In the water treatment industry, change is a certainty; exactly how the industry will change, and how quickly, is not always so clear. Marc Roehl, vice president and general manager of Evoqua’s wastewater technologies segment, has worked in the infrastructure and water treatment sectors for more than 20 years, and that experience helps him evaluate trends in water treatment and predict what is coming next. Roehl spoke with W&WD Associate Editor Michael Meyer about the state of the industry and the ways in which it is evolving.
Michael Meyer: What are some trends you have noticed in the water treatment industry?
Marc Roehl: I’d say one of the big trends that we’re seeing is a real focus on making the most out of existing infrastructure. We look at it as retrofit rehab opportunities. We see a lot of folks, [instead of] building new systems or putting in new equipment, they’re figuring out how to rehabilitate what they already have installed.
Also, we continue to see a trend around the concept of intensification, where people are looking at processes that allow them to treat more flow or more waste in a smaller footprint and/or upgrade facilities without adding footprint to their sites. It basically allows them to more economically expand the capacity of their treatment plants.
This has been going on for years, but there’s a focus on increasing nutrient removal in wastewater. Those regulations are very local and regional, based on what the local water quality standards are that we’re trying to meet. There’s a recent trend toward looking at metals removal from wastewater effluents, and metals like copper and zinc are probably the two biggest ones. We’re seeing some areas of the country where there are pretty tight standards being put around dissolved metals removal from the effluent. That’s kind of a new and emerging trend—it’s been out there for a while, but it seems to be picking up some steam.
Meyer: What technologies do you feel will be important to the industry’s future?
Roehl: Our industry moves slowly. It’s not a fast-changing industry, so going forward in the future, I think we’re going to see many of the same technologies we have today being very important, but I equally see ... technologies that allow treatment plants to be expanded or perform better without adding footprint [will be] key, and there are a number of those out there, including some that we’re offering to the market. Technologies that improve energy efficiency or energy neutrality of wastewater treatment I see being key, [as well as] technologies that allow plants to meet more and more stringent effluent limits, [such as] nutrients or metals.
Meyer: What is the near-term financial outlook for the industry?
Roehl: In general, we’re seeing a good level of activity out there. I don’t want to say there’s an overabundance of funding, but there’s funding for projects to move forward. There are a lot of questions floating around relative to the new administration in the U.S. government, in terms of what that means for funding, but on the whole, my sense is that we see the focus on infrastructure spending, and so far indications are spending for water and wastewater will not be restricted. So I expect that we’ll see, in the near term, fairly stable conditions for water and wastewater funding and financing.
Meyer: How do you think the new administration will affect the water treatment industry?
Roehl: Nobody has a crystal ball on this, and it’s hard to say for sure, but my sense is, on the whole, it ought to be similar to or perhaps a little bit better than what we have today going back over the past few years, because there seems to be an intent for infrastructure investment, and so far indications are no dramatic changes to funding for water and wastewater. I think the net impact will be neutral to positive, but that’s just my best guess based on what we’re seeing today.
A Workforce in Transition
One part of the industry that has caught Roehl’s attention is the state of its industry’s workforce. He believes that it will change dramatically in coming years.
“There are some questions [and] challenges around aging demographics of treatment facility operations staff, and what that means for technology installed from a data management perspective at treatment facilities and what that may mean from a staffing perspective,” he said. “That’s kind of cutting-edge for our industry, honestly, but I think we’re going to see a move toward more automation and more data available that allows us to staff and operate plants with what I expect to be fewer staff in the future. Not that there’s an overt effort to necessarily reduce our treatment plant staffing—I just think that’s going to come with the demographics we have and the interests of the younger staff.”
Roehl views this as another necessary step toward increasing the sustainability of the industry.
“I think we’re almost by default going to need to find ways to become more efficient, which on the whole ought to be a good thing from a ratepayer perspective,” he said. “That said, we’re always going to need staffing on these sites, and to even suggest that we’re going to get to fully automated plants that don’t need anybody there—we’re a long, long way away from that.”
Marc Roehl is vice president and general manager of Evoqua’s wastewater technologies segment. He received a B.S. in civil engineering and a M.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa, and he worked for Shrive-Hattery, MSA Professional Services, USFilter and Siemens before assuming his current position with Evoqua in 2014. Roehl can be reached at [email protected].