In January 2013, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), a premier water quality professionals association, made a subtle but fundamental change in the naming of facilities managing municipal wastewaters. For many decades, such facilities have been called Wastewater Treatment Plants, or WWTPs. The subtext is that the wastewater we create is just a problem that needs to be dealt with, and not in a glamorous way. However, the newly adopted term – Water Resource Recovery Facilities, or WRRFs – put a more favorable (and more accurate) spin to describe what this intricate public service entails. In essence, the announcement from WEF shifts the focus from negative historical connotations to the great opportunities in treating our waters for beneficial applications. As far as I’m concerned, this change in public communications about wastewater treatment is long overdue!
Indeed, wastewater treatment is ultimately about reusing and conserving the limited water resources we use every day to help maintain a safe, secure, and sustainable water supply. But there is another layer of “resource recovery” opportunities available in the water treatment supply chain. Classically, plants capture methane that is produced during the treatment process, combust it, and turn it into electricity. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new water resource recovery technologies visible within the industry. Innovations in recovering materials and precious metals are maturing in the marketplace. Other examples, including the capture of electrons from pollutants in wastewater to make electricity without methane*, continue to arm utilities and companies with options to improve water resource management while realizing a direct return on capital investment.
But there are problems in seeing this potential put into practice. The bottleneck in adoption of these tremendous inventions to serve ratepayers like you and I abound. Some of these bottlenecks make more sense than others. Risk aversion, one of the largest factors, is a vital safeguard since utilities and industrial wastewater generators are 100% responsible for the safety of water supplied to the public; trust is paramount in this relationship. However, artificially low utility costs and an antiquated water pricing schedule are directly contributing to a capital crunch for essential technologies and upgrades prescribed for utilities and industries around the country. The shortsighted viewpoint of keeping rates rock bottom and sacrificing the long-term viability of our infrastructure is a dangerous bet. An ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure in this case, as evidenced by information presented on the websites linked at the end of this article. By thinking in a drastically different manner about water, our country stands to benefit – both environmentally and economically.
Effective marketing also plays a big role in changing the water conversation among the greater population. Although stakeholders within the water industry are making strides to improve messaging through the rebranding of WWTPs to WWRFs among other examples, more work is needed on all levels. This includes entrepreneurs like myself as we engage with potential customers, strategic partners, and investors. The next generation technologies are out there and continue to be optimized. However, they need a push for adoption by industry leaders and beyond. Policy leaders must familiarize themselves with the persuasive arguments around water and wastewater infrastructure and the dividends investing in a sustainable future can pay. We will create a sustainable economic future - using our resources wisely - while simultaneously safeguarding quality water resources for generations to come. Taking action now will avert jeopardizing access to the #1 most important resource on the planet…clean water.
*Mark Sholin is the founder of Arbsource, a Phoenix, AZ-based startup company commercializing such a technology. Prior to Arbsource, Mark was a PhD student at Arizona State University researching wastewater treatment technologies. He has work history with water and process control companies including Honeywell, Arcadis, and Infilco-Degremont. You can learn more about him and his company at www.arbsource.us
For more insights into the talking points raised in this essay, especially focusing on job creation by increasing water infrastructure capital investment, please visit the following links: