In June, global water consulting engineering firm Black & Veatch released its second annual report highlighting the top 10 concerns for the water and wastewater industries. Not surprisingly, aging infrastructure ranked as the No. 1 issue, with related problems such as capital and operational costs following right on its heels.
Below is a summary of the report, which compiled answers from 397 qualified water industry participants. The full report can be accessed by registering at the Black & Veatch website.
Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure
Aging infrastructure, which includes pipelines, tunnels, dams, pumping, storage and treatment facilities, and specifically buried assets, ranked No. 1 among respondents. The severity of the problem varies by region, with the Northeast and Midwest claiming the oldest infrastructure in the country and thus, the greatest concerns.
The study also indicated that although committed to the massive undertaking of updating infrastructure, the industry as a whole is just beginning the process of asset management and is just starting to understand the full scope and benefit of such programs.
Funding concern variations secured the next three slots in the Top 10 list, with management of capital expenses earning the No. 2 spot followed by managing operational costs and funding or availability of capital. The study indicated something municipal managers are all too aware of: A reduction in non-revenue water and water main breaks could substantially affect a utility’s bottom line and future resource needs.
A new financial management approach would help, but that’s easier said than done when many utilities are stuck in funding methods that have been in place for decades. Because of an all-too-frequent disconnect between funding levels and the demands for safe, reliable operations and capital spending programs, funding options such as shared revenue and public/private partnerships could become more viable opportunities.
Concerns over increasing regulations consistently ranked near the top of the list for every geographical region, pushing the topic into the No. 5 position overall. As it relates to spending, most utilities with large-scale programs that gain funding are those required by federal or state regulations, such as nutrient removal and drinking water quality requirements. The challenge becomes balancing these expenses with deferred infrastructure maintenance.
Information technologies jumped to the No. 6 position in this year’s study, up from No. 9 last year. Information technology refers to cloud computing, virtualization and hosted applications, which improve operations and potentially reduce costs. But with these advancements come security concerns that could potentially dampen the positive effects of new technology.
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In the No. 7 spot was treatment technologies such as energy recovery. Energy recovery is becoming much more important for wastewater treatment, which means those entities are shifting in function. What was once only considered a waste disposal organization might now be considered a resource recovery organization.
Also, the study showed increased interest in co-digestion, which enables utilities to produce more recoverable energy and helps solve disposal challenges such as keeping FOG out of sewer systems and waste organics out of landfills.
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In the No. 8 position is the widespread concern over an aging workforce. On a positive note, the study showed that an increase in technology platforms will help the industry through the upcoming “brain drain,” as older employees move into retirement.
Technology could help capture institutional knowledge and smooth the transition. Also, to combat this problem, a robust sustainability plan should include plans for recruitment and training.
Interestingly, water scarcity and conservation issues rated quite differently by geographical area. In the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains, the issue was much more important than in areas with abundant water sources. For comparison, when questioned about significant sustainability issues, only 9.7 percent of Northeast respondents ranked water supply/scarcity as the most important issue, compared to 48.8 percent in the Southwest and 40 percent in the Rocky Mountains.
Regardless of locale, the “wise and efficient use of water” is becoming a cultural norm. The challenge lies in educating your customers about the effects of consumption and the importance of water stewardship, and also in promoting a greater understanding of the value of water.
Just barely making the Top 10 list is non-revenue water loss, indicating a relatively low level of concern for respondents. However, non-revenue water could play a more important role as it relates to operational and capital funding challenges.
Many of these concerns are interrelated. Infrastructure updates require funding, which requires consumer value and support. For the water and wastewater industry, it’s best to consider all of these concerns, instead of just one or two variables, when making decisions and planning for the future.