Are non-point sources key to nutrient reduction in future?

During WEFTEC.15 in Chicago, a panel discussion hosted by Ovivo brought together five progressive utility managers to discuss the current and future needs of utilities and how to meet them. They tackled a number of topics, including regulations, water reuse, attracting talent, and encouraging innovation, including successfully reducing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Part of that solution will be addressing non-point sources.

When you consider the quality of our water resources today, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the past forty years. While there are certainly a number of challenges before us in the water and wastewater sector, we can’t discount the amazing successes that have been achieved. But are those successes actually making life more difficult for water and wastewater utilities?

During WEFTEC.15 in Chicago, a panel discussion hosted by Ovivo brought together five progressive utility managers - DC Water’s George Hawkins, David St. Pierre of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), San Jose’s Carrie Romanow, Tom Kula of North Texas Municipal Water District, and Lou Di Geronimo of Toronto Water - to discuss the current and future needs of utilities and how to meet them. They tackled a number of topics, including regulations, water reuse, attracting talent, and encouraging innovation.

The entire discussion was interesting, but one of the topics I found most fascinating was how the industry’s success is impacting and informing its path forward.

“When we fail at something, everyone knows it,” said George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water. “To me, one of the biggest challenges in human endeavor is when you need to change from a success - not a failure.”

When it comes to regulatory initiatives around nutrients for example, the challenge for the Environmental Protection Agency, Hawkins pointed out, is that it has been extremely successful at reducing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus - and all sorts of other contaminants - compared to where we were in the 1960s and 1970s. “The change has been extraordinary,” he said. “We should celebrate it!”

But the challenge of a bureaucratic system, he suggested, is that it continues to do what it has always done. “And what has happened to all of us is that the cost of removing the next increment of nutrient from our sources has become exorbitantly high,” he said. That cost ultimately is passed on to urban and suburban customers, who are already paying considerable fees for water and wastewater services.

Hawkins said that at DC Water, the cost of removing the next increment of nutrient has gone up by about 100 times over the last 15 years. “Yet we know that if DC Water’s discharge of nutrients [to the Chesapeake Bay] were zero, the problem would not be solved because we’re now - because of past successes - a small part of the source.”

“Nutrients are very tricky,” said David St. Pierre, executive director of MWRD. “They’re actually not a pollutant by designation. Waterways need nutrients to be healthy.” The regulatory agencies have done a tremendous job of studying waterways and setting goals for utilities, he said. “And that has to continue... But going into the future, I believe that we need to shift from just a one-size-fits-all type of environment to actually identifying the problems that we are trying to solve and then developing technologies that can get us to that in a very efficient manner.”

Part of that solution will be addressing non-point sources. “It’s hard work,” said Hawkins. “It’s not as easy as our pipes, which are easy to find, easy to monitor. But the simple fact is [that] if all of our plants were at zero, it would not clean up the waterbodies that we’re seeking to improve.” That has to come from the sources that are considered non-point he said. “And that’s where, in the future, I think we have to go.”

Angela Godwin

Chief Editor, WaterWorld

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