Wastewater

America’s Water Future: Smart, Green, Distributed

By Charlotte Ely

I was raised with the saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To save water, I started making changes in my own home. Following the advice I’ve given to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities through my work with EPA’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, I assessed our use, identified ways we could save water, and made improvements.

I replaced inefficient fixtures and appliances with WaterSense and Energy Star models. I fixed leaks. Most recently, I installed a graywater system. Residential graywater is water from showers, baths, bathroom sinks or washing machines. Graywater can be used instead of drinking water to safely and beneficially irrigate gardens. The graywater system meets much of our outdoor water needs. Since installed, our household consumption has dropped to an average of 19 gallons per person per day — 60% less than the San Francisco average of 49 gallons per day and 80% less than the national average of 100 gallons per day.

 

The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.

The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.

 

As California enters its fourth year of drought, I’m struck both by the immensity of the challenges ahead, and the incredible potential to re-think how we manage our water resources. Innovative water management practices, such as residential graywater and on-site commercial re-use are examples of the kinds of investments that will help communities adapt to water scarcity. One good example is San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s headquarters building which uses 60% less water than similar sized buildings by reclaiming and treating all of the building’s wastewater on site.

I’m especially encouraged by organizations helping to re-envision our water infrastructure as a smart, green and distributed network:

  • Smart: Uses data analytics to optimize utility management.
  • Green: Use strategic landscaping to capture rainfall for reuse or recharge.
  • Distributed: Has onsite treatment and reuse.

Organizations, like Imagine H2O, are cultivating innovative concepts, technologies and entrepreneurs to help communities adapt—not only to climate change impacts such as drought, but also to an escalating need to invest in our nation’s drinking and clean water infrastructure. This year, Imagine H2O’s annual challenge will honor scalable, cost-effective solutions that improve water and wastewater infrastructure. I’m excited to see what the contestants come up with!

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” If we could change how we manage water, could we also change the ‘tendency’ of the water? Would it be less scarce? Less polluted? How do you think we can make our water infrastructure smarter, greener and more distributed?

About the author: Charlotte Ely joined EPA’s San Francisco office in 2006. She works for the Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, helping communities throughout the southwest increase the water and energy efficiency of their water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Make Purple Your Favorite Color!

Purple pipes offer an easy way to distinguish recycled water from the potable water distribution system.

Purple pipes offer an easy way to distinguish recycled water from the potable water distribution system.

by Alysa Suero

What comes to mind when you think of purple? Likely you conjure images of grapes, flowers, or your favorite socks. How about a purple pipe? Most states require pipes to be colored purple if they carry reclaimed water. Reclaimed water is an important component in water conservation and one that is rapidly gaining in popularity for many uses.

Reclaimed, or recycled, water is highly treated wastewater that’s used again for a variety of purposes such as irrigation, industrial processes, and cooling towers. Often the treated water flows through purple pipes to the end user. Purple pipes offer an easy way to distinguish recycled water from the potable water distribution system.

There are many benefits to using reclaimed water. Using it for golf course irrigation or toilet flushing, for example, reduces the demand on our fresh water resources, reduces the nitrogen loading to the watershed from the wastewater treatment plant, and offers the end user a financial savings since it’s often cheaper to use reclaimed water than to operate a ground water well or purchase potable water from the local water supplier. It also saves energy that would otherwise be used to treat raw water at a drinking water treatment plant.

Reclaimed water in those purple pipes isn’t just for physical processes, either. Highly treated reclaimed water can be used to indirectly augment drinking water sources. In the mid-Atlantic, the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority has been discharging recycled water into a stream above the Occoquan Reservoir since 1978. The sewage authority can send as much as 54 million gallons per day to the reservoir ensuring that a potable water supply source is consistently ready to serve Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

As an individual, you don’t need a purple pipe to recycle water in your own home. Try watering your garden with rain water collected in a barrel. Feed your houseplants with water from your half-full water glass instead of pouring it down the drain. Every time we reuse water, whether through purple pipes from a wastewater treatment plant or even in our own home, we’re taking another step to conserve our precious water resources, and that’s a “plum” reward we can all appreciate.

About the author: Alysa Suero is a licensed professional geologist in the Water Protection Division’s Drinking Water Branch. When not in the office, Alysa, who was recently married, enjoys cooking, family game night, organizing closets, and caring for her two rabbits.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Dedication to Service

Water treatment plants are staffed 24 hours a day by dedicated professionals

Water treatment plants are staffed 24 hours a day by dedicated professionals

 

 

By Jennie Saxe

As we prepare to commemorate Veterans Day, I’m reminded of how proud I am of the members of my family who have served our nation through military service. From my father, grandfathers, and uncles who served in the Army and the Navy, to my grandmother who served in the Navy Nurse Corps.

At a time when many of our returning veterans are reentering the jobs market, their skills are often easily transferable to the civilian sector.

In fact, many of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have served as water treatment specialists, utilities men, water support technicians, and water systems maintenance personnel.

In my work at EPA, I’ve been fortunate to meet many public servants who serve our communities in different ways, including water and wastewater treatment plant operators who keep safe water flowing to our faucets and protect our waterways. From Hazleton, PA, to Washington, DC, and many towns in between, I’ve seen how much of a difference well-operated drinking water systems have on our daily lives.

EPA recognizes that jobs in the water and wastewater sector can be a great fit for our highly-trained, dedicated military veterans, and has prepared this guide on how military occupational specialties can translate into water industry jobs. The Virginia Department of Health, Office of Drinking Water has been working with the Army for the past few years to help their water treatment specialists become state-licensed operators. State drinking water staff also assist veterans as they search for jobs.

As we look back at 40 years of safe drinking water, let’s also look ahead to plan for sustainable, resilient water infrastructure that is operated by dedicated professionals – including our nation’s veterans.

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She extends a sincere thank you to everyone who has served – and continues to serve – our country.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Getting an Education on Septic Systems

By Leslie Corcelli

Most of us don’t think or talk about where things go when we flush. Let’s face it, it’s a little awkward. However, I’m fortunate enough to be an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Around here, wastewater is the topic. Guess what? There’s a lot more to it than you think.

Did you know that nearly one million households in Virginia have onsite wastewater treatment systems? Many of these are septic systems. For many households and communities, there are site limitations that prevent traditional systems from being practical. That’s where alternative systems are essential.

During EPA’s annual SepticSmart Week, I attended a tour that demonstrated five types of alternative onsite wastewater systems in northern Virginia. The tour covered Fairfax and Loudoun counties and was hosted by Virginia Department of Health, which was accompanied by the Fairfax County Division of Environmental Health and the Loudoun County Health Department.

We visited five very different sites — a residential home, a volunteer fire department, a low-income community, a commercial center, and a residential community with 25 homes. They ranged in age from old to new, and the amount of wastewater generated per day varied from 750 gallons to 22,000 gallons. There were dispersal systems, black water recycling, drainfield systems and sand filters.

In addition to the technical information, I took something else away with me. There are some seriously dedicated wastewater and health professionals at the local, regional, state and federal level who are committed to ensuring public health through effective wastewater management. They have to consider planning, design, installation, and ongoing operations and management, not to mention local, state and federal laws. They also engage with a variety of stakeholders, including the individuals and communities for whom the alternative systems are necessary. It’s quite a feat.

They’re amazing folks, but they need our help. I now realize how important it is for us to do our part. For those of us with septic systems, we need to think much more about what happens when we flush. These systems require maintenance and ongoing management. Maintaining your septic system will save you money and protect your property and environment. Go to http://epa.gov/septicsmart to learn how.

About the author: Leslie Corcelli is an ORISE research participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Energy Champions: Making a Difference

Outfitting aeration tanks with fine pore diffusers is one way to achieve significant energy savings

Outfitting aeration tanks with fine pore diffusers is one way to achieve significant energy savings

by Lori Reynolds

As part of the EPA mid-Atlantic Energy Team, I talk with water and wastewater treatment plant operators across the region and they’ve shared with me this eye-opening fact: energy is a facility’s largest controllable budget item. Since energy accounts for about one-third of the operating budget for drinking water and wastewater systems, it’s a logical place to look for savings. I’ve also learned that operators have a good understanding of where the energy is being used in the facility and have great ideas for cost-saving equipment or process changes.

How can those energy-saving ideas make it from concept into practice? One approach is enlisting an “energy champion” for these facilities that are on the front lines of protecting public health and the environment. Having someone who can work directly with operators and speaks the language of the municipal decision makers can provide the key to saving energy (and money!) at these facilities.

If a community is looking to save money or reduce its carbon footprint, water utility energy efficiency is a great way to jump start those efforts. EPA has resources and success stories – including an energy management guidebook – that are valuable references.

The work of an energy champion usually begins by reviewing the energy bill with the operator, and determining what simple operational changes could save money right away. For example, staggering the start-up of motors and equipment to reduce the demand charge or filling storage tanks at night to avoid peak rates.

Energy champions also play a critical role in documenting savings, which can help a facility gain support for additional energy efficiency projects. We all know that sometimes you have to spend a little money now to save a lot of money in the long run. That’s where those savings from the early operational changes come in handy: as those savings accrue, they can be reinvested in capital projects to further reduce energy use. Bigger projects, like installation of energy efficient pumps and motors often have a longer payback period, but have the potential to reap the rewards of even bigger savings.

The decision by a water or wastewater treatment plant to invest time and money in energy savings is a commitment to lower utility bills. An energy champion who can work with operators, decision makers, and municipal engineers can make a real difference for a community by turning a huge energy consumer into one that uses “net zero” energy.

 

About the author: Lori Reynolds works in the Region’s Office of Infrastructure and Assistance, which provides funding to states for water and wastewater infrastructure. To sustain the investment, Lori and others in the office promote energy and water conservation and proactive operation and maintenance planning to extend the useful life of infrastructure assets.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Turning Back Time: Repairing Water Infrastructure

By Marguerite Huber

I am about to turn 25 years old—the quarter century mark! Yikes! While I may start to feel “old” when I consider that number, I am in considerably better shape than some of the pipes and sewer mains that make up the country’s water infrastructure, some components of which are more than four times my age.

Homes, apartment buildings, and businesses in nearly every neighborhood and city across the country are connected to miles and miles of pipes carrying wastewater and drinking water. That’s a lot of pipes to take care of!

Large bulldozer and crew at work on  a city street.

Aging water infrastructure: fixing old, leaking sewer pipes in downtown Washington, DC.

The estimated costs of fixing old, leaky, and cracked pipes through the traditional methods of digging them up and patching or replacing them could cost water utilities in excess of $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years. Innovative, lower cost technologies that could provide alternatives would have enormous impact, but how do utilities know where to turn before they make investments in long-term solutions?

To answer this question, scientists and engineers from EPA’s aging water infrastructure research program reported on innovative and emerging technologies in their study, Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program (Matthews, et. al., 2014). They and their partners conducted field demonstrations to test these new technologies, such as those that aim to repair existing pipes “from the inside out,” under real-world conditions.

EPA’s work with industry partners gathered reliable performance and cost data on technologies that line the inside of the aging pipes to fill in the holes and cracks, prolonging their life. They shared what they learned with water and wastewater utility owners, technology manufacturers, consultants, and service providers.

They tested two types of liner technologies. One was a cured-in-place method that essentially is a pipe-within-a-pipe. The second was a spray-in-place method that uses a computer-controlled robot to apply a new pipe liner.

The researchers provided reliable information on the performance and cost of the emerging technologies. Stakeholders can benefit from the work: water and wastewater utility owners can reduce the risk of trying out unproven technologies by using technologies that have undergone evaluation; manufacturers and developers will realize the opportunity to advance technology development and commercialization; and consultants and service providers will have the information they need to compare the performance and cost of similar products.

Overall, these innovative technologies can be efficient and economical alternatives to full-blown replacements of water infrastructure. I hope I have similar options when I pass the century mark myself!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Literature Cited: Matthews, J., A. Selvakumar, R. Sterling, AND W. Condit. Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program. Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology. Elsevier BV, AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, 39:73-81, (2014).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Climate change, wild weather, and your water

Storms that cause rivers to flood their banks are becoming more frequent.

Storms that cause rivers to flood their banks are becoming more frequent.

By Jennie Saxe

This blog, the first of two Healthy Waters blogs this week, focuses on adaptation to a changing climate.

In recent years, I’ve experienced a lot of wild weather here in the mid-Atlantic: torrential rains have caused flooded basements on my street; hurricane-force winds and derechos have downed our beautiful trees and caused power outages; and epic snowstorms have kept me from getting to work (and gave my kids way more snow days than we had planned for). We have also bemoaned both extreme heat and bitter cold.

A vast body of scientific assessment tells us that as the climate continues to change, we can expect to see trends toward more of this extreme weather and that there are a range of impacts that we should plan for. To protect our water supplies, we need to consider everything from the impact of increases in temperature on water quality and aquatic life to careful groundwater management to changes in how much water is used and what it is used for. And as we plan, we can no longer rely on past conditions as a predictor for what will happen in coming decades.

These weather phenomena can also have other consequences that not everyone thinks about right away, like interruptions in drinking water supplies and overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants. To help minimize these impacts, EPA has been working with states and water and wastewater utilities across the mid-Atlantic to translate the volumes of climate change assessments into practical actions they can take to make sure they’re prepared for weather-related emergencies as well as the impacts of climate change on water resources. States across the country have set up networks of utilities that have volunteered to help each other when disasters arise. EPA also partners with states to provide information to help water utilities and individuals ensure a safe supply of water when weather-related emergencies are threatening. EPA has also engaged with audiences across the region – from college students in Virginia to mayors in Delaware – to discuss the expected effects a changing climate has on our water resources and on our communities.

Although we have made tremendous progress in protecting and restoring our water resources, climate data shows the urgency of staying vigilant in our preparedness for severe weather events even as we are taking steps to adapt to the longer-term changes already underway. Our children and grandchildren are depending on us to make decisions today that ensure safe, reliable water resources now and into the future.

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She reminds everyone to assemble or refresh their emergency kits during National Preparedness Month.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. FDA.

Approximately 1,800 drugs are approved for prescription use in the United States. Have you ever thought of what happens to all those drugs once they have left you (or your medicine cabinet)? Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, these pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants.

To estimate potential pharmaceutical concentrations in wastewater, EPA scientists conducted a survey of wastewater effluent from 50 large U.S. municipal wastewater treatment plants between January and April 2011. They then used the data to evaluate an EPA model designed to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater.

The model generates preliminary estimates of associated risks, and provides a basis for prioritizing the pharmaceuticals that generate the greatest concern for future research efforts.

EPA scientists used pharmaceutical marketing data to choose the 56 pharmaceuticals with the highest number of minimum daily dose equivalents dispensed in the U.S. each year. You may recognize acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and hydrocortisone from the list.

The 50 wastewater treatment plants were chosen based on a number of factors, but together they produce about six billion gallons of treated wastewater a day that is released into rivers and streams. In all, these facilities serve more than 46 million people.

The researchers then analyzed treated wastewater samples from the selected plants to determine the concentrations of the 50 high-priority active pharmaceutical ingredients they identified from the marketing data.

Overall, the survey found low concentrations of pharmaceuticals present in every water sample the researchers analyzed.

Based on the screening data, the researchers estimated that risks were low for both healthy adults and aquatic life from pharmaceutical exposure in wastewater effluent for most drugs. They also found that even under the extreme scenario of someone consuming half a gallon of treated wastewater per day over the course of a year, they would get the equivalent of less than a daily dose of any pharmaceutical currently in use. For most pharmaceuticals, it would be less than one daily dose over the course of a lifetime.

Additionally, based on what the survey revealed about pharmaceuticals in wastewater effluent, the researchers determined that risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in aquatic environments is low.

Mitchell Kostich, an EPA Scientist who worked on the study, said Agency researchers plan to now focus on the handful of pharmaceuticals that are most frequently used, and appear at levels for which risks to aquatic life cannot be ruled out. With the help of the model and additional data, they expect to be able to predict the maximum wastewater concentrations of any pharmaceutical in current use.

Interested in more about this topic? Join our Water Research Webinar: Pharmaceutical Residues in Municipal Wastewater on Wednesday, September 24th from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (EDT), and check out our previous post, A Prescription for a Healthier Environment!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Waste not, save a lot

By Jennie Saxe

Most people think of wastewater treatment plants as the end of the pipe: it’s where the water from our sinks, showers, toilets, and sewers ends up. They’re viewed as the place we send liquid waste from our homes and businesses. It’s even right there in the name of the place: “waste.”

These pipes deliver digester gas and natural gas to the 8 microturbines which generate power for the treatment plant on-site.

These pipes deliver digester gas and natural gas to the 8 microturbines which generate power for the treatment plant on-site.

Believe me: the York Wastewater Treatment Plant doesn’t waste anything.

I had heard about the sustainable technologies that were being put into place at this treatment plant in York, Pennsylvania, and decided I had to make the trip to see for myself. General Manager Andy Jantzer led me and a small group of my colleagues on a tour of the treatment process from the head of the plant, through some repurposed aeration basins to aid in nutrient removal, past the clarifiers and sand filters, and all the way through to the treated, disinfected outfall to Codorus Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which eventually drains to the Chesapeake Bay.

So far, things looked pretty standard: primary and secondary treatment, nutrient removal, and disinfection.

Then we got to the second part of the tour. That’s where we learned that there was some serious technology hiding out in a repurposed building on the site. Only the small gas conditioning units outside might have tipped you off that inside there are 8 sophisticated microturbines – which sound much like jet engines – 3 of which are powered by gas from the facility’s anaerobic digesters and 5 of which are natural gas-powered. These allow the facility to generate nearly 7,000kW on site. Without the microturbines, the plant would be wasting methane (a greenhouse gas) from its digesters and purchasing all of its electricity from the grid. EPA’s Net Zero Energy team promotes technologies like this to help water and wastewater treatment plants become more energy efficient, and potentially “net zero” energy consumers.

Ammonia and phosphorus are recovered from the treatment plant’s digester centrate to create this pelletized fertilizer.

Ammonia and phosphorus are recovered from the treatment plant’s digester centrate to create this pelletized fertilizer.

What about the centrate (liquid waste) from the digesters? Most plants recycle that back to the head of the plant, which requires not only more energy for pumping, but also additional chemicals for treatment. Not here! The digester centrate comes to the former sludge incinerator building where a special process removes phosphorus and ammonia and creates a long-lasting, slow-release, pelletized fertilizer that is being used in agriculture, on golf courses, and in other applications.

See what I mean? Nothing is wasted. By recovering resources like phosphorus and energy from wastewater, this treatment plant has joined a new breed of facilities that are extracting beneficial products from what most people consider waste. The dedicated management and staff at the York Wastewater Treatment Plant are making a difference to the communities that they serve. Pursuing sustainable technologies like the ones that York has adopted not only solve problems for today, but for tomorrow, as well.

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time tending to a vegetable garden.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Leaders Collaboration

Understanding Climate Change impacts in the New England region is one thing, and actually working to improve vision, capability and capacity to confront climate change and make our communities more resilient is an even bigger challenge. It is a challenge that the New England states are focused on because the vulnerabilities we are facing are real. We have seen a 74 percent increase in extreme precipitation events between 1958 and 2011. Hurricanes and tropical storms are increasing in intensity and that is expected to continue. We saw our vulnerabilities come to life in our inland states after Tropical Storm Irene. We saw the coast get slammed after Hurricane Sandy. Fifty percent of New Englanders live in coastal counties, and depend on critical infrastructure there. With sea level rise, and increased extreme precipitation events, these areas are vulnerable to flooding and storm surge in ways that they have never been before.

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