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2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report

The Future is Bright for Water Recycling Strategies

Based on a survey of water and wastewater stakeholders, our report examines the issues and trends impacting today’s industry.

The Future is Bright for Water Recycling Strategies

Finding more water sources is no longer enough. The future rests in smart strategies that reuse what we’ve already got.

A survey of nearly 300 water industry stakeholders for Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report reveals that utilities increasingly are adopting water reclamation and recycling strategies to bolster their water resilience and reduce effluent discharge in their overall water-management plan — and provide local supply availability even in the time of global pandemics such as COVID-19.

Faced with the specter of climate change and increasingly extreme weather events, the survey’s findings reveal that an expanding portfolio of water reuse strategies as a sustainability goal is becoming the norm, with nearly six in 10 respondents saying water reclamation and reuse are part of their sustainability goals and metrics.

This isn’t surprising. Water reclamation gives water utilities more options in meeting the needs of growing populations in increasingly strained natural ecosystems.

2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report

With its survey of nearly 300 water industry stakeholders as its backbone, Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report comprehensively analyzes the sector’s complex landscape of challenges and opportunities. The leveraging of data in driving decision-making and optimizing efficiencies in water and wastewater systems is widening even as infrastructure continues to age, climate change strains assets, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial havoc pressures the bottom lines of many utilities through lost revenues. We look at all of that and more.

Two-thirds of respondents indicated they are exploring water reuse implementation options more today, as compared to five years ago — a strong indicator of how water reuse is becoming much more common. One-fifth of those said they are using reuse solutions “much more” than five years ago.

When it comes to water resilience, adding water reuse capabilities is the most widely used strategy that smaller utilities are taking and ranks as the No. 2 strategy for utilities serving populations of at least 500,000.

2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report

It’s all reflective of approaching water management via the “circular economy” theory being adopted by businesses and institutions of all types. Two-thirds of survey respondents indicated they are familiar with core principles of the circular economy, including designing for the future, incorporating technology, collaborating to create joint value and using waste as a resource. Other tenets may involve preserving and extending what’s already there, prioritizing regenerative resources and rethinking the model.

Many water utilities have been leaders in this space for decades. Incorporating these principles into water management and reuse strategies requires analyzing the method that works best based by region and size, bringing the public on board and, of course, finding creative ways to pay for it.

Implementing Water Reuse Strategies

Balancing the need for more water versus the liability of too much water — plus regional requirements — are influencing what reuse strategies utilities already have started to implement.

Groundwater recharge is an obvious solution and a means of potable reuse by way of groundwater injection where appropriate to “bank water” for future use. It is widely used, and required, in the arid West in the United States. Not surprisingly, a regional breakdown of the survey showed that respondents from Western states indicated groundwater recharge was a primary strategy in their water recycling portfolio, with urban and agricultural reuse tying for second.

Northeastern utilities picked groundwater recharge, industrial reuse and urban reuse in an across-the-board tie for their most popular water reuse strategy. Midwest utilities also chose groundwater recharge as the strategy they were likeliest to use — with industrial reuse, surface water augmentation, potable reuse and environmental enhancement tying for second. In the South covering U.S. states between New Mexico and Virginia, where the largest portion of utilities by region had yet to adopt any water reuse strategies, the most popular adopted or supported strategy by survey respondents is potable reuse, including surface water augmentation and groundwater recharge.

Overall, a regional breakdown of water reuse strategies reveals that utilities are implementing a broad portfolio of solutions even though what they are most likely to execute differs by region. This reflects, especially for larger and more mature institutions, that they are implementing more than one water reuse strategy to be adaptable to changing conditions. It also highlights the differences in water scarcity versus water abundance as utilities respond to regional influences on water resilience. At the same time, they deal with a multitude of local stressors on their systems.

2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report

Effluent Disposal Plays a Factor in Reuse Efforts

While more than 40 percent of respondents chose risk mitigation, resilience and/or water scarcity as their main reason for water reuse, effluent disposal also is a factor in water recycling strategies. More than one-quarter — 28 percent — of respondents chose effluent disposal as their main reason for their community reuse program.

In the case of Florida, recycling water began as a way of mitigating effluent disposal.

Starting in the 1960s, Florida began water reclamation efforts to divert effluent disposal for Tallahassee agriculture, according to a University of Florida Institute of Foods and Sciences document. By the 1970s, those efforts broadened into reclaiming water for landscape irrigation.

Today, the vast majority of Florida counties reclaim their wastewater. Florida citizens reuse wastewater to irrigate their private and public lawns, and roughly 820 million gallons of reclaimed water were used for public benefit purposes in 2019, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection report.

Now, as Florida grapples with a shrinking groundwater supply, the stage has been set for the state to expand into potable reuse strategies, according to a new strategic plan released by the Florida Potable Reuse Commission.

 

Bringing the Public on Board — It’s All How You Market It

The good news is that overall public acceptance of potable reuse programs, while still a significant factor, appears to be increasing.

Engineering and technical advances have improved, ensuring safety, and more private and non-profit organizations are promoting
the need for a “One Water” or an integrated water strategy.

Overall, survey respondents indicated that after groundwater recharge, potable reuse was solidly part of their reclamation use portfolio. Sixteen percent of respondents chose potable reuse as a water reclamation strategy, tying with urban reuse and just slightly less than industrial and surface water augmentation, which came in at 17 percent.

2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report

But as California learned, a successful potable reuse program hinges on public acceptance, and a thoughtful marketing campaign can
make all the difference.

As the University of California-Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy has reported, California lawmakers looking to meet state requirements for an increase of one million acre-feet of reused water per year by 2020 and two million by 2030 have mandated that treated wastewater be recycled for drinking by 2023.

Even facing historic droughts, initial attempts for potable water reuse in the state failed to gain public acceptance.

In 2008, however, the Orange County Water District of California, in partnership with the Orange County Sanitation District, began a successful groundwater replenishment system treating 100 million gallons per day of wastewater and replenishing local drinking water aquifers. Bolstered by a decade of emphasis on public education, engagement and smart engineering, and building on their expertise in water recycling going back to the Water Factory 21 project, media coverage was positive and public support widespread. Today, the final expansion of that system is in construction, taking the total capacity from 100 million to 130 million gallons per day. The system has recycled more than 314 billion gallons since inception, and on its 10th anniversary set a Guinness world record for the most wastewater recycled to drinking water in 24 hours.

Other regions can not only learn from — but reap the benefits of — the public acceptance shift in favor of potable water reuse led by successful efforts as seen in California’s Orange County.

 

Overcoming the Biggest Barrier to Reuse: Paying for It

Overwhelmingly, survey respondents indicated the biggest barrier to doing more reuse is cost.

In a survey question asking respondents to select up to three barriers to doing more reuse, costs to build and execute easily was the biggest obstacle. Lack of public acceptance was still significant but less than half that of the barrier of costs. Revenue from reused water systems also was considered a barrier, ranking as the third most significant barrier to implementing reuse strategies.

2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report
 

Cost was even more of a factor for utilities serving fewer than 500,000 customers.

Lack of public acceptance was almost twice as likely to be selected by larger utilities than smaller ones. Both groups similarly selected revenue from reused water systems not justifying the program’s existence.

In some cases, utilities simply may be overwhelmed by asset management and repairs of existing infrastructure, and not taking a step back to look at the overall picture in water resource management. Investment in water reuse can offset other water utility costs when approached in a holistic framework.

When it comes to costs, utilities may be unaware of increasing grant opportunities that can help to offset water reuse investments as federal and state legislators begin embracing more water reuse as a solution to water resilience.

In February of 2020, the U.S. EPA released the new “National Water Reuse Action Plan.” Focused on water reuse as “a valuable, perhaps necessary component of integrated water resources on planning to ensure safe and reliable sources of water at the federal, state and local levels well into the future,” that new report includes a section on finance support compiling federal funding sources.

Searching for new resources, even aggressively asking potential partners for help, plus positioning for grant-funding and stimulus money for shovel-ready projects is a smart strategy for utilities looking to invest in water reclamation projects.

The bottom line: Black & Veatch’s survey results reveal an increasingly positive outlook for water reclamation as a real solution for overall resilience efforts.

Efforts to tighten up the cycle of water through reuse and exploring options for better ways to work with the natural and man-made water cycle are — not surprisingly — a wise water utility strategy in a world increasingly adopting a circular economy framework as the answer for future sustainability and resilience. 

About the Authors

Zeynep Erdal leads integrated solutions for Black & Veatch, where she specializes in “One Water” solutions that integrate resource recovery and resilience. She has close to 25 years of experience in water reclamation projects around the world and is a recognized expert in treatment technologies focusing on the water-nutrient-energy nexus as well as integration of used water and water recycling solutions.

Jo Ann Jackson leads Black & Veatch’s national “One Water” planning practice. She brings more than 35 years of experience developing integrated solutions to wastewater, stormwater and water supply projects across the United States. Her experience includes six years in the public sector, where she helped implement Florida’s first direct potable reuse pilot and served as a utility representative on Florida’s Potable Reuse Commission.

Andrew Shaw is a global practice and technology leader in sustainability and wastewater for Black & Veatch. He has more than 25 years of experience in wastewater treatment design projects in the United Kingdom, Australia, Asia and North America. His expertise includes nutrient removal, computer modeling, instrumentation, process optimization and life-cycle assessments.

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