Agencies are working hard to improve the quality of water they are charged with protecting, and they are being rewarded for their initiatives, either through recognition or funding.
By Lyn Corum
Aurora Water, Colorado
Aurora Water, 60 years old in 2009, has recently won multiple awards for the quality of its drinking water. It provides that water to more than 310,000 people living in Aurora, CO. The city’s water supply comes primarily from three river basins—the Colorado, Arkansas, and South Platte—and is stored in nine reservoirs. It built its Griswold Water Treatment Plant, in 1968, and the Wemlinger Treatment Plant, in 1986. The department also has two wastewater facilities.
In June 2009, the Wemlinger Water Treatment Plant received the Phase IV Excellence in Water Treatment, awarded by the Partnership for Safe Drinking Water, a national volunteer initiative developed by the US Environmental Protection Administration, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), and other organizations. It subsequently won other awards.
“It truly was a team effort,” says Kirk Watson, supervisor of the Wemlinger Plant, referring to the long-term effort required to win the award. Just six treatment plants in the US have attained Phase IV Excellence, primarily because it takes long-term commitment on the part of the staff to work through the four phases of required evaluation.
Starting in the 1990s, Watson says the Wemlinger plant staff committed to producing the best water quality, but didn’t get serious until 2002 when it filed a membership application with the Partnership for Safe Water at AWWA to complete Phase 1. Phase 2 involves data collection and requires baseline turbidity results for raw and finished treatment to be submitted for one year of plant performance within 180 days of signing the Phase 1 application.
|Photo: Larny Mack, courtesy of CDM
The Reverse Osmosis building of the GWR System is the largest in the US.
Watson explains that turbidity levels of raw untreated water were measured as the water entered the plant, which is rated at 80 million gallons per day (MGD). Next, settled water turbidity levels are measured. Then, turbidity levels were measured after water passes through each of the 15 individual filters, and finally, measurements were taken of the filtered water turbidity from the combined effluent.
(Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye. The measurement of turbidity is a key test of water quality. Turbidity is measured using a nephelometer.)
Watson says the staff is trying to produce water at 0.1 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Units). Colorado regulations require 0.3 NTU. “We’re trying to surpass the regulations and are working to be under 0.1 NTU. Water treatment plants run 24/7, and the entire organization has to work together toward that goal,” he says.
Phase 3 involves a comprehensive self-assessment. The staff takes a detailed look at its operations and identifies areas for improvement. A report is written and submitted to the Partnership for Safe Water at AWWA for review by a volunteer team of utility peers. The Partnership gives a Directors Award to the water district once the report is deemed satisfactory.
Watson says staff at Griswold, Aurora Water’s older treatment plant, is now responding to the comments received on its Phase 3 report regarding performance deviations. “Sometimes, things happen that don’t affect water quality,” he says. “We were asked to explain what happened and to better understand the events.”
“We do a lot of verification work,” he adds.
In monthly meetings, the staff studies all filter data to determine what the worst filter run was for that month, and then they work to understand why. Was it runtime? Was it turbidity?
“Sometimes there are little things we can address to improve quality,” says Watson. “It’s called raising the bar to do better than the day before.”
Once the Wemlinger plant won its Directors Award, it began work on Phase IV. This phase is optional and includes a rigorous assessment to determine conformance with Partnership performance goals. Watson says staff used the comments produced by the Phase 3 report and “brought all to area of strength.” Another report providing answers to the Phase 3 comments is sent to the Partnership to undergo another review.
The team of utility peers combed over the report, Watson says, and came back with more questions. Answers were clarified, and this time, the report was accepted. Watson says the staff had to use its SCADA system to look more clearly at the filter systems. This level of scrutiny often leads to the use of innovative, new technologies—as Watson put it, “making technology work for you.”
One such technology people are now using are particle counters, he says. A laser is shot through the water to detect cryptosporidium and giardia. The intention is to detect particles 2 to 5 microns in size.
Finally, in June 2009, Aurora Water’s Wemlinger plant joined just five other water treatment plants to receive the Excellence in Water Treatment Award from the Partnership. In addition, Colorado’s Environmental Leadership Program honored the Wemlinger Water Treatment Plant for outstanding environmental efforts.
Lastly, the Rocky Mountain Section of AWWA awarded Aurora Water top honors in its taste test, ruling that it had better tasting water than numerous other metro area water utilities, including Denver Water and Centennial Water and Sanitation District. The design of Aurora’s award winning distribution system (as well as its sanitary sewer collection, treatment, and disposal system) was headed up by RG Consulting Engineers, headquartered in Denver, CO.
Other Partnership winners and more information on the Partnership can be found at www.awwa.org/index.cfm, under Professional and Technical Resources.
Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System
Emerging from a long drought in the early 1990s, California’s Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began joint talks to plan together for future population growth and water needs. The Sanitation District was looking at building a second ocean outfall pipeline to prevent wet weather events from overwhelming its existing outfall pipeline. The Water District needed to expand its water recycling facility to increase replenishing its seawater barrier, which prevents ocean water from contaminating the groundwater supply. It was also anticipating increased water needs in the rapidly growing county.
Southern California’s central and north Orange County is projected to increase its water demand for the year 2020 to 600,000 acre-feet, up from current consumption of about 500,000 acre-feet per year.
OCWD, covering over 200,000 acres, serves more than 2.3 million people, and is responsible for managing the Santa Ana River and the vast groundwater basin that underlies northern and central Orange County—two of the most important water resources in southern California. OCSD is responsible for safely collecting and treating wastewater for 2.5 million people. The district reuses and recycles the treated wastewater and other resources resulting from its treatment process not discharged into the ocean.
The cooperative effort between OCSD and OCWD, continuing to this day, resulted in the jointly developed Groundwater Replenishment (GWR) System, a state-of-the-art water recycling facility that became operational in January 2008, and since has won numerous awards. The International Ultraviolet Association honored the project with its 2008 UV Engineering Project of the Year Award in recognition of its innovation and vision. Other awards followed.
OCWD was named Public Water Agency of the Year at the 2008 International Desalination Association/Global Water Intelligence conference in London. It was also recognized as Public Water Agency of the Year by the International Private Water Association and American Membrane Technology Association. OCWD and the OCSD were awarded the 2008 Stockholm Industry Water Award at the 2008 World Water Week in Stockholm. And in 2009, the GWR System received the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement award.
The GWR System, designed by Black & Veatch, diverts highly treated sewer water from OCSD which previously had been discharging it into the ocean, to OCWD which purifies 70 MGD, through a series of advanced techniques: microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection, and hydrogen peroxide. Half of the cleaned water is sent to an expanded seawater intrusion barrier. Water testing is a key component of the Orange County Water District’s GWR System. District staffers use six Total Organic Carbon (TOC) analyzers from GE to continually monitor the TOC levels in the water that is treated by the facility.
The remaining 35 million gallons is returned to the groundwater spreading basins where it filters and percolates through gravel and eventually mixes with Santa Ana River water and other imported water and percolates into the groundwater basin. In this process, the purified water mixes with existing groundwater, lowering the average mineral content, and reducing its hardness. This, in turn, decreases maintenance costs for both residents and businesses by extending the life of water heaters, boilers, cooling towers, and plumbing fixtures.
OCWD and OCSD, when they initiated their joint project in the early 1990s, decided the long-term need was to expand OCWD’s Water Factory 21, built in 1977, which injected recycled water into the seawater barrier. The water district wanted to expand it from 15 MGD to 35 MGD. Instead of building a second ocean outfall pipeline, an expanded water treatment plant would allow OCSD to instead send water from peak weather storms to the expanded facility, preventing increased water flows from overwhelming its existing ocean outfall.
Mike Markus, general manager of OCWD says the two agencies, after some discussions, decided that if his agency could increase the capacity of its proposed expansion of Water Factory 21 to 100 MGD, OCSD would help fund it, and OCWD could export the sanitation district’s water resulting from the wet weather events, then treat and inject it into its seawater barrier.
The project cost $481 million. OCWD received $92 million in grants, including $20 million from the Bureau of Reclamation under the Title 16 program, and $67 million came from Proposition 13, the California Water Bond. The remaining $5 million came from the State Water Resource Control Bond.
OCWD split the $389 million in capital costs with OCSD. The water district took out a low-interest loan from the State Revolving Fund, and OCSD issued non-taxable municipal bonds. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is providing an operational subsidy for operating the recycled water facility.
The two agencies built a small-scale pilot project in a section of Water Factory 21 between 1994 and 1996, using technologies from various manufacturers to test and verify they worked. Environmental work for the full project at a new site was completed in 1999 and preliminary designs were completed in 2002. The final design was completed in 2004, followed by construction, and startup in January 2008, just as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California decreased sales of imported water to OCWD. Water Factory 21 was demolished about a year before the new plant was commissioned.
Markus says the major challenges were identified early on. The first was public perceptions. Other projects attempting to utilize recycled water ultimately proved unsuccessful, because they were derided as “toilet to tap.” Beginning in the mid 1990s, OCWD initiated a robust public outreach program, which continues to this day and has proven very successful.
“We started out wanting to build support,” says Markus. “We went from to 21 cities and got letters of support from city councils, we went to state representatives and federal representatives and the environmental community to build political support.” Local hospitals and health communities all provided letters of support. The water district’s speakers bureau made 1,200 presentations to the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, and the Elks.
The other major challenge the two districts faced, was new technology, specifically the process control system software than runs the plant. The membrane system has to be automated. Furthermore, the size and complexity of the plant was a major challenge. This was the first large plant that used the microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection technologies. Previous plants built with this technology were on the order of 5 MGD. Nine months was built into the schedule for startup and commissioning, and they needed all that time, Markus says.
Future plans include expanding the plant from 70 to 100 MGD, due to the uncertainty of water supplies for southern California. The water district is one-third of the way through that design, Markus says, and expects it to be completed by June 2010. Expansion plans are being driven by radical cutbacks in imported water from the State Water Project in northern California due to the current drought. Both districts had counted on it and Colorado River water for replenishing the groundwater basin and the seawater barrier.
OCWD is now looking for outside funding and another Bureau of Reclamation Title 16 funding authorization. The challenge is, while the technology is more expensive than purchasing water, says Markus, the water produced will be between 35% and 75% cheaper than water produced by a desalination plant since the purification process consumes about half the energy. It even consumes less energy than that used to pump scarce State Water Project water south over the Tehachapi Mountains, a major reason for the state to support the GWR System.
Water Quality Trading in the Ohio River Basin
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) received $1.3 million in October 2009 from the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to launch an innovative regional water-quality trading program in the Ohio River Basin.
The EPA award addresses watershed protection to reduce the hypoxic—or dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The USDA award addresses agricultural credit calculation tools for water quality and greenhouse gas trading under a Natural Resources Conservation Service innovation grant.
EPRI recently completed a feasibility analysis for a multi-state water-quality trading program and will now work with regional stakeholders to develop a first-of-its-kind working project in the Ohio River Basin. The feasibility analysis presented a strong business case for coal-fired power plant participation in the development of such a program. More restrictive wastewater discharge permit limits are expected to come in forthcoming in-stream nitrogen standards. Similar constraints exist for publicly owned treatment works facing both nitrogen and phosphorus limitations with pending nutrient standards.
According to EPRI, market-based water-quality trading offers a cost-effective compliance alternative: Discharge offsets would be purchased to achieve and/or maintain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit compliance with water-quality-based effluent limits.
This project will focus on nitrogen and phosphorus discharges from sources within the Ohio River Basin. A trading program is expected to result in cost-effective water-quality improvements throughout the region, which includes portions of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, plus additional states where sub-watersheds feed into the Ohio Basin.
EPRI has received additional donations to increase total funding to $2 million, according to Jessica Fox, senior scientist for EPRI’s Water and Ecosystems Program. The challenge will be interstate coordination, she says, and will include a lot of stakeholders. There are 10,000 point sources (power plants, water treatment facilities, manufacturers, etc.) and 20,000 farmers, or non-point sources.
Developing an interstate trading program will require participation by these multiple stakeholders and trading partners, Fox says. The anticipated new regulatory requirements could create demand for water-quality credits. An interstate trading framework would not only respond to this demand, but potentially accelerate water-quality improvements in the basin and beyond, she concludes.
The approach is to stay open and collaborate to reach consensus, Fox says. There have been trading schemes within states, but none between states. Memorandums of Understanding will be set up between states and the EPA to commit them to participate. State regulators with oversight responsibilities all have to agree on the same regulatory process so trading will work between states, she explains.
The next task will be to extend the Watershed Risk Management Framework (WARMF), EPRI’s publicly available watershed-scale water-quality model, from two watersheds to the entire Ohio River Basin. It evaluates the point and non-point sources of nutrient loading within each watershed, as well as along the nearby downstream section of the Ohio River. The model is also used to evaluate potential trades among various sources and the benefits of trading with regard to improving water quality. It will provide an ecological basis for informing the structure of the trading program, including avoiding hotspots, assessing trading organizations, and providing credit ratios.
|Photo: Lynn Betts, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Contour stripcropping keeps sediment and farm chemicals out of the water at Red Rock Lake, in Central Iowa.
Fox says initial water-quality trading will begin in about 1.5 years, with full market trading activated in five years.
EPRI will get support from many institutions, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy, and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO. Peter Tennant is deputy executive director at ORSANCO, an interstate compact organization, founded in 1948 to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin, which covers eight states from New York to Illinois.
Tennant says ORSANCO’s major contributions in the EPRI project will be to support the collaborations among the states and to provide the monitoring capabilities. He says the greatest challenge will be turning a theoretical model into a working program. “We have a good history of monitoring water quality on the Ohio River,” he says.
Typically, his people collect nutrient samples and algae counts from the river at seven sites, two times per month, which are shipped to two labs for analysis. EPRI monitoring may involve more detail, he says.
Recruiting volunteer monitors will be a necessity and a challenge, Tennant admits. ORSANCO doesn’t have the personnel to handle all the additional monitoring that will be required. A lesson learned in another program found that farmers recruited to monitor water quality rejected working with regulators, but accepted representatives of conservation groups.
Both the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Duke Energy own coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Basin, and are considered point sources. Scott Brooks, a TVA spokesman, says the utility’s Innovations Group believes trading is likely to become a significant cost-effective means of water-discharge compliance in the future. By being involved in this research, it will be able to streamline its trading program through the knowledge it learns.
Andy Thompson, spokesman for Duke Energy, says this project will provide a great opportunity to bring point and non-point sources together with utilities. The project could have great potential to reduce phosphates and nitrogen and have an overall positive impact on the environment.
Kieser & Associates, Kalamazoo, MI, is one of the technical advisors to EPRI. Senior scientist, Mark Kieser, says over a dozen states have adopted water-quality trading rules or policies and have had some degree of success.
One of the challenges is to determine whether there is adequate demand, Kieser says. If there is no demand for water-quality trading, there are no suppliers. The best example of a working trading program is in Minnesota, he says. Trades in the form of pounds per year take place between point sources, i.e., between wastewater treatment plants, or between point sources and non-point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and farmers.
Fundamentally, point source and non-point source trading does have great benefits, but they are very hard to measure or model, Kieser says. As trading programs grow, so will monitoring. “We believe over time where there is a lot of trading, we will see the desired impacts,” he says.
Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative
The USDA is accelerating efforts to improve the water quality in priority watersheds along the Mississippi River, which runs through 12 states to the Gulf of Mexico. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has earmarked $320 million in financial assistance over the next four years for voluntary projects in 41 watersheds in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
The idea for the initiative started early in the summer of 2009 with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White. He decided that more focused resources in the region were needed on top of the normal activities the department was overseeing in the Mississippi Basin, according to Tom Christensen, regional conservationist for the central region.
The problems are created when excess nutrients are delivered into the watersheds from nearby cropland and livestock operations and are carried to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico in significant amounts. These excess nutrients and their impact on drinking supplies and wildlife, and the creation of hypoxia (deprived oxygen supplies that produce a dead zone) in the Gulf of Mexico warranted the increased attention, White decides.
Mike Sullivan, Mississippi River Basin coordinator, describes current efforts to reduce hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico with conservation and nutrient management. An interagency task force was established 1999. An Hypoxia Action Plan was introduced in 2001 and put in place to manage nutrients on 24 million acres. In 2008, the plan was revised to recognize that nitrogen and phosphorus were the two nutrients most responsible for the hypoxia in the Gulf, Sullivan says.
Work to date has included building buffer strips at the edges of fields on 2-and-a-half million acres to keep nutrients out of waterways. Another 1.7 million acres of wetlands are being restored to improve water quality and wildlife refuges. Other sources besides agriculture, such as municipal, industrial, and manufacturing point sources also contribute nutrients, says Sullivan.
Beginning in the summer of 2009, White called together partner agencies, non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, other conservation groups, and began dialogues on a broad spectrum of ideas. This produced a lot of feedback on the focus, says Christensen. NRCS then identified the $320 million in its 2010 budget—$80 million a year will be spent for four years. The initiative was officially announced in September at a Task Force meeting in Des Moines, IA.
“This project will increase and advance the focus on the base level of programmatic activity we already have [in the Mississippi Basin],” says Christensen. Conservationists working for NRCS in the 12 watershed states, in cooperation with the states, selected the 41 watersheds to be included in the initiative after identifying the issues and problems in all the states.
Sullivan says the watersheds that were chosen presented the best opportunities to reduce the high levels of nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus. “As you look at nutrient levels, it becomes more complicated in downstream waters. The emphasis will be in small watershed areas where we can measure and have more control.”
Funding from three NRCS programs—the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), the Conservation Innovation Grants program, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program—will be distributed through a competitive bid process to projects. Project winners will be expected to cost share, which will encourage success. Project partners may contribute by bringing in services or skills, labor, or equipment. All the money will end up in the hands of local farmers and wetlands owners, which will help the local economy, Christensen says.
The challenges both Christensen and Sullivan identified include making sure they get good proposals from both point sources and non-point sources, whom they call “partners.” They also have to have good participation from farmers and landowners. Christensen says competitiveness will be enhanced by what is proposed.
Another challenge will be ensuring environmental outcomes. Since all public and private monies need to see good environmental benefits, NRCS wants to partner with others on monitoring the waters, both to establish a baseline for participating watersheds, and then following project implementation.
NRCS’s ability to monitor is hampered by limited numbers of personnel in such a large region, which in itself presents a challenge due to the density and geographic locations of the acreage of the future projects relative to the much larger acreage contributing the nutrients to the waterways. Furthermore, when dealing with nutrients there is the time factor, says Christensen. There are tremendous lags, ranging from two to as much as 15 years, between the time the project is activated and when results can be measured.
NRCS will engage state and local governments, producer associations, and conservation and environmental organizations to propose projects that will avoid, trap, or control nutrients. Watershed projects will be selected through a competitive process under NRCS’s CCPI. Three requests for proposals will be announced by the beginning of 2010, and they will be listed in the Federal Register for 60 days.
Christensen says once the proposals are selected, NRCS will sign agreements for two, three, or four years, with project partners. Projects will then be ranked, and funds will be released. For detailed information about the initiative, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/mrbi/mrbi_overview.html.
Author's bio: Lyn Corum is a technical writer specializing in water and energy topics.