity.

Communities in nearly every region across the U.S. face challenges associated with water, the report says, stemming from problems related to aging infrastructure, contamination threats, shortfalls in conservation, and insufficient supplies for meeting future demand, while globally, countries cope with problems related to drought, inadequate systems, water quality, and pollution.


Funding gaps

Insufficient investment in transportation, water, and other systems during the past 30 years has left the U.S. in imminent need of updating and rebuilding its outdated infrastructure systems, the report says, along with making the necessary upgrades and expansions to support a rapidly increasing population. However, despite this necessity, infrastructure spending is still a low political priority, with other national agendas, such as health care and defense, taking precedence.

The U.S. is falling more and more behind on infrastructure spending as a portion of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Michael Lucki, global leader of infrastructure and construction at Ernst & Young and a primary editor of the report. “In the 1950s and early 1960s, America invested a much larger percentage of its GDP toward infrastructure, and that made the U.S. globally competitive,” he said. “But since that era, America’s commitment toward infrastructure spending has dropped off significantly. As a comparison, the U.S. now spends only 2% to 3% of its total GDP on infrastructure, while China dedicates upwards of 7% to 9%.”

America’s infrastructure spending has not kept pace with its growth, Lucki added. “For example, since 1960, less than 10% of new roads were added to the U.S. transportation system, but the number of miles driven on roads has more than doubled over the same time period,” he said.

According to the report, while the U.S. struggles to gain traction in planning and building the critical infrastructure investments that are necessary to support economic growth, other nations in Asia and the European Union, despite coping with recessionary-like conditions, can front-load stimulus spending on national and regional infrastructure initiatives already under way, expanding high-speed rail networks or expediting energy and water projects. The report warns that further delay in U.S. infrastructure spending means losing more ground to these countries.

“Of the $787 billion comprising the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, only $132 billion — or 17% of the total — was allocated toward infrastructure,” Lucki said. “It is imperative that we educate people about the dire situation of our infrastructure systems and change our pricing approach for the use of it. Until we do that, infrastructure will remain less of a national concern.”

But at the same time, America’s infrastructure dilemma presents an economic opportunity. “Infrastructure spending has a multilayer effect,” Lucki said. “It helps create jobs, building tax revenues and contributing to a more viable economy. Different studies have shown that every dollar dedicated toward infrastructure can generate approximately $1.75 of additional GDP growth. But without the needed funding and investments, the U.S. infrastructure system could eventually become akin to that of a second- or third-world country.”


New mindset needed

The report examines water issues and concerns affecting 14 metropolitan areas across the nation and concludes that no major metropolitan region in the U.S. is insulated from water-related problems and costs.

“Along with transportation, we have gotten used to subsidized water delivery and wastewater treatment,” Lucki said. “But at some point, Americans are going to have to realize the true costs associated with keeping these systems running.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers (Reston, Va.) 2009 report card on infrastructure gave letter grades of D– for both drinking water and wastewater, Lucki added, while also projecting a 5-year funding shortfall of $108.6 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure combined.

Underinvestment and a lack of maintenance, according to the report, have left many of the nation’s 16,000 wastewater treatment plants deteriorating and unprepared to handle projected demands in the future. “The U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure system is highly underfunded, and moving ahead, it is crucial that the U.S. finds a different way to finance infrastructure repair and upgrade projects as compared to the way it was done over the last 50 years,” Lucki said.

Another key aspect is water conservation. “It’s going to be highly critical that people change their habits toward water,” Lucki said. “The way to change that perception is to raise the price of water, incorporate variable pricing strategies, or bring smart metering into the homes so that people will know the true costs associated with their water usage. By monitoring and measuring, it can be possible to solidify a reaction and, in effect, impact people’s behavior. Moving ahead, we need to establish water usage that is aligned with growth.”

Easing the burden

With deficits at the federal level exceeding $1 trillion and lower tax revenues being generated from lower employment, finding the capital necessary for funding infrastructure investments is difficult, Lucki said.

However, the report highlights the advantages of public–private partnerships (PPPs), which can attract the needed investor capital for financing infrastructure while also helping to bring projects on-line quicker, managing systems more efficiently, and employing innovative operating technologies faster than government agencies.

“PPPs have been used in Europe, Australia, and Canada for the past 10 to 15 years as a vehicle for allowing infrastructure to be built and owned, whether it’s wastewater treatment, high-speed rail, water delivery, or mass transit,” Lucki said. “In those countries, PPPs have been known to provide as much as 15% to 20% of infrastructure financing annually.”

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new policy earlier this year that directs $3.3 billion in federal funding to programs under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to be used toward water and wastewater infrastructure. EPA emphasized that to use this funding, states must implement “smart-growth” principles, and prioritize projects that work to repair and upgrade infrastructure located in city urban centers over water and wastewater extensions in suburban areas that would serve new growth.


Spreading the word

Programs such as the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Water Is Life, and Infrastructure Makes It Happen initiative ( are aimed at helping utilities educate stakeholders about infrastructure issues. Water Is Life targets ratepayers, local leaders, and the media, teaching the value of water infrastructure and the importance of investing in its long-term stability. 

Linda Kelly, WEF managing director of Communications, said the program provides outreach materials for utilities and communities for building awareness and support of infrastructure investments. “Long-term education and support from the public is essential to creating sustainable water infrastructure,” she said. “We now have more than 400 communities actively engaged in infrastructure education efforts throughout the U.S.”

Kelly said these communities are dealing with aging infrastructure in the context of climate change and increased water quality regulation, and, as such, it is important to generate support for upgrading and replacing infrastructure.

“We believe that increasing awareness of the benefits of clean, safe water, plus increasing understanding that infrastructure systems provide it, equals a better chance the public will support the necessary rate increases,” Kelly said.

—  Jeff Gunderson, WE&T


Enough to go around?

Phosphorus shortage concerns spur nutrient recovery technologies and educational efforts

When oil began leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, it set off feelings of outrage, panic, and outright fear in practically anyone who caught a glimpse of the environmental havoc it was wreaking.

Three professors from Arizona State University (ASU; Tempe) hope they can muster up even a fraction of that interest over the leak of another natural resource that, while less obvious, has potentially even greater global consequences.

Their focus is on phosphorus, a key link in the global food chain, an essential nutrient for life, and “the biggest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of,” according to ecologist James Elser, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Earth has a limited supply of phosphorus, and once it is gone, life as we know it will be gone as well, he said.

“There is tremendous waste between the time we mine phosphorus and when it ends up on a dinner plate and beyond,” said Elser, who, along with fellow ASU professors Daniel Childers and Mark Edwards, is the driving force behind the “Sustainable P Initiative,” the first focused effort in the United States to examine ways to plug the many leaks in the human phosphorus cycle.

Unveiled this past Earth Day, the initiative aims to motivate change while helping to bring the United States into alignment with global efforts to design new phosphorus-recovery technologies, conservation strategies, recycling measures, and agricultural and wastewater practices.


Is the phosphorus shortage real?

News of a global phosphorus shortage may come as a surprise to those who live near “dead zones” — coastal areas and lakes that can no longer support marine life due to the high concentration of phosphorus and other nutrients that have entered the waterways and depleted oxygen levels.

But these dead zones are actually among the most tangible proof of “leaks” in the phosphorus cycle: They demonstrate how inefficient use and overuse of fertilizers in agriculture and related runoff problems are both contributing to the phosphorus shortage and causing ecological and environmental damage to boot, according to Daniel Childers, a professor in the ASU School of Sustainability.

The need to reduce phosphorus waste becomes even clearer when you consider that nearly 90% of the world’s remaining phosphorus reserves are concentrated in five countries: the United States, China, Morocco, South Africa, and Jordan. While there is considerable debate among experts regarding how long this supply might last, virtually all agree these reserves are being depleted at an unsustainable rate.

Childers and his ASU colleagues are among those who predict that countries will begin to face phosphorus shortages in the next 25 to 60 years, with U.S. mines becoming depleted even sooner. Scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative ( estimate there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years.

“This is a situation that may not reach the crisis point for another generation,” Childers said. “But we can’t sit and wait. We need to rethink, as a society, how the environment supports us and seek transformative changes in how we interact with it.”

The kind of transformative change Childers envisions is likely to involve collaboration among all sectors of public life, from industry and agriculture to wastewater utilities, policy-makers, and the general public.

“The solutions to these problems are out there,” Childers said. In agriculture, they may include finding ways to prevent soil erosion, to apply fertilizer in more targeted ways, and to genetically engineer crops that use phosphorus more efficiently.

“But the average Joe or Jane who runs a restaurant or sells farm supplies should also be involved,” Childers said. “There are tweaks we all can make in the cycle.”


WWTPs’ role in plugging the leak

While not the largest contributor to the phosphorus shortage, wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) can play an important — and potentially profitable — role in helping forestall it. That’s because wastewater contains a significant amount of phosphorus that can be recovered and reused as fertilizer.

Historically, however, many WWTPs have done neither. One reason for this, according to James Barnard, a global practice and technology leader at Black & Veatch (Overland Park, Kan.), is that it hasn’t been economically feasible.

“Right now, if you remove it, you must pay to get rid of it,” Barnard said. “You need to be able to market and sell it, and those are skills that are typically outside of the expertise of most WWTPs.”

One notable exception, Barnard said, is the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which has been selling its own brand of fertilizer — Milorganite® — since 1925. Working with a nearby university, the district developed Milorganite as a way to avoid landfilling biosolids from the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant — the world’s first large-scale activated sludge plant. The district today sells its fertilizer through distributors in more than 30 states and Canada.

Few WWTPs followed Milwaukee’s entrepreneurial lead until the much more recent development of new processes for creating fertilizers from wastewater — and new financial incentives for employing them.

Among the solutions getting the most attention is a biological process developed by researchers from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) that can recover up to 90% of the phosphorus, along with magnesium and ammonia, from wastewater. Known as the Ostara Pearl® process, it converts ammonium magnesium phosphate — also known as struvite — into small kernels of a slow-release fertilizer sold under the brand name Crystal Green®. One of the early adopters of the process, the Clean Water Services plant in Portland, Ore., is producing 0.9 Mg/d (1 ton/d) of struvite for sale.

“Because it is a slow-release fertilizer, it doesn’t dissolve easily, so it doesn’t wash away with the first rain, which is good for the environment,” Barnard explained. Back at the WWTP, it also eliminates struvite buildup that clogs lines and valves during anaerobic digestion.

“This process has really caught the fancy of people,” Barnard said. “And it will only grow in popularity as the price of phosphate rock goes up.”

And up it is going, Barnard said. In some parts of the world, phosphorus prices rose by 400% or more during a 4-month period before pulling back in more recent months.

“The price may go up and down in the short term,” Barnard said. “But in the end, as supply grows more scarce, it will only go up.”


Low-tech approaches

Even if a WWTP is not in a position to implement a phosphorus-recovery solution yet, there are things it can do to prepare, Barnard said. “Lots of plants incinerate their waste,” he explained. “Phosphorus is indestructible and remains behind in the ash. This ash shouldn’t go to a landfill but in a special place so that you can mine it later.”

Phosphorus removal and recycling solutions do not always require advanced technology, nor are they always elegant, Barnard added.

In countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, researchers are looking at ways to separate urine from solid waste. “The concentration of phosphorus is much higher in urine than in solid waste,” Barnard explained. “If you can keep the two separate, it is much easier to recover.”

In Japan, some building complexes already have special toilets designed to separate the two wastestreams. Wastewater is sent to treatment plants, with urine stored in separate containers and used to make struvite. In parts of the world that cannot afford to buy fertilizer, farmers sometimes are taught to store and use urine as a fertilizer, Barnard said.


What’s ahead

Discussions of solutions like these are sure to be on the agenda in February when ASU hosts its first Sustainable Phosphorus Summit, which is expected to draw phosphorus experts from industry and academia worldwide.

In the meantime, leaders of the Sustainable P Initiative are focused on another one of the initiative’s primary goals: increasing awareness of the phosphorus shortage itself.

“One of the challenges we face is crisis saturation — an overwhelming numbness to the number of seemingly insurmountable problems coming at us,” Childers said. “The good news is [that] we think we can go a long way to solve this problem before it becomes a crisis; we are not past the point of no return.”

— Mary Bufe, WE&T

©2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.