Blue 2

May 5, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new Water Innovation Technology Blueprint, Version 2, announced on April 7 at the U.S. Water Alliance’s U.S. Water Prize ceremony, is creating quite a buzz in water circles, and not just because of its references to the energy/water nexus: The document is a comprehensive, thoughtful discussion of some of America’s greatest water challenges and opportunities.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA, highlighted the brand new Blueprint’s features and gave examples of cutting edge technology, techniques, and strategies during her keynote at the U.S. Water Prize ceremony, before a packed audience at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The administrator explained the history and intent behind the plan. Since Version 1 was released in March 2013, Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner and her staff, including senior instigator of innovation, Jeff Lape, have engaged with partners and pioneers to probe some of the most pressing needs and solutions. These range from technologies and processes to management approaches such as regional collaboration and techniques such as sensors and controls.

Version 2 expands on earlier topics, explains the business case for technology innovation, identifies market opportunities and also tools for assessing water risk, and "frames a more robust set of actions that EPA will take" for promoting technology innovation.

Here are the Blueprint’s 10 priorities, not ranked in order but loaded with examples and suggestions:

1. Conserving and Recovering Energy. The administrator recited some of the statistics surrounding this urgent opportunity: The nation’s drinking water and wastewater facilities account for almost 2% of national electricity consumption; that’s enough to power 6.5 million homes a year. She also touted U.S. Water Prize winner, Alliance for Water Efficiency, for educating the public to link energy and water efficiency to get more "drop per dollar" as part of its Never Waste campaign.

2. Recovering Nutrients. The Blueprint describes the national trend to tap into and harvest the fruits of "enriched water," which some still inappropriately call wastewater. Hampton Roads Sanitation District, winner of the Water Environment Research Foundation’s annual award, is just one example.

3. Improving and Greening Water and Wastewater Infrastructure. The Blueprint lays out the growing opportunities and spotlights several previous winners of the U.S. Water Prize: Philadelphia for its Green City, Clean Waters program and Onondaga County/Syracuse, N.Y., for its Save the Rain Program. The Administrator also congratulated 2014 U.S. Water Prize winner, Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, for its work to cut pollution and add community benefits. Perhaps a future U.S. Water Prize  winner will be the city of Columbus, Ohio, which recently released Blueprint Columbus, a 30-year, $2.5-billion plan to control storm water pollution, growing rain gardens on vacant lots, beautifying neighborhoods, and boosting the local economy.

4. Conserving and Eventually Reusing Water. The Blueprint highlights U.S. Water Prize winner, Orange County’s Ground Water Replenishment System. Prediction: Next time, the Blueprint will drop "eventually." Indirect potable reuse and other forms of reuse will still rely on natural buffers and time lags to win public acceptance but other forms of reuse and recycling are occurring onsight in real time in communities and urban centers now. Watch the water reuse and public support numbers grow.

5. Reducing Costs and Improving Techniques for Water Monitoring. The Blueprint mentions the enormous need and promising developments with tools to store, communicate, and visualize vast data streams. Past U.S. Water Prize winners, such as the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, and 2014 winner, American Water, come to mind as leaders in the quest to track water’s status and trends.

6. Improving Performance of Small Drinking Water Systems. EPA highlights the need to advance the financial, technical and managerial capacity of the systems serving fewer than 10,000 people, representing more than 94% of the 156,000 public water supply systems.

7. Reducing Water Impacts from Energy Production. The Blueprint describes the need for continued progress in shrinking the water footprint of energy exploration, production and distribution.

8. Improving Resilience of Water Infrastructure to the Impacts of Climate Change. The Blueprint underscores the need for action and outreach in adaptation. In her keynote at the U.S. Water Prize ceremony, Administrator McCarthy appropriately called on water leaders to "think outside the box, as well as outside the pipe," to build a path toward a future in a "carbon constrained and climate impacted world." She mentioned EPA’s ongoing programs for Climate Ready Water Utilities (CRWU) and Climate Resilience Evaluation & Awareness Tool (CREAT).

9. Improving Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. The Blueprint acknowledges the global challenge—more than 700 million people relying on unimproved drinking water sources with significant threats of contamination and 2.5 billion people lacking access to improve sanitation facilities.

10. Improving Water Quality of Our Oceans, Estuaries and Watersheds. EPA calls for integrated, holistic approaches that maximize economies of scale and economies of scope among differing jurisdictions and organizations.

One of my favorite features of the Blueprint: It lays out a path for action, including a challenge to EPA itself to "create the regulatory space to foster technology innovation." It also highlights key collaborations, some national, some regional, and some site specific that deserve more attention and support.

Version 2 of the Blueprint makes for great reading, plotting, scheming and dreaming. With more authors and partners, actions and strategies, it is becoming a foundation for the type of national water vision our country needs. I can't wait for Version 3.
Ben Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., committed to uniting people and policies for water sustainability throughout the country. Grumbles has a long career in water and environmental policy, serving the public and teaching law students and environmental professionals, over the past 25 years. He can be reached at [email protected].