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“Utilities are coming together to look for county-wide solutions in ways that also promote equity”

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In the future of water, the patterns we are used to no longer apply. WSP helps organizations and communities deal with too little, too much, or too polluted water and realize their water objectives.

One of the world’s leading engineering, environment and professional services firms, WSP supports governments, utilities and companies with water management strategies that take into account climate, society and technology trends. In this interview we hear from Tyler Jones, who heads the U.S. water practice for WSP, on the challenges ahead for water utilities and how innovation in practices and technologies can contribute to water security and climate resilience.

Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at WSP?

Today I lead the National Water Business for WSP in the U.S., which is one of the world’s largest engineering, environment and professional services consultancies I am responsible for growing the practice, developing a national One Water strategy, and leading a team of more than 700 people in project delivery and client engagement. Prior to my leadership role with WSP, I served as region manager for the Central Gulf Coast. My 28-plus years of professional consulting experience has included infrastructure design and construction management, program management, disaster recovery and environmental remediation. I am a graduate of Temple University with a master’s degree in geochemistry and Millsaps College with a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology.

As climate impacts the water cycle some areas suffer from too little or too much water. Can you comment on water management trends and innovation that can help create “Goldilocks zones” to prepare for a more water-secure future?

Yes, there are a few aspects to the challenge that we should think about here.

We need to go big in our thinking about ways to create “Goldilocks zones.” With a likely increase in extreme climate events, where we can expect wetter wet periods and dryer dry periods, we need to take advantage of the seesaw through larger-capacity storage of water received during those high-precipitation times. Of course, storage has its limitations if supply is low. Authorities in locations facing low supplies may need to look to expanding alternatives such as seawater or brackish groundwater desalination, or wastewater reuse.

Authorities in locations facing low supplies may need to look to expanding alternatives such as seawater or brackish groundwater desalination, or wastewater reuse

Converting wastewater into water that can be used for other purposes is a process called “beneficial water reuse”. Today we typically treat industrial wastewater and find a beneficial downstream use for it elsewhere, such as growing crops. Going forward, localized retreatment of greywater must also be seen as critical because it reduces the per capita water demand for the community where it is applied and also avoids additional pumping costs for water transportation to a treatment plant and unnecessary upgrades of installed networks. In addition, localized retreatment of greywater minimizes water losses during transportation from a treated source.

Another approach, particularly in water-stressed areas, is recharging aquifers or aquifer storage and recovery. Pumping recycled water (sewage that has been safely treated) back into the ground can help restore aquifers and store water for later use. Particularly in coastal areas, this can help keep out infiltration into the aquifer by seawater. Ultimately, it will be more economical for utilities to work together across a region. Rather than each competing for water resources, they are coming together to look for county-wide solutions to serve communities in ways that also can promote equity.

Tyler Jones, Melissa Simpson and Amity Dewey at WEFTEC 2023.

WSP was selected to lead a new study aimed at addressing the current challenges that global water utilities of all sizes are facing. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

In partnership with the Water Research Foundation, WSP has launched a project (WRF 5184 study) to better understand the barriers utilities face on the ground, as well as any opportunities for them to use some methods of scenario and adaptive planning to think through how they can better anticipate, prepare for, and respond to unexpected events.

The project also aims to address other challenges, like helping water utilities inform long-term plans and investment decisions. We intend to address critical questions, such as how water infrastructure can be expanded and upgraded to meet future needs and adapt to uncertain future risks, like changes in climate, supply and demand, regulations, economics and aging infrastructure.

This project will have three phases:

  • Explore: Phase 1 will gather data and information from water utility partners and technical experts in applied scenario and adaptive planning. This can help identify key trends, leading practices and case studies for adaptive and scenario planning.
  • Design: Phase 2 will design a Water Utility Scenario and Adaptive Planning Framework. We’ll test it with a set of international water utilities in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand to evaluate effectiveness and applicability.
  • Guide: Phase 3 will build on insights from the first two phases to develop supplemental guidance for water utilities to use and share with their internal and external stakeholders.  
C-44 reservoir/stormwater treatment restoration project in the Florida Everglades, one of the largest environmental restoration projects in U.S. history.

Mitigation of risks posed by PFAS is a growing concern. What do you think are the main considerations for future utility compliance with expected new regulations in this regard?

The U.S. EPA and states are expected to regulate an increasing number of compounds at lower thresholds, which ultimately will mean that many or even most drinking water sources, including large surface water plants, will require PFAS treatment. Municipalities will be among the organizations most affected by the growing PFAS concern since they may have to deal with them in water supplies, landfills and wastewater treatment plants — both in terms of having to treat the wastewater and also managing the resulting biosolids, which often have elevated concentrations of PFAS.

Most available options for treatment have drawbacks. Current technologies to remove PFAS from water require large footprints, can be expensive to maintain and are not 100% destructive of substances of concern. A variety of proprietary and lab-scale technologies are being developed that hold promise for more effective treatment. These include an electro-oxidation process developed by WSP, plasma and electronic arc technologies and foam fractionation.

The WRF and WSP partner on a project to understand the barriers utilities face, and opportunities to prepare for unexpected events

For many utilities, source water management strategies are a good starting point for meeting proposed regulations until more efficient treatment technologies are available and affordable at scale. These techniques can include operating sources differently, drilling a new well or connecting to an alternative water system. WSP has worked with clients to produce blended plans to rely more heavily on non-impacted sources. We will soon release a benchmarking study outlining what water utilities are doing to meet the PFAS maximum contaminant levels, how much they’re spending, and which methods and technologies are being used.

How is WSP working on health and equity through its projects dealing with flood planning, lead service lines, or PFAS pollution?

WSP is committed to building a more equitable future. Our Equity Center of Excellence provides services to create places, infrastructure and experiences that improve quality of life for underserved and disinvested communities. For example, in Northeast Florida, we developed a master plan to restore and connect streams and parks in a city’s urban core to revitalize neighbourhoods impacted by flooding and pollution. The restoration plan provides a more holistic approach than traditional flood mitigation by integrating natural channel design and green infrastructure to improve creek function, water quality, wildlife habitat and recreation.

Our Equity Center of Excellence provides services to create places, infrastructure and experiences that improve quality of life for underserved and disinvested communities

Lead is another issue that, according to the National Institutes of Health, disproportionately impacts Black communities. Water utilities have until October 2024 to comply with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCRR) to inventory service line materials and report on the presence of lead. WSP has developed a programmatic system to support utilities, whether with large or small water systems, in communicating information about status of lead inventory work to their customers. From an equity perspective, the prioritization for replacement must include an equity component, for example reaching underserved communities or facilities that serve children.

Could you share specific water-related projects WSP is involved in that you are particularly proud of?

Communities across the country urgently need better ways to cope with record-shattering floods, drought, groundwater contamination, and population growth that’s stressing natural resources. We were recently recognized in Fortune’s annual Change the World list, which honored companies having a positive social impact, and I am very proud of our positive impact across our full portfolio, making it hard to single out one project.

I am particularly proud of how we apply a “one water” mindset to rethink water stewardship from coast to coast. In New York, which has endured an increasing number of flood-inducing storms, WSP created a living breakwater – a billion-oyster reef to filter water, promote biodiversity and protect against storm-surge. In New Jersey, we engineered flood protection that combines the strength of hard infrastructure, the self-healing capabilities of nature-based solutions, and the first-of-its-kind use of biodegradable concrete. In Florida, we spearheaded the largest environmental-restoration project in U.S. history, a 6,300-acre water management project in the Everglades. And in Los Angeles, we designed new stormwater infrastructure to retain runoff from a 4,495-acre drainage area.

How does WSP stay at the forefront of innovative technologies and sustainable practices to develop strategies to mitigate water-related climate threats?

By considering current, emerging and anticipated trends, our Future Ready approach ensures our solutions are ready for an ever-changing future

Across the built environment, asset owners are faced with the daunting issue of how to design in a way that achieves net zero ambitions while integrating resilience. They also are challenged to, take current assets and identifying – and mitigating – the risks they will face in the future. WSP collaborates with partners as well as implementing our own programs to stay at the forefront of innovation. WSP’s Future Ready® program enables our teams to better anticipate future conditions related to climate, society, technology and resources, plan ahead by integrating these trends into our work, and support our clients to develop industry leading innovations. By considering current, emerging and anticipated trends, our Future Ready approach ensures our solutions are ready for an ever-changing future. Through our Emerge strategic alliance program, we partner with early and growth stage companies to pilot, refine and accelerate transformational innovations. Additionally, we have a robust digital team creating client led innovations to meet resiliency challenges.

Credit: South Florida Water Management District.

WSP developed the ClimateVue toolkit, a suite of climate resilience technologies, that help answer three critical questions:

  1. How do we measure our base state before we take action?
  2. If the asset doesn’t exist, how do we design with resilience in mind?
  3. For existing assets, how do I manage short-term risk, i.e., a hurricane or storm?

Technologies in the toolkit have been used to help flood-prone areas create conceptual 4D visualizations to gain stakeholder buy-in for mitigation projects. Machine learning is being used to assist with time-critical risk assessment for utilities expansion and development. Another technology developed, provides customized flood alerts from the National Water Model to put critical data into the hands of informed users who can set local flood alerts based on critical water-level exceedance thresholds.

What emerging trends or technologies in water resources and environmental engineering do you find most promising?

Technology will play an important role in helping mitigate water scarcity and water overflow. For example, the industry has been developing the concept of "air to water" collection systems, which gather water from the air or morning dew using panels or nylon/polypropylene nets capable of collecting moisture. While air-to-water technologies are still in their early stages, they could potentially prove to be an effective solution for some remote communities.

AI will help us with initial legwork and verifiable predictions, helping communities prepare for a more water-secure future

AI and machine learning are one of the most promising emerging technologies for water and environmental engineering. Using advanced AI, we expect to be able to better predict rainfall, flooding and water levels, for example.

AI can provide predictive maintenance for water supply, leading to reduced downtime. It has added a new dimension to future flood risk detection for complex predictive modelling and is already being used to analyze future water quality patterns. AI will not replace the human ingenuity and lived experience of engineers, but it will help us with initial legwork and verifiable predictions, helping communities prepare for a more water-secure future.