Federally Funded Research to Study, Improve Houston Wastewater System’s Resilience | Black & Veatch

Federally Funded Research to Study, Improve Houston Wastewater System’s Resilience

National Science Foundation grant teams Rice, Howard universities, with Black & Veatch support, to model resilience of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants

It’s a familiar scene: people stockpiling cases of water when extreme weather hits, illustrating how climate-related disasters can seriously damage watersheds and disrupt water supplies.

So how can systems be made more resilient – better able to withstand, adapt to and readily recover from severe weather events? That’s the focus of a new research effort being led by Rice and Howard universities, with assistance from global infrastructure solutions leader Black & Veatch. The focus, in a twist, is strategies to advance the resilience of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). 

Until now, drinking water and stormwater systems have been the primary focus of resilience studies, even though WWTPs are equally at risk from intense wet weather events. The unfolding project – “GOALI: Collaborative Research: Advancing wastewater treatment resiliency and sustainability goals in the face of climate change” – will studying wastewater treatment strategies that promote space, energy and cost-efficient resilience. 

Factors driving the need to analyze WWTP resilience are numerous. Across the country, publicly owned and operated wastewater infrastructure is at or near the end of its design life. But new wastewater treatment technologies are emerging, with water reuse becoming more prevalent. In addition, the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA), which was passed in 2018, requires utilities to update their risk assessments and emergency plans for water facilities with a recommendation to also do this for wastewater-related facilities, including for natural disasters.

As the industry considers the next generation of WWTPs, the research project will focus on assessing biofilm-based technologies. Objectives are to evaluate the resiliency of full-scale, suspended-growth activated sludge systems to wet weather events, compare that to the resiliency of emerging pilot-scale biofilm technologies that include MABR and MBBR, and incorporate the results in a system-level model of the city of Houston. This will allow the team to assess the impact of individual plant upgrades to overall resilience under different climate change scenarios.

“Climate change impacts such as flooding, sea-level rise and intense droughts and storms make it critical to strengthen the resilience of wastewater treatment infrastructure,” said Andrew Shaw, Global Practice and Technology Leader at Black & Veatch. “It’s critical to protecting human health, local economies and the natural environment.”

The National Science Foundation awarded grants totaling more than $400,000 to Rice and Howard universities to conduct the research with Black & Veatch. Shaw is the co-principal investigator on the project, which is under the direction of Lauren Stadler at Rice University and Jeseth Delgado-Vela at Howard University. The city of Houston, Headworks International and SUEZ also are partners in the project.

Headworks International is a Houston-based wastewater treatment technology company providing the MBBR pilot system being deployed for this research at the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant of the city of Houston, as part of its Innovation Hub. SUEZ, an international water and waste management solutions company, is providing the MABR system through its Water Technologies & Solutions global business unit.

About Black & Veatch
Black & Veatch is an employee-owned engineering, procurement, consulting and construction company with a more than 100-year track record of innovation in sustainable infrastructure. Since 1915, we have helped our clients improve the lives of people in over 100 countries by addressing the resilience and reliability of our world's most important infrastructure assets. Our revenues in 2019 were US$3.7 billion. Follow us on www.bv.com and on social media.

About Rice University

Rice University is a major research institution in Houston, Texas. With a mission of collaborative discovery and innovation focused on solving societal issues including climate-related challenges, the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice offers academic programs as well as research opportunities designed to give graduate and undergraduate students world-class skills and knowledge in the physical, chemical, biological, economic and social systems that organize and affect urban and natural environments.

About Howard University

Founded in 1867, Howard University is a private research university in Washington, D.C. Howard University comprises 13 schools and colleges and offers 120 different undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees. Howard University’s College of Engineering and Architecture is a top producer African American engineers and architects.


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