Integrated watershed thinking, new technologies and fresh approaches to source management are emerging as population growth and climate change place increasing demands on the freshwater management sector. By Patricia Moore.
Opus International water sector leader Timothy Phelan says innovation in freshwater management is shifting to consider not only newer technologies but also fresh approaches to source management. That includes new and previously non-accessible resources and those threatened by changes stemming from population growth or climate change.
According to Timothy, who is based in Canada, “more than ever before, water stress and uncertainty about availability – even in ‘water rich’ areas like New Zealand and Canada – is requiring innovation: and not just in contaminant-specific technology requirements”.
Thinking about previously non-accessible resources – water reuse or reclamation, treatment of contaminated groundwater and desalinisation – as a recoverable resource is new, says Timothy.
“The days of plentiful surface water or pristine groundwater are slowly disappearing. And governments are turning to alternate places and associated technology to address that.”
The Groundwater Replenish System developed by the Orange County Water District in California is an example of how water is now being found through indirect potable water reuse from treated wastewater.
Secondary effluent received from a wastewater treatment plant is treated to near-distilled quality, before it is pumped to groundwater recharge basins which provide water security for the region.
In western Canada, previously overlooked sources include groundwater contaminated by arsenic and uranium.
Timothy says another area of innovation is in thinking more broadly about how freshwater management is not just a water-specific, or wastewater-specific, issue.
“[This is about] recognising that water connects multiple industries, involves connected watersheds and must be thought of in terms of the land use and resource uses it comes in contact with.”
Integrated watershed thinking is demonstrated in the Okanagan Basin in British Columbia, an area that includes forestry, ranching, agriculture and recreation within watersheds that provide drinking water and receive treated wastewater.
“The region’s governments work together to address what are the highest risks and how each of these sectors is affected,” says Timothy. “Can dairy plant manure or rendering facilities create opportunities for increasing energy recovery while simultaneously removing point sources from the watershed?
“Can technologies from other industries be applied in new ways within the water or wastewater management field?”
Innovation in the area of low-energy or energy-neutral treatment of wastewater will also gain increasing focus, he says.
“This will rely on lower energy treatments, hand-in-hand with energy recovery from biosolids.”
Innovative thinking in energy efficiency has always been a focus for the industry. But Timothy believes that in the next 10 years – as pressures for even lower-energy plants as well as space limitations for existing plants increase – game-changing technologies currently seen as too expensive, will have to move into full-scale implementation.
“Emerging technologies that meet the bill include the use of ‘granular’ activated sludge or magnetic particle ballast for increased solids separation efficiency, and adoption of energy recovery from biosolids at regional sludge super-centres, which maximise the capital investments for pre-treatment.”
(In the UK the sludge super-centre in Bristol processes around 40,000 metric tonnes of food wastes a year, diverted from landfill, and produces enough energy to power around 3000 homes.)
“Suddenly domestic source separated organics, fats, oils and grease, fish and chicken processing waste and expired groceries are becoming part of innovative freshwater thinking that increases the effectiveness of capital investments,” says Timothy.
Meanwhile, GHD principal water engineer Jivir Viyakesparan says that with water essential to New Zealand’s economic, environmental, cultural and social wellbeing, identifying the key risks and challenges of water management and the associated principles in dealing with them, requires innovative strategies and designs, from lot to city scales.
“An innovative approach that assists councils to manage these is the use of an integrated eWater SOURCE model,” he says.
“This platform has strong core functionality in hydrology, pollutant generation and water management, such as dams, and can be easily customised via plug-ins which provide significant flexibility in adapting the model to a variety of water resource issues, such as required by council.”
March 22 is World Water Day, an international day to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.
As a nation surrounded by water, with most regions enjoying frequent and abundant helpings of it from above, we tend to take the availability and safety of what comes out of the taps for granted.
But as Timothy Phelan points out, mother nature is creating changes to which mankind must respond.
“Watersheds are demonstrating behaviours never experienced before,” he says. “And, as annual precipitation patterns change and shorter winter seasons take place, the characteristics of water quality, water availability and public health are different and require new decisions.”
Timothy argues that the cost of water and the cost of freshwater management in general must be valued and priced in the context of the innovations the sector is seeing.
People will need to ask themselves whether the value of tap water is more important than other services such as telecommunications.
“Alternative funding concepts between industry and government will help benefit the wider public but it’s only part of the answer,” he says.
“Governments must increase attention in areas of public education, outreach and whole-of-life cost of service for freshwater management to remain a sustainable and essential service.”
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.