Speakers Share Industry Insights at Annual WWEMA Meeting

WWEMA's 102nd Annual Meeting was held in the arid Southwest - Tucson to be precise - though the sight of frost on the grounds each morning was in stark contrast to what one would expect to see in the arid Sonoran desert in early November.

Jan 1st, 2011

By Dawn Kristof Champney, WWEMA President

WWEMA's 102nd Annual Meeting was held in the arid Southwest - Tucson to be precise - though the sight of frost on the grounds each morning was in stark contrast to what one would expect to see in the arid Sonoran desert in early November. Given the challenges facing the Southwest with dwindling water supplies and exploding populations, this was an ideal location to hold this year's meeting as we delved into the many challenges and key opportunities that lie in store for companies serving the water and wastewater industry.

Sustainability was a theme throughout the program, beginning with a keynote address by the Director of Arizona's Department of Environmental Protection, Ben Grumbles. He spoke of the three "Rs" of water sustainability: reducing water / wastewater inefficiency through such means as full cost pricing; reusing water, as in the case of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generator Station - the largest in the U.S. - which gets all its cooling water from reclaimed sources; and restoring watersheds by reducing particulate emissions and employing green infrastructure.

Offering a regional perspective on water sustainability was a panel of Arizona water purveyors. Marie Pearthree spoke about water management challenges at the Central Arizona Project (CAP), noting that today Lake Mead is at less than 40% capacity. CAP is also the single largest end user of power in Arizona, using about 2.8 million megawatt hours of electrical energy each year to deliver about 1.6 million acre-feet of water for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses.

Water shortages are not unique to America's Southwest, noted Graham Symmonds of Global Water. By 2025, 1.8 billion of the world's projected 8.9 billion people will be living in countries or regions that are experiencing "absolute water scarcity," and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress. To prevent this outcome, he called on water utilities to effect conservation by adopting technologies to ensure water quality; understand and efficiently control its use; adopt appropriate price signals that value its intrinsic, environmental and social cost; and provide consumption data to consumers so that they may take appropriate action to conserve its use.

Eric Wieduwilt of Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department presented a case study on one authority's approach to sustainable water management, beginning with an asset management plan conducted in 2000. The challenge was to address needs at a system level, not "patch and pray." They soon discovered that their annual sewer rates were half the national average, underfunding the true cost of infrastructure. The result was a $720 million regional optimization master plan, taking regulatory requirements and infrastructure replacement needs into account, requiring rates to rise to $490 annually by 2014, in sync with national levels.

Ed Means of Malcolm Pirnie gave a comprehensive overview of emerging trends in technology and the water market. Among them: population growth, with 20% of the population over 65 in 2050 as compared to 4% in 1990; financial constraints among utilities, pushing equipment manufacturers to build value proposition around efficiency and cost savings; total water management taking into account climate change adaptation and water quality degradation; consumer expectations and social media trends; and growth in regulations including the possibility of having UV systems in each wastewater treatment plant to address NDMA.

Advancing the state of technology was a topic of keen interest to our next speaker, Dr. Tom Speth from EPA's Office of Research and Development, who spoke about the agency's new drinking water strategy and its role in fostering development of new drinking water technologies to address health risks posed by a broad array of contaminants. EPA intends to develop testing protocols, conduct field projects, and evaluate and validate new technologies to address a suite of contaminants affordably and sustainably. Critical to its success will be the involvement of the states in developing the protocols in order to avoid any duplicative piloting requirements for verified products. "Overcoming fear on the part of utilities to use new technologies will also be essential, perhaps by issuing guidance to the states to give some relief to systems that try to innovate," he observed.

One area of sustainability that will be challenged if not carefully managed in the coming years is that of the energy-water nexus. Mike Hightower of Sandia National Laboratories gave a compelling talk about growing limitations on U.S. fresh surface water and ground water availability and projected increases in energy and water consumption from traditional and alternative fuels. Growth in water treatment, new disinfection technologies, and increased water transportation needs will also increase energy intensity, with projections of 3%-10% growth in total demand for energy by the water and wastewater sector by 2030.

The final speaker on this year's Annual Meeting program was Dan McCarthy, president and CEO of Black & Veatch Water. He spoke about the impact of the current financial conditions on the water industry in a talk titled "The Ugly, The Bad and The Good." The ugly encompassed subprime housing and subprime governments, a financial crisis of unprecedented scope and intensive. Having dodged several bullets in avoiding a global trade collapse, he cautioned that we are not out of the woods with the bad representing the usual natural disasters, pandemics, wars, etc. The good came out of dialogues Black & Veatch conducted with water industry leaders over the course of the year focused on the complexities of meeting expectations and demands in a tough economic climate.

Even in these challenging times, some utilities are still moving forward with their capital improvement plans in order to take advantage of competitive pricing and the current low cost of financing.

"They have been forced to think the unthinkable and then find innovative ways of dealing with the new reality," noted McCarthy. "We're writing the book as we go along and trying our best to mitigate the impacts of the bad and the ugly and find as much good as possible to build on."

About the Author: Dawn Kristof Champney is president of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association, a 102-year old national trade organization which represents the interests of companies that manufacture and supply technologies used in municipal and industrial water supply and wastewater treatment applications.

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