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I’m biting my nails, hoping the engineers and responders will be able to “cap” the largest leak on the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The first attempt failed due to a buildup of ice crystals that clogged the cap and made it buoyant.

According to the official site for the emergency responders, engineers may have found a fix for the problem using methanol injection to stop hydrate formation.

Be sure to check out the official site–it’s a wealth of information, including ways to volunteer. The scope and cost of this disaster, along with its response is mind-boggling.  The  effort includes government agencies from EPA to NOAA to NASA,  top scientists and engineers, fisheries experts, and numerous volunteers. Fourteen staging areas are already in place to protect the shoreline.

I have to admit that before the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and subsequent gusher, I was a staunch proponent of more drilling in the Gulf. I still believe that Americans need to allow more drilling and reduce our dependency on other countries for our energy supplies. But the impending doom foretold in each day’s news reports make it evident that we need a major upgrade to the engineering controls that prevent such a calamity.

As the oil slick creeps ever closer to the shore, the Joint Investigation initiates the finger-pointing stage of the crisis. Understandably so, as the cost will ultimately be in the billions of dollars, not to mention the bad PR that ecological destruction will bring. Let’s all hope the latest fix will work, and quickly.

Energy supplies are vital, but we should be able to provide power without trashing our environment.

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Earth Day – April 22, 2009, marks the 39th anniversary of this environmental movement. Founded by Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and spearheaded by Denis Hayes in 1970, Earth Day has been credited with the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of earth-protecting legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

I have to admit, I usually don’t do anything special for Earth Day. I’m usually working. But I believe that my work, keeping drinking water systems and wastewater treatment plants running, is just as important to the environment as staging a rally. After all, every life form needs water–clean water.

And despite all the doom and gloom talk of bad carbon footprints, pharmaceuticals in the water, and water wars, I think we’re doing a pretty good job overall of keeping the planet safe for future generations.

Could we do more? Sure. But the point is, we have to use our brains and common sense–not emotion–to figure out what works best for sustainability.

Really, every day is Earth Day, isn’t it?

Here in the United States we take clean drinking water for granted. With a turn of the faucet, we have as much water as we need and want–to soak in the tub, wash our clothes after wearing them only a few hours, or sprinkle our lawns so they’re lush and green.

But in the West African Republic of Ghana, some are not so lucky.

At the Tamale Children’s Home in Ghana, contaminated water is threatening the health of the children. The Children’s Home is a non-profit organization on the outskirts of Tamale, the third largest city in Ghana. It houses over thirty children–from infants to teenagers–who have no family to care for them.

Civil and mechanical engineering students from the University of North Florida are part of The Ghana Project 2009.

These students have the opportunity to improve the lives of the children by designing and constructing improvements at the Tamale Children’s Home. They will connect to municipal water where possible, improve the existing rainwater harvesting system, repair water tank foundations and set up clay pot filters to purify the water.

In addition to helping the kids, the project gives the students a chance to put their engineering skills to work in a real-world situation.

The students need additional funding for travel and supplies. If you’re interested, please contact Sean Corcoran at 617-671-8382 or e-mail him at unfghanaproject@gmail.com.

The American Water Works Association recently released their annual State of the Industry report for water utilities.

I wasn’t surprised at the results of this annual checkup, where over 1,800 leaders in the industry identify key challenges. Their concerns about the future of the water industry are the same as mine.

  • Water supply – We’re not running out of water . . . we’re just running out of the less expensive water. As population increases, we’ll be looking more and more at costly treatment methods like desalination. Conservation and reuse are other parts of the puzzle that will be an important part of quenching our thirst.
  • Aging infrastructure – Much of our infrastructure is not only aging, but in many cases reaching the point of failure. There’s a shortfall of funds to adequately maintain and replace old pipes and treatment equipment that runs into the billions of dollars. Starting this month, public television stations will be showing Liquid Assets, the story of our water infrastructure. Don’t miss it!
  • Increasing regulatory requirements – As we gain the capability to measure constituents in smaller and smaller amounts, agencies develop more stringent requirements for removing those compounds. Costs for treatment rise geometrically as we try to remove contaminants down to parts per trillion.
  • Workforce deficit – Most of us baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, resulting in a shortage of experienced utility folks. In addition, the number of young people getting into the field is declining.
  • Money – Operating costs continue to climb. As always, there’s much competition for limited funds.

I’m hoping some economic stimulus packages will be forthcoming after the election. Building treatment plant upgrades is a great way to create jobs–at least in my opinion. After all, Water is Life.

In my business as a utility director, chlorine has been getting a bad rap. Regulators, and some legislators are putting the pressure on utilities to get rid of chlorine–especially chlorine gas, used to disinfect drinking water and treated wastewater.

They’re concerned about its safety. Terrorists in Iraq used the cylinders in “dirty bombs.” And it can mix with other constituents in water to form harmful byproducts.

Well, the month of September marks 100 years of water chlorination, with the first full-scale chlorine disinfection system in Jersey City, NJ. Within 10 years, the number of cities using chlorine for disinfection reached 1,000. In 1941, 85% of cities in the U.S. were using it to treat drinking water.

Chlorine has been responsible for virtually eliminating many infectious diseases and revolutionizing our country’s health. This chemical has saved millions of lives by killing bacteria, parasites and viruses in the water, and I think it deserves some appreciation. Before the use of chlorine, thousands of people died each year from waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever, with over 27,000 deaths from typhoid alone during the Civil War.

In 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began requiring a residual chlorine level in drinking water distribution systems, and that requirement remains today. Chlorine is the most effective, least costly, and reliable ways to keep us healthy.

Check out the American Chemistry Council’s website, 100 Years of Safer Lives for more information about chlorine and how it benefits us every day.

And raise your glass (of water) to wish a Happy 100th Birthday to this remarkable chemical.

In one of my previous posts I discussed emerging drinking water contaminants that were causing environmental groups and legislators to raise their eyebrows. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals were found in some drinking water supplies and even in the treated water in certain areas.

Now, with pressure from legislators and environmental groups, there is a push to regulate these substances.

But what are the actual health effects of these micro-constituents–if any? Will we be happier if anti-depressants are in our drinking water–or are men going to develop feminine traits from drinking water with estrogen compounds?

The American Water Works Association conducted a four-year study and found that the highest concentration of any drug detected in a drinking water system was 5,000,000 times lower than the therapeutic dose. Even people most susceptible to harm could safely drink 50,000 glasses of water per day with no health effects.

Part of the problem is our ability to measure ever-smaller amounts of contaminants in the water. When I started working in the water business in the 1970’s, most contaminants were measured in parts per thousand and parts per million. Now we’re able to measure substances in parts per trillion and in some cases at even lower values.

Logical ecology dictates that just because a substance is present in incredibly small concentrations, does not mean it is a risk to our health. Certainly we should continue to do research, but there are many more important problems that need our immediate attention and funding.

I would put replacing our aging infrastructure at the top of the list.

A copy of Dr. Shane Snyder’s Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality provides an excellent discussion of this topic.

Funny how even the the most noble of actions can have devastating consequences. 

The $1.75 billion sale of 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar’s land to the State of Florida to restore the Everglades may seem wonderful to some environmentalists. But to the 6,500 residents of Clewiston, Florida, news of the sale did not bring cheers.

That’s because U.S. Sugar is a critical component of Clewiston’s economy.  The company employs 1700 people, and makes up about 25% of the tax base. 

Approximately 300 farmers, residents and business owners recently packed Clewiston’s John Boy Auditorium for an emergency meeting, during which officials voted to hire an attorney and begin an economic impact study. 

I have mixed feelings about this deal. We do need to preserve the Everglades. But must we put an end to towns like Clewiston to do so? Farmers are sometimes made out to be “the enemy” of the environment, but I don’t agree with that. If anything, they’re more connected to the environment than the rest of us.

I also have a problem with the “surprise announcement” Governor Crist made about the sale. In Florida, we’re supposed to have government in the sunshine. How was it possible for the State to conduct negotiations with U.S. Sugar–especially negotiations for an amount like $1.75 billion of taxpayer dollars–with so much secrecy?

Some of the folks in Clewiston feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus.  Understandably, I’d say.

Last week, Florida’s Governor, Charlie Christ, unveiled a strategy to provide the missing link to restoring Florida’s River of Grass. A plan for a $1.75 billion purchase of U.S. Sugar Corporation’s property – up to 187,000 acres of agricultural land that can be used to re-establish the connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades with a system of managed storage and treatment. 

Today, the South Florida Water Management District took the next step towards one of the largest environmental land purchases in Florida’s history by ratifying the “Statement of Principles” that was signed with U.S. Sugar Corporation.  This allows the detailed and confidential purchase negotiations to begin.

As proposed, U.S. Sugar will have the right to continue farming the land for the next 6 years.

The acquisition of the property will reduce harmful freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s coastal rivers and estuaries while reducing phosphorus and improving water quality entering the Everglades.

As always, there are trade-offs with the deal. Some important water storage projects along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers will be delayed.  And the residents of Palm Beach County will lose $5.4 million in property taxes when U.S. Sugar’s property goes to the State–at a time when revenues are already taking a hit due to tax reform and a drop in tourism. 

 

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article in their Real Estate section titled, “Sewer to Spigot: Recycled Water.” Los Angeles, San Diego and Miami-Dade all plan to recycling billions of gallons wastewater to use for drinking water.

As someone who’s been working with wastewater treatment for years, I’ve long known that it’s doable to turn treated wastewater effluent to drinking water. Believe me, if Mississippi River water can be treated to drinking water levels, getting treated wastewater to meet drinking water standards should be a piece of cake.

Cities haven’t moved forward with direct potable recycling in the past for two major reasons. First, the cost has been prohibitive. But increased population combined with water shortages, and improved technology have brought costs more in line. Second, the “yuck” factor made it politically impossible to fund a direct potable reuse project. People just didn’t want to drink that stuff.

Many people don’t realize that they are already drinking recycled wastewater. Most large cities have surface water sources–lakes and rivers. And most of these surface waters receive discharges from wastewater treatment plants. There might only be a short distance between the treated wastewater discharge and the drinking water intake.

Those who get their water from underground aquifers might have more to complain about. But we can only pull water from the aquifers for so long at increasing volumes before we’ll need to supplement that source.

I think we’ll all eventually be drinking some form of recycled wastewater–and we’ll have to trust the plant operators and the technology. Do you think we can get past “yuck?” We might have to.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) offers a free online Water Quality course.   

The following modules are included:

Introduction to EPA and the Clean Water Act,
• Waterbody Uses,
• Water Quality Criteria,
• Antidegradation,
• Standards Submittal and Approval, and
• Variances, Using Attainability Analyses, Mixing Zones and Other Flexibility Options

The course is interactive and includes links, video clips and quizzes.  It’s designed for people who are NOT water quality experts, though people in the field may find them a good refresher.

To sign up for the course click on EPA Water Science Academy

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