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I was surprised last month while attending the Florida Water Resources Conference. While finishing dessert at the Awards Luncheon, I heard my name called. It seems I was elected to be a member of the Florida Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers.

Though it sounds funny–and the initiation consists of saying “Florida Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers” three times fast until the audience approves with applause–it really is quite an honor. The award’s purpose is to recognize water and wastewater industry professionals for outstanding, meritorious service above and beyond the call of duty. I’m in some good company with many long-time, well-respected water environment folks. People that I’ve admired for many years.

I now have a silver shovel pin–if I’m caught without it, I have to buy all the drinks!

But seriously, it’s wonderful to be recognized, and a member of a select group of environmental stewards.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)–in a quest to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public–produces a report card depicting the condition and performance of our country’s infrastructure. Grades are based on the physical condition of our infrastructure, and the budgetary shortfall for bringing it to acceptable levels.

Fifteen infrastructure categories were reviewed: Aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater.

The 2009 Infrastructure Report Card is out–and we’re not looking good. Our overall grade for the 15 infrastructure categories scored is a “D.” What factors influence this dismal report card in every category? 

Chronic underfunding and delayed maintenance. I’m sorry to say that drinking water and wastewater both had the lowest grade of “D-,” as did inland waterways, levees and roads. Solid waste had the highest grade of “C+.”

The stimulus money will provide some help, but doesn’t come close to solving the problems, as shown by the chart in ASCE’s Executive Summary. For instance, at a recent meeting with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, utility managers and consultants were told that while there was approximately $80 million of federal stimulus funds available, there were already over $1 billion in funding requests for drinking water projects.

Drinking water alone has a nationwide annual shortfall of $11 billion needed to replace aging treatment components, distribution systems and other water infrastructure.

This report is well done, right-on, and downright scary. We can only hide our heads in the sand so long before the infrastructure in our great country crumbles around–above–and underneath us.

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.

Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008
Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008 Hal Pierce, SSAI/NASA GSFC

Tropical Storm Fay has finally left northeast Florida, heading for the Florida panhandle and on to Alabama and Mississippi–and we were happy to see her go.

As part of my job as Utility Director for a small city, Fay meant extra hours preparing for and responding to problems caused by the storm.

Most people know about the extra hours electrical companies work to get power back up. And those guys are amazing. 

 But it takes a lot of effort from water and wastewater operators and technicians to make sure people have safe water to drink. And to prevent wastewater overflows from contaminating drainage ditches and streams. On top of that, we make sure the wastewater treatment plants keep working to remove contaminants before effluent flows to the river or other receiving stream.
 
With widespread power outages, our water and sewer treatment plants were running under generator power. The larger lift stations (pumping stations that send wastewater to the treatment plant) have generators also–but the small pump stations do not.
 
That means we have to haul portable pumps or generators around town to prevent sewer overflows. And operators still have to work the treatment plants, run laboratory tests, open and close valves and monitor processes in tropical storm conditions.
One of our lift station generators tripped off for some unknown reason during the storm. It could have been from the intermittent power or a power surge. Fortunately our SCADA (electronic monitoring system) was working at the time, so we were able to catch the problem quickly and get the generator running again.
Even so, about 500 gallons of raw sewage overflowed from the lift station into the lagoon. Unfortunate, but not preventable. The generator is well maintained, and tested weekly, but every possible problem can’t be prevented. Of course, we reported the spill to the Department of Environmental Protection as required.
That’s why I take issue with some of the environmental activists who insist on zero tolerance for wastewater spills. None of us want to put sewage into lakes, rivers or oceans, especially those in the business of protecting the environment–but it’s not a perfect world. Equipment fails and backups don’t come on. Tropical storms and hurricanes wreak havoc on instrumentation and electrical equipment. Homeowners and businesses dump things down the drain that they shouldn’t.
The best possible effort is made to protect our environment, but sometimes it’s just not enough.
 
Despite the flooding rains and high winds our city came through the storm just fine, with a lot of dedication and elbow grease from the guys in the field. But we’re all ready for some sunshine in the Sunshine State.

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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I just returned from the Florida Water Resources Conference in Tampa.

Important water issues abound.  Everything from droughts and water shortages–to microconstituents–to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterways–to sea water desalinization.

One of the first sessions I attended contested the theory that Florida is running out of fresh water.  Computer models predict declining levels in Florida’s underground aquifers.  But some of the actual data shows that water levels have stabilized.

Many Florida cities have water restrictions in place–and reclaimed water is used in many areas for both residential and agricultural irrigation.  So it makes sense that we might not be in as bad of shape as the models predict.

Regulatory agencies allocate water to users based on computer models, more so than current data.  After all, they are responsible for making sure we have water years into the future, not just today.  But are they “crying wolf?”  Or protecting us from ourselves?

Six wastewater treatment facilities (Publicly Owned Treatment Works) in South Florida have been discharging an average of about 360 million gallons per day of treated wastewater to the ocean for decades.  The outfall pipes discharge from one to three miles offshore.

The Florida Senate has passed a bill that would shut down these ocean outfalls by 2025.  Governor Charlie Crist supports the bill.

Interim measures to reduce the outfalls’ effects would be upgrading treatment plants to advanced treatment and constructing plants to reuse at least 60% of the plants’ effluent.

The six plants include those owned by Miami Dade Central, Miami Dade North, City of Hollywood, Broward County, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.  Residents and businesses can prepare to open their wallets, because a rough estimate of the cost is over $3 billion, most of which will be passed on to the rate payers.

When people read about sewage outfalls, they immediately think of raw, untreated sewage or septage.  Raw sewage is NOT being discharged to the ocean.  The wastewater is treated to “secondary” levels.  In Florida, that means the treatment plants must remove at least 90% of the pollutants from the wastewater before it goes out to the ocean.  Most treatment plants remove even more than the minimum requirement.  And the water is disinfected as well. 

If I poured wastewater effluent from a plant with secondary treatment into a glass, in most cases it would be hard to tell it from drinking water.

EPA has a report on the Florida ocean outfalls that outlines the extensive scientific analysis and modeling that determined the risk from discharging effluent to the ocean was very low, though some questions still need answering. 

My opinion is that requiring future upgrades for additional treatment–and increasing the amount of wastewater reused is a good solution.  Prohibiting future ocean outfalls is OK.  But requiring these cities and counties to completely stop their ocean outfall is just not necessary.  The cost will be overwhelming–will the benefit really match it?  Effluent has to go somewhere, whether reused for irrigation, or discharged to a river or the ocean. 

Some marine scientists and environmental groups, like Earthjustice and the National Resources Defense Council  would disagree with me.  Noting concerns with the nitrogen and phosphorus causing red tides . . . the effects of pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupters on wildlife . . . and human health risks. 

I’d like to know what you think about this issue. 

 

There’s a new documentary that will be airing on public television this summer.  Called Liquid Assets, the show will focus on water in America–and the aging infrastructure that threatens our health and environment.

We’ve taken water for granted in our country.  Liquid Assetswill explore the history of water and wastewater practices, and expose our underground systems with 3-D and dynamic animation.

Our crumbling pipelines and treatment facilities are estimated to cost a whopping $390 billion to bring up to par.  Liquid Assets will be an integral part of educating our citizens about this critical problem.

Check out the website for more information and to see a preview of the documentary at:

 http://www.liquidassets.psu.edu/overview.html

As I’ve said before, we’re not running out of water–just running out of cheap water. 

In Florida, the drought combined with population growth is putting a strain on the water supply from existing sources. 

Typically, well water is the least expensive to treat, and it’s the preferred source for communities where it’s available. Fresh surface waters, such as lakes and some rivers line up next on the cost scale.  And when the water is brackish or salty the price starts to soar.

The water war pitting north Florida against central Florida is just a result of everyone vying for the lowest cost alternative.  But since this debate has been in the news, I’ve heard several people say that using sea water would be the best bet.

There’s plenty of it–that’s true.  But the cost of treatment is astronomical.  And there’s a couple other things to consider along with the rising water bill. 

The process for treating sea water uses huge amounts of energy.  Not good if we’re all supposed to be watching our carbon footprints.

And when you take salt out of the water it has to go somewhere.  The concentrated brine solution is considered a pollutant.  So finding a discharge location can be a challenge.

Just something to think about before everyone jumps on the sea water bandwagon.

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