Trends in something as complex as the water and wastewater industry tend to take unforeseen paths as technology and circumstances change.
Neverless, some familiar trends can be expected to continue in decades to come, and a few new trends may be identified with some confidence. We may expect two familiar, overarching themes to continue.
Aging infrastructure. Time marches on, and so does the deterioration of infrastructure, particularly when not properly maintained or when repair, rehabilitation and replacement are deferred. The huge infrastructure deficit will undoubtedly be with us for decades to come. As contemporary software solutions make sophisticated asset management tools widely available and readily applicable, increased use of asset management tools and techniques offers hope that utilities will begin to solve their aging infrastructure problems.
Regulations. Regulations are a permanent part of the water and wastewater landscape. As our knowledge grows and science advances, potential public health and environmental gains through regulation expand as well. We expect to see the regulatory focus move away from the treatment plant and toward impacts on consumers and the environment. New standards are emerging for discharge limits to receiving waters that are far beyond any standard that might have been obtained only a few years ago. Drinking water regulations are likely to move more aggressively into distribution and storage systems, seeking to preserve and maintain treatment technology benefits at the tap with more reliability and certainty.
Emerging trends expected to dominate the water and wastewater world for some time to come include:
Focusing on the water cycle as a whole. Water shortages will continue to accelerate for several reasons: population growth and relocation; increasing demand that certain sources be “off limits” for environmental reasons; and global warming creating dislocations in traditional water patterns and cycles. In a world where water is increasingly precious in every sense, we can expect rapid growth of the idea that no source should be “wasted.” Treatment effluent, storm water and substandard sources will all become increasingly valuable sources of supply for a variety of beneficial uses. Already, certain major agencies in arid states assert that the cost of source water is not a major issue; the issue is availability at virtually any price.
The idea of effluent as a valuable resource instead of a disposal problem is increasingly common. The movement toward treating effluent to drinking water standards is gaining momentum. Increasingly, society will expect water professionals to address every aspect of the cycle, from source through treatment, from beneficial use through waste treatment, from discharge to recovery and reuse. The water industry will move toward a role of steward of this precious resource on behalf of society as a whole.
Worker shortages. As demands for technical and managerial skills grow, along with the scale and complexity of the issues themselves, essentially every entity in our field is facing an unprecedented shortage of trained, capable professionals. The number of engineers and scientists seeking careers in water and wastewater is woefully short of the demand. For utilities, consultants, suppliers and constructors, recruiting is increasingly critical. The industry will have to find new ways to supplement labor with technology. We will need to tap the pool of engineering and technical skills emerging in countries such as India and China. Utilities will need to rethink their insistence that work be done locally as the pool of local talent is increasingly stressed. We will need to broaden our thinking about how our work is done.
The end of “cheap water.” For many decades, water in the U.S. was undervalued and underpriced. One need only look at the deficit in infrastructure repair, rehabilitation and replacement to see the effects. In a world of shrinking supply, increasing population, more stringent regulation and a seriously aging infrastructure, costs will inevitably rise. The political and community implications of rising water costs will be far reaching as the cost of water begins to move inexorably toward its true value.
New horizons in sources and treatment. The long-heralded trend toward desalination and reuse is now moving into the mainstream of water and wastewater planning. Seawater desalination as the next step is a common view. Dozens of desalination plants are under discussion as technologists drive toward making this solution more practical, affordable and environmentally acceptable. Similarly, reuse has moved beyond irrigating golf courses into the mainstream of non-potable water supplies all over the U.S. Many now anticipate potable uses in the near future, although clearly there is much public skepticism to overcome. The prime, easily treated sources are maximized for the most part. Now comes the heavy lifting.
As technology, information systems and globalization change our landscape, our society is undergoing massive change in every sense. Without a doubt, change for the water and wastewater industry will be equally sweeping. We can only imagine our future, but it is clear that we must be creative, nimble and open to change if we are to make the future as successful as the past.