The Future of Water Treatment

Filter beds at the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant

Credit: SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION/ROBIN SCHESWOHL
Filter beds at the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant

Solutions for Pollution
Increasing regulation will correspondingly increase the demand for reliability, performance, and new features in water treatment and testing, envisions Mark Mullet, senior product manager at GE Water. It’s not going to be easy to deliver. “Corrosive applications will pose special challenges.”

He mentions alkali, chlorine gas, and products like caustic soda as particularly corrosive elements, but it’s the man-made contaminants such as pharmaceuticals that Dan Dair, technical manager for World Water Works Inc. believes will pose the biggest challenges because they are difficult to detect, too small to be removed with current processes, and don’t degrade. “Organics are already regulated; this is a future market.”

The industry will see refinements that shorten installation time, continues Dair. Once installed, the systems will remove contaminants such as phosphorous and nitrogen efficiently and redirect as much carbon as possible. He foresees a balance of energy and carbon utilization. “The goal is to create energy and product from wastewater.”

It’s a tall order, especially considering that places like India have no waste treatment system, points out Tucker. “They build remediation islands. With 1.2 billion people, it’s an enormous challenge.”

That’s why he says “problems will come from undeveloped countries. The big issue is that we are running out of water. Shortages will hit us all and we’ll turn to collecting surface water.” He believes that companies like his are in a unique position to help in order to secure the future of our global water supply.

Whatever technology and tools we use to keep our water supply free of contaminants, it’s clear that continuous monitoring will play a key role. It’s important to know what’s in our water supply.

It’s also important to make changes. According to Conserve Energy Future:

  • 40% of the rivers and 46% of the lakes in the US are polluted and are considered unhealthy for swimming, fishing, or aquatic life
  • 80% of water pollution is due to improper disposal of garbage
  • 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste are dumped into US waters annually
  • 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage from households, industry, and restaurants are discharged into US lakes, rivers, and oceans each year, according to EPA
  • 2 million tons of human waste are disposed in water every day
  • Approximately half of all ocean pollution is caused by sewage and wastewater
  • About 700 million people worldwide drink contaminated water

A survey done by Food & Water Watch indicates that approximately 3.5 billion people in 2025 will face water shortage issues due, in part, to water pollution…unless things change.

The news isn’t all glum; things are beginning to change. Since 1970, EPA has invested well over $200 billion to improve water treatment plants that serve about 88% of the population in 2015 (as compared with just 69% in 1972).

Although two of the goals of the CWA—to achieve swimmable waters by 1983 and zero discharge of pollutants by 1985—were not reached, the law did initiate a dramatic increase in federal support for upgrading publicly owned treatment works, with $77.2 billion in federal grants and contributions funneling through EPA’s Construction Grants and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs to states and municipalities.

Even with increased funding, the challenge is immense. Until the 1990s, 20–25 million gallons of raw sewage were carried each day to California from Mexico by the New River. Still today, factories worldwide are pumping 5–10 billion tons industrial waste—polluted water—into rivers, streams, and oceans. Only by changing habits, enforcing laws, and monitoring and removing contaminants can we ensure the safety of our water supply. WE_bug_web

Comments
  • My 2cents.

    Doesn’t the New River transport sewage from Mexico into California and not the other way around as indicated in the last paragraph?

    Reply
    • David R.

      You are correct, we apologize for the error and have made the correction.

      Reply
  • Edo McGowan.

    Although indicating that “Since 1970, EPA has invested well over $200 billion to improve water treatment plants that serve about 88% of the population in 2015 (as compared with just 69% in 1972)”, if one delves into it, there are deeply seated problems. In a discussion with EPA on the up-grading of sewer plants and the issue of antibiotic resistance, high-level EPA scientists indicate that the agency has, over the last few decades done little in the area of engineering research to stem these problems. Since sewers in this country were never designed to deal with industrial waste or hospital effluent, their discharge into the nation’s lakes and rivers becomes a crap shoot. If we go back to the mid 1970s, the EPA did spend Congressional dollars (billions) on sewer plants. But this was not mainly for Clean Water Act issues but rather for expansion and extension to hook up industry. Congress bitched bitterly about this misappropriation and mis-expenditure, then itself rolled over to industry pressure within just a few short years. This is all accurately recorded in the Congressional Record of the time. If one reads the Water Series by NY Times reporter Charles Duhigg, this becomes fairly clear.

    The CWA came into being via an amendment of prior law. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was amended in 1972 by P.L. 92-500 to become the CWA. In 1977 the law was again amended by Congress (PL 95-217 Clean Water Act). These amendments to which many gave the term “mid course corrections” were seen by congress as necessary restatements of the original intent (29).

    In its original statement, as found in the Legislative History (30), Congress felt that implementation had “been uneven, often contrary to the intent, and frequently more the result of judicial order than administrative initiative”. This was a direct comment on the conduct of EPA. The discussion continued: “Collector sewers, interceptor sewers, and treatment plants were approved even though their primary purpose was to meet new growth needs. The purpose of these funds is not to finance future growth….”(31).

    In their report the Senate and Conferees (32) strongly restated the original intent of the 1972 Amendments. The Committee reiterated this theme several times throughout the entirety of the Senate Report on Legislative History. Another area drummed upon was the matter of point and non point source regulation. To assure clarification of intent, considerable discussion by the Committee was given to these two issues. Some of this discussion has been extracted (33) or paraphrased below to give the reader a better perspective.

    The members felt that the primary directions had been “inadequately addressed and often ignored”. The Committee underscored, by its actions, the intention of the 1972 act: the purpose of these funds is not to finance the future growth. Along with limited provisions for growth set forth specifically in the statute the purpose is to recognize the cost effectiveness factors and to achieve a balance between the pressures for economic development and the need for environmental improvement. There was to be no defense for the practice of dumping of waste into rivers, lakes, and streams. The 1972 act had stipulated that the Nation’s fresh and marine waters would not be an element of the waste treatment process. Thus alternative technologies for dealing with waste should be accorded a high priority.

    But, as later seen by the Duhigg articles in the NY Times, there seems to be little enforcement.

    “In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere,

    according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency. But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.”

    Reply

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