August 2012, Vol. 24, No.8

A happy medium

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U.S. EPA releases integrated stormwater and wastewater framework to help municipalities manage regulatory obligations and financial constraints

Many municipalities are facing not only increasingly limited capital budgets but also stricter regulations for their wastewater and stormwater systems, leaving some with the dilemma of which project to implement first and how to do it cost-effectively.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered a way to help solve this problem. The agency released the revised framework for its integrated municipal stormwater and wastewater approach, which it hopes will help municipalities find a way to achieve the water quality objectives of the Clean Water Act by identifying how to address the competing capital and operations and maintenance requirements of separate wastewater and stormwater projects.

According to a June 5 memorandum issued by Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Water, and Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, the hope is that in addition to helping municipalities identify inefficiencies in implementing both stormwater and wastewater programs, the integrated planning approach framework will “also facilitate the use of sustainable and comprehensive solutions, including green infrastructure, that protect human health, improve water quality, manage stormwater as a resource, and support other economic benefits and quality of life attributes that enhance the vitality of communities.”

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements for separate sanitary sewer systems, combined sewer systems, municipal separate storm sewer systems, and wastewater treatment plants can all be included under the integrated plan. EPA states in its framework document that if a municipality decides to pursue this type of integrated program, the plan should address the following six key elements:

  • a description of the water quality, human health, and regulatory issues to be addressed in the plan;
  • a description of existing wastewater and stormwater systems under consideration, along with summary information describing the systems’ current performance
  • a process that opens and maintains channels of communication with relevant community stakeholders to give full consideration of others’ views in the planning process and during plan implementation;
  • a process to identify, evaluate, and select alternatives, and to propose implementation schedules;
  • as projects identified in the plan are being implemented, a process to evaluate the projects’ performance, which may include evaluation of monitoring data, information developed by pilot and other studies, and other relevant information;
  • a process to identify, evaluate, and select proposed new projects or modifications to ongoing or planned projects, as well as implementation schedules based on changing circumstances.

Water quality organizations, including the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.), applauded the release of the new integrated framework. “It will help water managers address the most pressing public health and environmental protection issues first while balancing Clean Water Act requirements with today’s limited funding,” said WEF Executive Director Jeff Eger in a news release.

On June 14, WEF presented a free webcast to members on the integrated framework called “Clean Water Act Integrated Planning Framework: Next Steps,” which included panel members from WEF, EPA, the Association of Clean Water Administrators (Washington, D.C.), and Hatch Mott MacDonald (Millburn, N.J.).

View the archived webcast at

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 



Cleaning up Chesapeake Bay

A uniform water quality trading program across the Chesapeake Bay watershed could significantly reduce cleanup costs — but is it worth pursuing?

Chesapeake Bay cleanup costs could be slashed by as much as $1 billion a year if all the point and nonpoint source polluters in the 166,000-km2 (64,000-mi2) watershed banded together to implement a single, uniform water quality trading program. Millions more might be saved by letting developers and utilities fund agricultural conservation practices that would offset pollution caused by new development and growth.

These are among the findings of an economic analysis published this spring by RTI International (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Commission (Annapolis, Md.).

The key question is whether a simplified, coordinated approach to water quality trading makes sense for the watershed, which includes the District of Columbia and five states — four of which already have their own distinct nutrient trading programs in place. Representatives of several of the existing trading programs aren’t so sure. At least not yet.

Finding the lowest-cost solution 

Given the multibillion-dollar price tag on the massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup, states would seem to need all the cost-cutting help they can get to meet their portion of the total maximum daily load (TMDL) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established for the bay in 2010. The TMDL sets limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that may enter the bay annually from each of its main tributaries.

The beauty of trading programs is that they give wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and other point source contributors more flexibility in how they achieve compliance with the stricter water quality standards, according to George Van Houtven, lead author of the RTI analysis.

“With trading programs, communities have the option of investing millions in upgrading their treatment plants to meet the new load requirements or, for substantially less money, purchasing the load reductions from other sources that have reduced their loads below the level required of them,” Van Houtven explained.

Trading programs also can buy a point source time, according to Veronica Kasi, a program manager in the Technical and Financial Assistance Division of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “Purchasing credits from a farmer can be a good short-term solution,” she said. “It can give a plant the 3 to 5 years it may need to complete upgrades and achieve compliance itself.”

The RTI study found that nutrient trading across the Chesapeake Bay watershed could cut WWTP upgrade costs by 20% to 50%, depending on the program’s parameters. Communities required to limit stormwater pollution could save as much as 80% by paying farmers to adopt conservation practices that reduce nutrient runoff.

These estimates, Van Houtven said, represent the cost savings that could be achieved from trading under best-case conditions.

“Our modeling found that the potential cost savings are the lowest when trading is limited to within the same state and river basin,” Van Houtven explained. “They’re greatest with a program that opens the doors to trading with anyone in the watershed.”

The devil is in the details 

The study’s focus on low-cost solutions is useful and educational, said Russ Baxter, who represents the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on the Chesapeake Bay Commission advisory council.

“Whether or not a low-cost approach is practical depends on the details of whatever trading program might ultimately be developed,” Baxter said. “While saving money is important, there are many other local issues that must be considered in developing a trading program, and they can vary significantly from one state and one water basin to another.”

In Virginia and Maryland, for example, point sources are the primary contributors of nutrients, while nonpoint sources dominate in agriculture-heavy Pennsylvania, factors that can affect credit supply and demand.

“We all look at our challenges differently,” said John Rhoderick of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Each state, as a result, has developed its own approach to nutrient trading as part of its bay cleanup plans. In each case, trading eligibility requirements differ, as do participation restrictions and the credit exchange ratios between different types of sources. Each state also limits trading to participants inside its own jurisdiction, with only some allowing trading between point and nonpoint sources.

An “open door” trading policy would give participants more flexibility, but it also could result in water quality differences across the watershed, Van Houtven said. “Depending on who is buying and selling, you could end up with a different spatial distribution of the nutrient load,” he said.

The water quality issues that might result concern the states. “We want to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but we have water quality issues here at home, too,” said Andy Zemba, director of the Pennsylvania DEP’s Interstate Waters Office. “We don’t want trading to work to the detriment of local water quality.”

The opportunity to trade across states also may not appeal to all parties for other reasons.

“When I work with a municipality or developer, they don’t want to buy a credit for a project upstream or in another state,” Rhoderick said. “They want the benefits to remain local.”

 “There is also the issue of equity,” Rhoderick added. “If the solution always falls to the low-cost alternative, that means much of the burden is placed on agriculture. Our constituents don’t necessarily like that. They think each party should pay for their contribution to the situation.”

“There are definite advantages to working together,” Kasi said. “But there are some important discussions that need to take place before that can happen.”

The biggest issue, Kasi said, is how credits are defined and what must be done to meet them. “Each state has defined trading requirements differently,” she explained. “A credit in one state may not be considered a credit in another.”

A long-term solution?

Many current state programs are still young and gaining traction. “As long as state programs are effective, I don’t know that they all need to be the same,” Baxter said. “Perhaps in the longer term, once we’ve begun to exhaust our local options, there may be more need to look elsewhere. Then a uniform approach might be worth a closer look.”

— Mary Bufe, WE&T 

Connecticut’s nitrogen trading program: It’s working

A nitrogen trading program established more than a decade ago has the State of Connecticut on track to meet its 2014 nitrogen reduction goals for Long Island Sound. And it’s saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, according to Jeanette Brown, former executive director of the Stamford (Conn.) Water Pollution Control Authority. The authority is one of 79 Connecticut wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) participating in the program.

The program was created in response to a 1998 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreement to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Long Island Sound watershed from Connecticut and New York by 58.5%. It allows Connecticut WWTPs to create, sell, and purchase credits to meet their individual nitrogen effluent limitations. To date, more than 40 nitrogen removal projects have been implemented, representing nearly 4.5 million kg (10 million lb) of nitrogen removed from the wastestream annually.

“The trading program gives cities and towns the ability to control their own destinies,” Brown said. “It makes sense for places like Stamford, where the treatment plant was 27 years old, to upgrade their facilities and sell nitrogen credits to help recoup their investment. For smaller towns, it is typically cheaper to buy credits than to complete their own upgrades.”

The program’s broad statewide acceptance was fueled by attenuation factors that placed greater burdens on WWTPs with the greatest direct impact on Long Island Sound, Brown said. “A pound [0.45 kg] of nitrogen coming from 90 miles [145 km] away would have less effect on the sound than a pound from a coastal treatment plant,” she said. “The fairness of the program’s design really helped get cities and towns on board.”

There have been minor hiccups along the way, Brown acknowledged. “The original goal was to have the buyers and sellers even out,” she said. “It hasn’t always worked that way. A treatment plant’s biological processes can be impacted by weather conditions or plant upsets.”

Still, the state is on track to meet the 2014 goal. Then what?

“The state will be creating some new models,” Brown said. “If they show that the total maximum daily load must go lower still, the program may need to be adjusted accordingly.” 

  — Mary Bufe, WE&T 




Renewable energy heats up

Wastewater utilities and developers install geothermal and heat-recovery systems

Wastewater can be a huge source for renewable energy, and its potential has not been lost on the wastewater treatment industry. Some utilities are even pursuing the goal of becoming net-zero users by installing renewable energy technologies at their facilities.

“We know we’re doing our part to clean the water, but we also consume a lot of energy to clean that water,” said Andy Kricun, executive director and chief engineer of the Camden County (N.J.) Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA). In order to offset that energy it consumes, CCMUA installed a 2-MW solar array system and now has plans to install a geothermal system.

Geothermal energy, geoexchange, and sewer heat-recovery systems can be especially useful for wastewater treatment facilities, because the heat removed from wastewater could be used to help heat buildings, complexes, or even — in the far-off future — entire municipalities.

“There are estimates out there that 50% of usable heat from hot water goes down the drain unused,” said Lynn Mueller, president of International Wastewater Heat Exchanges Systems (IWHES; Burnaby, British Columbia).

Rather than continue to waste this precious commodity, utilities like CCMUA and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) — and even building developers — are installing systems to trap and reuse heat from wastewater.

From wastewater to energy 

In April, the City of Philadelphia announced that it installed a 1-million-kJ/h (978,000-Btu/h) geothermal heating unit by NovaThermal Energy (Philadelphia) at its Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant.

“Partnering with a Philadelphia-based company and using innovative technology, we have achieved a win–win for energy efficiency and economic development,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter in a news release. “We will be able to save on costs and energy resources at a city facility while commercializing a technology that can be used in large commercial and industrial buildings throughout the country.”

Elinor Haider, chief executive officer of NovaThermal Energy, said the unit, which is NovaThermal’s smallest, cost about $225,000. But the city incurred no cost or outlay expenses for its installation, according to the Philadelphia City Hall news release. Part of the funding for the project was provided by the city’s Greenworks Pilot Energy Technology Grant program, which is supported by federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant funds, with additional funding from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Haider said the installed system is an “integrated, patented system with a rotating-box-screen filter that removes large particulate matter” from wastewater. Because the technology is “product-ready,” Haider said, it only took a few months to fabricate it, though the total timeline between signing the contract with PWD to installing the equipment and getting it up and running took about 18 months. “This had more to do with meeting grant obligations,” she said.

The system is tied into the compressor building’s heating mains. Automatic temperature controls were installed to create control bypasses for backup systems, according to a NovaThermal Energy fact sheet. Also, according to the fact sheet, the new system will enable PWD to save 50% of its current heating costs, with an annual savings of $18,100.

NovaThermal Energy currently has a request for proposal in with CCMUA for a similar geothermal energy project, Kricun said.

“We indicated in a newspaper article that we were interested in all types of renewable energy programs that would get us toward our net-zero energy goal of generating all our energy onsite,” Kricun said. So far, CCMUA has received four different types of proposals, and NovaThermal Energy’s is one of them.

Kricun said that if CCMUA decides to move forward with the geothermal energy project, the hope is to have the equipment installed by November for the heating season.

Economic and environmental considerations 

At the end of 2011, IWHES successfully installed one of its wastewater heat-exchange systems at a 60-unit condominium complex in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The technology will use heat from residents’ wastewater to heat the water throughout the building.

IWHES said the developer installed the system because North Vancouver has a covenant to save energy. In order for the developer to be able to build extra units on the site, the condominium complex had to get silver status in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (“LEED”) from the U.S. Green Building Council (Washington, D.C.). This required including some renewable energy source in the building.

“So they had the choice to pursue either solar, geothermal, geoexchange, or sewer heat recovery,” Mueller said. “Because there isn’t a lot of sun in Vancouver, solar wasn’t really feasible. They didn’t want to do the drilling that was required for geoexchange.”

Mueller said they installed IWHES’s 127,000-kJ/h (120,000-Btu/h) sewer heat-recovery system, which he said was half the price of a geoexchange system.

The IWHES system also enables the condominium complex to have a 78% cost savings over conventional water heating, and it is operating at 500% efficiency, Mueller said. He said the system takes the wastestream and temporarily removes solids, and then the wastewater that is left is sent through a heat pump. “For every dollar you spend on the heat pump, you get $5 worth of heat out of it” — hence the 500% efficiency, he said.

The system also enables the complex to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 150 Mg/yr, compared to a conventional water-heating system, according to an IWHES news release.

Mueller said IWHES is planning to do its second installment in Vancouver with the same developer. 

LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 

©2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.