Report Calls for End to "Inflexible" Water Pricing Systems

Innovative financing and pricing flexibility are key to preparing the nation's aging water infrastructure to handle growing demand and environmental challenges, according to a report by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

Innovative financing and pricing flexibility are key to preparing the nation's aging water infrastructure to handle growing demand and environmental challenges, according to a report by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

The study said rebuilding and operating existing water systems would be enormously inefficient. One major problem is that drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems were built, financed and operated as entirely distinct units rather than as more efficient, interconnected systems.

It said another major problem is that "myopic, inflexible water-pricing systems that fail to distinguish between various water uses and generally undervalue water."

The report recommended new approaches for financing and operating public water systems, including:

* Local water solutions that can improve efficiencies, including green infrastructure, closed-loop systems and water recycling;
* Flexible water pricing and revenue structures that distinguish between drinking water and various other types of water, such as lawn water and toilet water;
* System-wide, full-cost accounting of water services and financing mechanisms; and
* Less reliance on state and federal funding and more reliance on private, market-based financing mechanisms that can support local, customer-supported solutions.

"While the deteriorating state of the nation's water infrastructure is not a secret, we have lacked workable strategies and policies to finance the changes needed," said Lynn Broaddus, director of environment programs at the foundation.

The study follows on the foundation's Charting New Waters study in 2010, which sought solutions to U.S. freshwater challenges. The latest study was in collaboration with American Rivers and the public interest group Ceres.

Recycle, Reuse

The National Research Council said reuse of treated wastewater, also known as reclaimed water, to augment drinking water supplies has significant potential for helping meet water demand, particularly in coastal areas.

It said recent advances in technology and design have improved prospects for treating municipal wastewater and reusing it for drinking water, irrigation, industry, and other applications.

It added that new analyses suggest that the possible health risks of exposure to chemical contaminants and disease-causing microbes from wastewater reuse do not exceed, and in some cases may be significantly lower than, the risks of existing water supplies.

"Wastewater reuse is poised to become a legitimate part of the nation's water supply portfolio given recent improvements to treatment processes," said R. Rhodes Trussell, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of Trussell Technologies, Pasadena, Calif. "Although reuse is not a panacea, wastewater discharged to the environment is of such quantity that it could measurably complement water from other sources and management strategies."

The report examines a wide range of reuse applications, including potable water, non-potable urban and industrial uses, irrigation, groundwater recharge, and ecological enhancement. The committee found that many communities have already implemented water reuse projects such as irrigating golf courses and parks or providing industrial cooling water in locations near wastewater reclamation plants that are well-established and generally accepted.

The study said potable water reuse projects account for only a small fraction of the volume of water currently being reused. However, many drinking water treatment plants draw water from a source that contains wastewater discharged by a community located upstream; this practice is not officially acknowledged as potable reuse.

Groundwater Study

The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that groundwater withdrawals for crop irrigation have increased to over 16 million acre-feet per year in the High Plains Aquifer.

The study showed that recharge, or the amount of water entering the aquifer, is less than the amount of groundwater being withdrawn, causing groundwater losses in this already diminished natural resource.

Crop irrigation is the largest use of groundwater in the aquifer, and, over the past 60 years, has caused severe water-level declines of up to 100 feet in some areas. The new USGS findings address concerns about the long-term sustainability of the aquifer.

USGS Director Marcia McNutt said, "The High Plains Aquifer is nature's nearly perfect water storage system: self-recharging, safe from natural disasters, readily accessed over a broad area, and with copious capacity. And yet in less than 100 years we are seriously depleting what took nature more than 10,000 years to fill."

The aquifer underlies about 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states -– Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming -– and is a major source of groundwater irrigation in the region. The High Plains region supplies about a fourth of the nation's agricultural production.

The new USGS study also compares previously published data with new methods for estimating recharge and groundwater withdrawals and provides an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of those methods.

In other Washington news:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has improved public access to data about pollutants are released into waterways. The Discharge Monitoring Report Pollutant Loading Tool allows searching and mapping of water pollution by local area, watershed, company, industry sector, and pollutant.

The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturer's Association board has elected the first woman chairman in its 103 year history. Taking the gavel will be Deborah LaVelle, a marketing and engineering vice president for Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc. of Loves Park, Ill.

The American Water Works Association named Jim Chaffee, a Wisconsin-based engineer with the global firm Jacobs, its president-elect. He will assume that role in June and become president in 2013.

-- EPA reported that lead in drinking water has been reduced at elementary schools in Union City, Atlantic City and Weehawken, N.J. Elevated lead levels had been found in drinking water at 28 of the 343 school drinking outlets sampled.

-- The Clean Water America Alliance planned to convene a Washington, D.C., conference of 70 water industry leaders to discuss options for an integrated approach to watershed management.

-- The Water Research Foundation has earmarked $6.4 million in 2012 research projects, with most of the funds directed to challenges facing water utilities.

-- The Water Environment Research Foundation said it has $1 million available for research projects to improve the operation and replacement of wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

-- EPA said the Scranton, Pa., sewer authority will pay a $12,619 penalty and complete a $30,000 tree planting project after failing to comply with the risk management plan for a treatment facility.

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