Driving Innovation While Ensuring Clean, Safe Drinking Water

By Ramona Trovato

Across the country, 94 percent of the 150,000 public drinking water systems are considered small systems, meaning they serve fewer than 3,300 people. While many of these small systems consistently provide really good, safe and reliable drinking water to the people they serve, they face enormous challenges in their ability to maintain, replace, and improve their technologies.

EPA' Ramona Trovato (Associate Assistant Administrator, Office of Research and Development) and Curt Spalding (New England Regional Administrator)

EPA’ Ramona Trovato (Associate Assistant Administrator, Office of Research and Development) and Curt Spalding (New England Regional Administrator)

To address this issue, I recently participated in the announcement of a $4.1 million Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, grant establishing the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS) Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Along with Governor Deval Patrick, Chancellor Subbaswamy and EPA’s New England Regional Administrator, Curt Spalding, and others, we recognized the need for innovation in the water sector, specifically for small drinking water systems.

In New England, where the WINSSS is located, a total of about 10,000 systems are small which is about 90% of the region’s drinking water systems.

One of the biggest challenges is financial resources. Aging infrastructure needs to be maintained and replaced when there’s a leak. They also need to find ways to improve their infrastructure, but there just isn’t a lot of money for capital improvements.

State primacy agencies also find it difficult to support the high number of small systems across the country. Small systems operators also need to stay up to date with treatment alternatives, regulations, health implications, and emerging contaminants. Many small systems would perform better using new and innovative technologies that are more affordable, last longer, and require less maintenance. Another challenge is access to tested and reliable technologies.

The WINSSS Center will ultimately help small systems produce safe drinking water and operate in the most efficient manner possible while providing information and access to these technologies.

The Center will:

  • Create standardized cross-state testing requirements so that new technologies can get to market faster at a less expensive cost.
  • Develop novel approaches to treating groups of contaminants so that we’re not treating one contaminant at a time. This will reduce costs and is more effective than treating contaminants individually.
  • Create tools to simplify operations like an asset management application to help systems operators log all their assets and provide monitoring and notifications for maintenance.
  • Develop a database identifying technologies that are suitable for small systems use – taking into consideration energy use, regulatory requirements and system acceptance.
  • Build a network to share information with other small systems around the country.

The Center—and another we’ve funded at the University of Colorado, Boulder—will meet today’s urgent need for state-of-the-art innovation, development, demonstration, and use of treatment, information and process technologies in small water systems.

About the Author: Ramona Trovato is the associate assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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