Water utilities have become America’s unexpected source of front-page news, enduring multiple ‘once-in-a-century’ events in recent years. Droughts, pollution, unprecedented cold, flooding, and storms all take their toll on our infrastructure and push services we take for granted to the brink.
By adopting new technologies faster, utilities could even better address the modern threats facing our water supply. In a digital world, analog solutions – still the norm in many places – are simply not up to the task. As the challenges that face utilities continue to mount, so will the pressure to digitize.
One of the most significant changes has been the introduction of tools specifically targeted at improving wastewater services, addressing the challenges and benefits of improving our understanding of what we’re putting down the drain.
A tech revolution in wastewater would do much to save taxpayers money, protect their health, and maximize our most precious natural resource.
As robust smart technologies have been developed that can resist the harsh conditions within wastewater networks, new remote sensing technology has been used to save taxpayers millions of dollars of treatment and repair costs.
Collecting and transmitting real-time condition data from inside utility networks, these systems are providing utilities with vital forewarning of pollution, clogs, water leaks, and saltwater contamination.
Beyond improved treatment efficiencies – it’s easier to tailor treatment actions when you know what’s coming and when – digitizing wastewater networks can support improved processes for water availability, pollution prevention, and optimized public health strategy.
In the American Southwest, water utilities are reeling from more than two decades of drought, potentially the worst in 500 years.
Western reservoirs are evaporating faster than overworked rivers can recharge them. North America has recorded dramatic drops in snowfall since 1980 which affects drinking water reserves. Climate change threatens to make water shortages even worse, with some studies projecting a 25 percent reduction in Colorado River flows in the next 30 years.
In a new era of water scarcity, engineers and utilities can use smart technology to get the most out of our existing supplies, recycling and reusing water for a variety of purposes.
In Israel, which has long struggled with limited supplies, 90 percent of all freshwater is recycled by going first through cities, then being treated and sent to farms to grow food. There also are major water reuse facilities in Australia, Spain, and South Africa.
There are a growing number of reuse projects in the U.S. El Paso, Texas, leads the way for water recycling, with the city’s treatment plant providing up to 10 million gallons a day of purified water for reuse.
Even so, the EPA estimates that the U.S. recycles less than 10 percent of its wastewater.
With enhanced wastewater management supported by the intelligent application of data-driven technologies, there’s no reason why the U.S. can’t become a world leader in smart water recycling.
A major obstacle to effective water recycling remains the quality of water in sewer systems. Engineers have struggled to deal with microbeads from cosmetics; forever chemicals, or PFAS, from waterproofing and household chemicals; and pharmaceutical pollution from human use and disposal down toilets.
At the same time, industry and factories still manage to flush solvents, chemicals, and cleaning solutions that also challenge wastewater treatment.
The best way to guard against these pollutants is to prevent their introduction into the network in the first place.
By detecting contaminants when they enter collection networks, utilities can trace them back to their source and engage with those responsible for their discharge, changing habits and reducing pollution before it happens.
Current regulatory systems allow some factories to game the system by withholding hot loads of pollution until after scheduled government inspections. However, remote sensing technologies are always on and will detect hot loads even if they come at weekends or the middle of the night, minimizing the opportunity for illegal discharge without detection.
Optimized public health strategy
In recent months, regular wastewater testing has helped public health officials combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists in dozens of states and at least 50 countries have tracked the spread of coronavirus by monitoring virus traces in community wastewater.
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is playing a critical role in monitoring long-term public health patterns with minimal inconvenience. Technology exists that can automatically draw samples from the network at the most optimal times and allow utilities to gain accurate insights into potential virus outbreaks.
Public health officials say the wastewater information has become an invaluable tool to help hospitals and health institutions prepare for community surges in coronavirus cases through early detection.
This technology can serve as a guardian for public health, not just for detecting COVID but other water-borne diseases and pollutants.
Thinking of wastewater as nothing more than a waste product is shortsighted. Water is a scarce and precious resource. By employing available technology, we can extend the reuse of this valuable commodity.
For a long time, technology has lagged behind our needs, but that’s no longer the case and the moment for change is now. The key is to recognize that the opportunity that has quietly snuck up on us and to loudly make the most of it.