As a precursor to the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC) in Chicago, De Nora Water Technologies hosted a round table dinner to discuss the state of the water industry and its direction Sept. 22.
Dinner guests included three hosts from De Nora—CEO Mirka Wilderer, General Manager of Global Electrochlorination Bryan Brownlie and General Manager Daryl Weatherup—as well as moderator Bob Crossen, senior managing editor for Water & Wastes Digest. Dinner guests included municipal plant managers, consultants, engineers and solutions providers from across the industry.
The dinner discussion touched on regulations and legislation enforcement for water and wastewater treatment in the U.S., developing and training the next workforce, and what it will take to solve the problems those issues pose to the industry. To the right are excerpts of this two-hour dinner discussion.
On Regulatory Balance
Monthly average and maximum daily load are the two most critical numbers to the U.S. EPA, but violating them as a municipality garners different disciplinary actions than if the entity is part of private industry, Dave Russel said.
“As a municipality, it is almost never enforced. So we have this kind of interesting dichotomy here that there’s a lot of lip service about enforcing wastewater treatment standards, but only if you’re in industry,” Russell said.
Regulations, dinner guests noted, have certainly helped in some regards, but sometimes the burden of those regulations is too intense. While they may be well intentioned, they also can be misguided. Chris Ranck said some regulations can have heavy handed penalties, as well.
“A wastewater consent decree, as somebody who’s done a lot of regulatory on the consulting side, it’s the equivalent of trying to put up a piece of trim in your house and driving in your nail with an 18 lb sledgehammer,” Ranck said. “You may get the nail in, but you might have some other collateral damage."
A Sudden Lead Problem?
Paul Reese said one of the issues in the industry that frustrates him is the suddenness with which utilities are saying they have a lead problem. Lead has been banned from drinking water for more than 40 years, he noted, so it has always been a problem. Failing to address the problem over several decades is the real issue at hand.
“Other cities have just ignored it, ignored it, ignored it,” Reese said. “Now their nose is to the grind stone. Those communities really need to fix their own problem.”
He said solving issues like this should come from programs that empower communities to fix their problems on their own terms and with a community focus in mind.
The U.S. EPA regulatory pieces, Melissa Meeker said, force money into certain areas without thinking about the bigger picture. Lacking a foundation for water’s value, those regulations and innovations become a tough sell for the end user.
“Until people value water, they’re not going to pay for water. We underwrite water and until we can show them—which is what I’m trying to do—show them what innovation can accomplish locally and can accomplish with their utilities, they’ll never support those pieces. At the same time, we have education for elected officials, we have education for operators to show them what technology can do for them. It’s a collective thing that we have just been lax in our industry of focusing on.”
Francis Cain said from a municipal standpoint, people can come before the city council, water board or other entity to get an abatement for their bill when they forgot to turn off a spigot before leaving for vacation.
“They get a water bill that’s huge—hundreds or thousands of dollars—and they can come to the board and the board has the ability to just abate that entire amount,” Cain said.
To combat this, Cain said a few years ago, his utility determined the hard costs for a gallon of water—factoring in electricity, chemicals, etc.—and now when the board abates bills, the homeowner must at least pay back the hard costs.
Automation & Workforce
Overcoming the hesitancy for automated systems is a challenge in an industry where legacy knowledge has been a cornerstone of professional development. An operator may have been at a facility long enough that when numbers indicate a certain status of the plant, they know which valve to turn and how far to turn it to adjust the system accordingly.
“So many of us that have been doing this for 30, 40 or 50 years are now retiring and it’s challenging to find the people that are interested in wanting to actually run a wastewater treatment plant,” Vanessa Leiby said. “I think we’re seeing automation as a necessity because we just don’t have the bodies anymore.”
With this shift in how work will be conducted, it raises the question of proper training. As systems become smarter and more automated, the training needs must shift to meet that technology head on. The next generation of workers needs to know how both the treatment system and the control systems work to be effective.
It Takes a Visionary
Rachel Reese said to move the industry forward through the challenges and issues it is facing, it will take a visionary. Reese said it will take another person like Rachel Carson—a U.S. marine biologist and author credited with starting the grass roots effort that ultimately led to the formation of the U.S. EPA—to push the industry to the next step.
“She was excoriated for her observation, and she didn’t keep her mouth shut. She was it. She was just a visionary who paid attention,” Reese said, noting the commodity perspective on water is part of the problem. “Each utility is a commoditized venture. It’s not a water world issue. It’s not looking at water in nature. It’s just commoditizing a process for free stuff.”