Two Reports Examine Water Sector Challenges

A pair of recent reports has underscored the hurdles facing the U.S. water sector.

Dec 1st, 2016

By Patrick Crow

A pair of recent reports has underscored the hurdles facing the U.S. water sector.

In the first, eight water groups submitted policy and research recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE), which is preparing transition documents for the next presidential administration.

The white paper was tendered by the Water Research Foundation (which led the effort), the Water Environment Federation, the American Water Works Association, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation, the National Association of Water Companies, and the U.S. Water Alliance.

Collectively, the groups represent utilities that provide service to 90 percent of the U.S. population through drinking water, wastewater, resource recovery, reuse, and stormwater systems.

Their report, which Energy Sec. Ernest Moniz had requested, concluded that greater research and collaboration between the energy and water sectors would improve systems and stimulate energy efficiency, resource recovery, and water conservation.

The water groups noted the mutual dependence of the energy and water sectors. Some 52,000 community (drinking) water systems and 15,000 wastewater utilities in the U.S. consume 2-4 percent of the nation’s electricity. The energy sector uses 27 percent of U.S. nonagricultural fresh water. Between 1996 and 2011, energy use in public water supply and treatment rose 37 percent while energy use in wastewater treatment rose 74 percent.

The paper said public surface water systems use the most energy for finished water pumping and water treatment while wastewater treatment plants use the most energy in aeration. Processing and managing wastewater-derived biosolids also require significant amounts of energy.

It said wastewater treatment facilities increasingly are focusing on recovering the resources found in wastewater, which contains nearly five times the energy needed for the wastewater treatment process - mostly thermal energy.

The paper said the wastewater sector has the potential to generate 851 trillion BTU of energy annually, enough to heat 13 million homes, and potentially could eliminate its net consumption, generating excess energy for other uses at a competitive price.

It said although the water sector has addressed energy‐water nexus issues for decades through research and practices, increased collaboration with DOE and other groups could lead to significant advancements. It said a summit between major energy companies and water utilities also could define opportunities for strategic planning and cooperation.

The paper listed a number of research gaps, barriers to development, rate issues and economic measures affecting the energy-water nexus.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examined the challenges that midsized and large water and wastewater utilities face as their infrastructure improvement needs grow but their rate-paying customer base declines.

GAO analyzed census data for 10 cities with the largest population declines from 1980 through 2010 and the financial statements for 14 water and wastewater utilities in those cities. It said the problems of the 10 cities generally reflected those of cities nationally.

“Water and wastewater utility representatives described major infrastructure needs, including pipeline repair and replacement and wastewater improvements to control combined sewer overflows,” the report said.

Most of the 14 utilities had raised rates annually to cover declines in revenues related to decreasing water use from declining populations or to pay for rising operating and capital expenses.

Most had adopted strategies to make rates more affordable for low-income customers and had drafted cost-control strategies, such as rightsizing system infrastructure to fit current demands (i.e., reducing treatment capacity or decommissioning water or sewer lines in vacant areas).

As an example of rightsizing, five of the wastewater utilities said that they planned on or were considering using vacant areas for green infrastructure (vegetated areas that enhance onsite infiltration) to help control stormwater that can lead to sewer overflows.

GAO said six federal programs and one policy are available to assist midsize and large cities with declining populations in addressing their water and wastewater infrastructure needs.

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

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