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New Orleans and its water and wastewater system, both severely tested during Hurricane Katrina, are still recovering
In New Orleans, water giveth and water taketh away. During the Oct. 4 breakfast jointly held by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (Annapolis, Md.), the Interamerican Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association (São Paolo, Brazil), and the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.), guest speaker Joe Becker, superintendent at the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, shared how the city’s destiny has been tied to its surrounding waterways. Becker detailed how the vibrant city began as a French fort near the Mississippi River and how the failure of levees near Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 pushed the city and its resources nearly to their breaking point.
Becker said the drainage system that exists today was largely in place by 1950. It consists of 24 pumping stations powered by diesel fuel and electricity. The Sewerage and Water Board has its own electrical generator plant and 185 km (115 mi) of electric distribution cable, 90% of which is underground and concrete-encased. The board only uses its underground system when the city has to shut down electricity in its overhead wires during high winds. Because of these underground cables, the board was able to continue water and wastewater service during the initial days after Hurricane Katrina but soon had to turn off the system, Becker said. They worried that the electric cables in the basement of some treatment facilities would cause serious hazards if flooded, he said.
Because of the storm, much of board’s equipment and trucks suffered extensive damage. One plant was hit by a 4.9-m (16-ft) wave. Helicopters later were sent there to rescue stranded workers. Becker said the radio system allowed the board to communicate with workers stuck at treatment plants and pumping stations, but “employees were left to fend for themselves.”
New Orleans and the board are still in recovery mode 5 years later. Before Katrina, the board served 140,500 residential, commercial, and industrial customer accounts. Now it has only about 118,000. Becker said because the agency is completely reliant on water bills for funding, the capital expenditure program has been placed on hold while the board addresses the revenue shortfall.
Raising rates was not possible. “Our customers just couldn’t absorb the rate increase. They are more concerned with getting their lives back in order,” Becker said.
“Even though we have fewer customers, we still have to maintain all the pipes and pumps, and maintain the same level of service,” Becker said.
Since Katrina, the board has modified its emergency planning, Becker said. It now has emergency discharge connections and added huge generators to its pumping stations. The board also has learned the benefits of developing mutual aid agreements. Informally, the board had good relationships with neighboring parishes, but when the hurricane arrived, every parish was mostly left to its own resources because of the scale of destruction, Becker said. Help had to come from much farther away — Lafayette, La.; Seattle; Canada; and Germany — as well as from numerous volunteer groups, he said.
— LaShell Stratton–Childers,
At a special technical session at WEFTEC 2010 in New Orleans, representatives from the local, state, and national levels of government and a contractor and a water quality analyst spoke about their experiences and their roles in the BP (London) Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While the immediate impact has been minimal from a human perspective, much of the water quality data from the region is still being analyzed.
Karen McCormick, section chief of marine and coastal protection at Region 6 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), spoke about the agency’s many roles in the response, including assistance with water sampling efforts and analysis using existing baseline sediment and water quality conditions.
According to McCormick, “post-spill” sampling results (from May 17 to Aug. 29), still had “no indications of toxicity,” and “extended period” sampling results (from Aug. 29 to Sept. 22) were still forthcoming at the time of WEFTEC in early October. (Updates and more information on the oil spill and federal government response and recovery efforts are available at www.RestoreTheGulf.gov.)
Fortunately for inhabitants in the area, McCormick said, “intakes of drinking water wells were not impacted.”
As for the impact to the gulf from the oil spill, McCormick said, “We don’t know, but oil moves, and things change.”
Other speakers included Peggy Hatch, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, David Keith of Anchor QEA (Seattle), Tom Brosnan of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Thomas Holden of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Jennifer Cragan of Applied Science Associates (ASA; South Kingstown, R.I.).
Others speak of real-time response
During the initial cleanup effort, there was little local government representation, so smaller jurisdictions “felt a little bit in the dark,” said Keith, whose company was hired by the city of Ocean Springs, Miss., as a general contractor to protect the city’s coastline from the oil spill.
Keith also spoke about the constant challenges the city faced, including the inadequate guidance and tools to protect marshes and outfalls (such as booms that did not extend deep enough to contain mostly emulsified, submerged oil by the time it reached the Mississippi coast), and the vetting of hundreds of vendors and contractors that offered services and products of unknown effectiveness.
“All felt they had the silver bullet, but would they be effective?” Keith said. “Could they be permitted and implemented in the time frame that made sense? How would they fit into the overall cleanup goals, and who would pay?”
Keith said that the longer-term issues remain unknown, such as the continued washing up of tar balls, which are buried and exposed with the cycle of tides and shoreline migration.
The theme of creating tools in real time was echoed in the presentation by Cragan from ASA, which provided computer modeling services to measure and confirm data on the fate and trajectory of oil spills. Cragan said little information existed on deep (greater than 1000-m) currents near the spill point, which were important in modeling efforts.
Cragan said her team found that lots of smaller oil droplets (less than 100 µm) had dispersed but did not surface and maintained a mixed distribution throughout the water column. Cragan said her team also looked at filtered and whole water samples to gather data on dissolved versus particulate oil, compounds such as alkanes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and levels of dissolved organic carbon and total suspended solids.
Cragan also spoke of the challenge of the depth at which data was gathered. “A lot of our tools were used mostly for coastal waters, which are at a depth of less than 60 meters,” Cragan said, “but the oil spill happened at 1500-plus meters.”
Cragan concluded that “so far the focus has been on gathering data, but we are just beginning to see the analyses.”
By reducing risk to first adopters of technological solutions, government funding and industry partnerships can help water professionals meet future environmental challenges
It’s an understatement to say the municipal wastewater industry is not made for risk-takers. However, if utilities want to comply with inevitably more strict and new regulations, the wastewater industry will have to pick up the pace at which it adopts new technologies, according to Denny S. Parker, who was honored recently at WEFTEC in New Orleans by speaking at the 2010 Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP; Champaign, Ill.)/Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Invited Lecture on technology and innovation.
“Considering the challenges to water industry professionals, now, more than ever, is the time to revisit our approaches to adoption of innovative technologies,” Parker said. In his presentation, Parker looked to five successful technologies to draw the lessons of bringing technology innovations to the mainstream.
Parker is a senior vice president and director of technology for Brown and Caldwell (Walnut Creek, Calif.). He has won seven national awards for his process engineering work, including election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2004 and WEF’s Camp Medal in 2003.
The invited lecturer is awarded annually by AEESP and WEF. The award, sponsored by CDM (Cambridge, Mass.), is intended to build ties between academics and practitioners.
Tighter requirements increase urgency
Parker said that, based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 Clean Watersheds Needs Survey, nutrient concentrations in effluent are “headed to zero” as nitrogen emissions are expected to grow, and control over contaminants of emerging concern, while not required yet, is almost inevitable.
In developing solutions to these problems, Parker said the industry needs to move quickly and with the right information.
“Research is needed to find the tool to fit the problem,” Parker said. “We better get this right the first time, so we don’t have to go out and build again.”
Drawing lessons from successful technologies
Parker said the market penetration of five technology “success stories” followed a classic S curve, starting with their invention and pilot phase, then continuing to the first demonstration, then first application, and finally becoming “mature” and spawning a second generation.
The five technologies he discussed were the high-purity oxygen activated sludge process, flocculator clarifier, trickling filter/solids contact filter, moving bed biofilm reactor (MBBR)/integrated fixed-film activated sludge (IFAS) processes, and membrane bioreactor.
Most of the technologies were developed in the 1960s, some by private companies (high-purity oxygen, membrane bioreactor), some by researchers at universities (trickling filter, flocculator clarifier, MBBR/IFAS).
Parker noted that some received government funding at some point in their development. For example, the high-purity oxygen process was marketed and licensed through a partnership between Union Carbide and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Trickling filters, meanwhile, were developed at the University of California at Berkeley, and after a pilot in the 1980s at a Corvallis, Ore., treatment plant, EPA funded research to find out if they were successful.
While some technologies succeeded through mostly private sector efforts and research, such as the MBBR/IFAS (AnoxKaldnes AB; Lund, Sweden) and membrane bioreactor (Dorr–Oliver and, later, Zenon Environmental), they took a long time to become “mature” (widely adopted) technologies — 12 and 28 years, respectively.
“The problems with these long introduction periods for these processes is that the benefits of the processes cannot be fully gained when new regulatory initiatives are put into place,” Parker said.
Elements of success
Parker said the ingredients to successful adoption were as follows:
government funding “at some point” in the development process;
competition, which was “absolutely essential” for individual early adoption; and
“Our marketplace will not accept black boxes very well,” Parker said, referring to proprietary technologies whose materials and operation are concealed from potential competitors as well as customers.
Parker added that the forum provided by WEF in the form of conference papers and technical presentations also played a key role. In contrast, patenting of a technology was not essential, he said, nor was marketing, as other information networks were used.
Parker presented four “ideas for discussion” that he’d like the industry to consider. According to Parker, the following ideas would speed up the adoption process “by spreading risk more broadly, instead of putting the burden solely on that first adopter.”
State and federal demonstration grants. Parker said these have been “very effective at getting new technology off the ground.”
State and federal technology replacement. “If your process fails, the federal government will cover 100% of replacement costs,” Parker said.
New technology insurance. Parker said this is a new idea, but it would weigh the “theoretical benefits of cost savings” and insure the “downside risk.”
Partnerships and alliances. “As an industry in North America, when those fences get crossed, we tend to look at new technology with suspicion, when in fact we should be celebrating,” Parker said.
Parker said that organizations such as WEF and the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.) will continue to play a significant role by providing access to information about developing technologies and their validation.
At WEFTEC, utility managers share concerns, solutions
While sinking revenues due to a downward economy, the need to rebuild infrastructure, and increasingly stringent regulations continued to be major concerns for water and wastewater utility managers at WEFTEC, this year a few new issues appeared on executives’ radar screens. These topics were discussed at length during roundtables, technical sessions, and committee meetings.
During the Utility Executive Forum on Oct. 5, participants discussed climate and climate change and how they affect utilities from both local and national perspectives. Rebecca West, deputy general manager of Technical and Engineering Services at Spartanburg (S.C.) Water, shared findings of the Climate Ready Utilities Working Group, an advisory committee convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
West said the working group acknowledged climate change already may be having an impact on utilities through droughts, which do not leave enough precipitation to replenish watersheds; excess water from flooding; the overall impact of runoff from tropical storms; and warmer temperatures, which have resulted in lower dissolved oxygen levels and could be contributing to the increase in hypoxic zones. She pointed to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and this year’s floods in Nashville as recent examples of how climate change might have an effect on water and wastewater infrastructure.
To prepare for climate change, utilities will need to carry out vulnerability assessments similar to those performed following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, West said, adding that the working group acknowledged the inherent limitations at utilities. For instance, some utilities may not have the financial capability to become climate-ready, and some measures that need to be taken might be in conflict with existing regulations. Also, since the topic is largely misunderstood and highly politicized, West said, more advanced research is required to truly understand the ramifications of climate change and information must be better consolidated.
To help utilities make the necessary preparations, the working group made several suggestions. They included the following:
EPA should develop a program to support the adoption of climate-ready activities.
EPA should build climate adaptation into existing programs.
State, federal, and local agencies should work together to push the idea of climate readiness.
The working group should create a comprehensive strategy that all utilities can agree upon.
West said the group also was adamant that EPA offer incentives, not penalties, to encourage participation. “We were very clear that we wanted this to be a carrot, not a stick,” she said. For example, the group suggested that EPA look at existing recognition programs to acknowledge utilities that are striving for climate readiness.
After the climate change presentations, forum participants shared their experiences and reactions. One participant said he tries to integrate climate readiness into existing capital improvement projects rather than start entirely new projects. Another said his utility is more likely to get funding when the projects are labeled “wet weather” because the “climate change” term is so politicized. Some participants said they expect climate change to be plugged more into financial models and planning, and anticipate that in the future more underwriters in the bond market will ask utilities how they are preparing for climate change.
New solutions in tough economic times
In addition to climate change, executives also discussed how they are responding to economic pressures. For some, having less funding has required them to develop more creative ways to bring in revenue and save money. During a roundtable luncheon held by Black & Veatch (Overland Park, Kan.) on Oct. 5, “Economic Pressures: How Are We Adapting in Difficult Times?”, water and wastewater utility executives from the United States, Australia, and Singapore shared their innovative responses to the international economic crisis.
Jerry N. Johnson, general manager at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC; Laurel, Md.) said the utility recently invested in a wind power farm in Pennsylvania, which over the course of 10 years is expected to save WSSC $20 million in electricity costs. WSSC is selling engineering services, using submetering at some apartment complexes in its region, and plans to sell lumber and timber grown on the utility’s currently unused property. WSSC also is taking advantage of jointly purchasing benefits packages, information technology, and vehicle fleets with other utilities to get better pricing, he said.
Dave Williams, director of wastewater at the East Bay Municipal Utility District (Oakland, Calif.), said his utility has tried to become more energy-independent and has been able to sell electricity back to the grid. The utility also plans to raise funds by selling several of its patents and renting out space at its state-of-the-art laboratories to other agencies.
But while utilities are always on a quest to raise more revenue, some said the focus also should be on water stewardship and sustainability in the technical session “Corporations Supporting Sustainable Utilities: Collaborative Water Stewardship,” speakers insisted that fostering sustainability and raising revenue were not mutually exclusive.
“If you show businesses how to build water conservation into their practices, they can become the best water stewards they can be,” said Rebecca West, who also spoke at the technical session. “I know you’re thinking it’s really odd for a water utility to say ‘Conserve, conserve, conserve.’ But it’s to protect the asset that already exists instead of having to go out and find additional sources,” she explained.
West shared the story of a local customer who partnered with Coca-Cola (Atlanta) to recycle the company’s bottles. This presented Spartanburg Water with the opportunity to double the water sold to the recycler, which was good for revenue, but the increase also would require more treatment of the wastewater from the recycling plant. By working with the utility, the customer was able to reduce its projected water use and thereby reduce the levels of biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids in its wastewater. This enabled the company to make a quick start. The company also was able to reuse some of its water at the plant. In return, it was granted higher permit limits for a 2-year period while it worked out its processes.
“We went from regulators and enforcers to searching for a solution with our customers,” West said.
— LaShell Stratton–Childers,
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