Written by: Dallas Terry, MBA, LEED AP BD+C
Edited and Published by: William Billeaud

Water photo credit: miscea.com


For some time now water scarcity and quality issues have made news headlines and become a well known concern for the future of humanity. Droughts and flooding resulting from climate change, excessive use and wasteful practices by humans, and contamination, treatment and discharge issues related to industrial handling of water and wastewater are just a few of the general causes for concern. However, solutions to many water issues do exist, and new creative technologies for dealing with many of the qualitative and quantitative water problems we face are springing to life. Attention to both big picture strategies and detailed localized solutions will be necessary to tackle the mounting water issues as the global population continues to grow.

Supply and Demand

Water is our most important resource, and we require it for nearly everything we do, from direct consumption (a minimum of around 2 liters per person per day), to bathing and cleaning, to industrial processes and energy production, irrigation, and more. Wasteful consumption patterns have resulted in an intense draw on accessible freshwater water supplies, which are becoming increasingly more stressed. Mexico City, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, and parts of China are all examples of locations where withdrawal rates exceed recharge rates, and most of that water is going towards irrigation. Conventional irrigation practices alone are said to account for around 70% of water withdrawals and around 90% of total consumption.

Thermal power generation, drilling and extraction, hydroelectric dams, and production of petroleum products and ethanol are other major consumers of water resources depleting our available supplies.

Then there is the issue of quality, where high levels of pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, iron or nitrates, and contamination from human impacts such as poor sanitation, oil spills or chemicals, are reducing the quality and availability of freshwater sources for basic human needs, and increasing the number of people impacted by physical and economic water scarcity across the planet.

Water Users and Technologies

For the global community the benefits of utilizing principles of sustainable water management will mean something different to everyone. Residential users will value keeping water bills low through conservation measures (although water is cheap there are areas where the cost can be an issue and rates are rising). Commercial, industrial, and academic users of water will value such cost savings, avoided regulatory fines, improved reputation, and environmental stewardship in many cases through the use of more advanced technologies for onsite water treatment, reclamation, and reuse. Institutional and municipal users will likely see community planning and engineering departments exploring larger scale water management plans that sometimes require major infrastructure upgrade/replacement. Indeed such investments may be necessary for areas at greater direct risk from climate change (i.e. coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels, areas vulnerable to drought or flooding conditions), and solutions such as large seawalls in coastal cities, or major piping infrastructure projects such as China’s South-North Water Pipeline are being explored.

While there is a place for virtually every type of solution from large to small, a trend towards more decentralized technologies and techniques would be best in general terms, as these have proven to be both cost effective (especially from a life cycle costing standpoint), and universally applicable. Furthermore decentralized solutions also offer a multitude of additional benefits associated with avoided large infrastructure projects which can include lower taxes, maintenance, labor, chemicals, handling, heating, cooling, pumping, treating, capital depreciation and transportation costs (the latter is generally a very poor solution as water is very heavy). For example, many water main breaks have been cited at a cost of $500,000 per break, and there are some 240,000 breaks per year due to aging infrastructure. To cater to water sector projects engineers, water professionals, entrepreneurs, inventors, and venture capital groups having been teaming up to bring advanced water technologies to market, in the form of all manner of specialized membrane filters, RO (Reverse Osmosis) systems, UV radiation technologies, evaporative condensation systems, desalination plants and more.

As one solution, desalination offers a potential means to create massive volumes of freshwater to serve local populations, but remains expensive. Nonetheless, projects such the Carlsbad, CA Desalination plant are making progress. The cost for the plant is an impressive $1 billion and will provide 48,000 acre feet of water to the San Diego County Water Authority at $2,000/acre foot (an acre foot is equal to about 326,000 gallons, roughly enough water for two families of four for a year). Other sizeable desalination projects already exist in water scarce regions of the world and many more are in the planning stages. Despite high costs and energy requirements desalination offers the potential to make use of the global ocean water reservoir that makes up 97% of the total water on earth, and will likely be one of the most important technologies in the water sector in the years to come.

In the built environment many facility and plant managers have long been aware of low impact development techniques for mitigating stormwater issues. Such systems use biological processes found in nature for effective water treatment and volume control. Technologies such as green roofs, bioswales, and constructed wetlands both restrict the volume of stormwater runoff impacting urban and rural environments, as well as break down and remove pollutants carried by the water, helping to prevent such problems as erosion, sedimentation, and the spreading of known pollutants into delicate ecosystems.

On the demand side basic technologies such as rainwater catchment barrels, cisterns, faucet aerators, low-flow shower heads, waterless urinals, and low-flush toilets are being used in green buildings to reduce water consumption. Such technologies are simple by nature, and can be installed in virtually any home or building.

Emerging water treatment technologies such as floating treatment wetlands are also gaining momentum, and employ traditional elements of low impact development techniques such as conventional constructed wetlands, while also offering a unique floating application on wastewater lagoons, reservoirs, ponds and other water bodies in need of treatment. To get an idea of their effectiveness, we can look to one application in Montana, where floating treatment wetlands helped to reduce nitrogen content in a lake by 95% and phosphorus concentrations by 40%.

Floating Treatment Islands

Floating Treatment Wetland, Credit: scoop.it

Another example, and one of the most inspiring of what can be accomplished through low impact development techniques, comes from a TED Talk presented by chef Dan Barber, where a polluted ecosystem was transformed into a thriving fish farm, bird sanctuary, and water purification system by simply allowing the processes of nature restore the balance.

Opportunities for End Users

Identifying, analyzing, designing and implementing sustainable water solutions can be a complex process for commercial and industrial businesses, NGOs, municipalities, universities and other end users, with water use often encompassing multiple offices and processes in a number of different geographical locations. Many organizations see hiring consultants, engineers, or water experts as the best option, where the benefits generally outweigh the costs by a long shot as good experts are often able to identify opportunities for “hidden value” in water related uses that increase the ROI several fold.

For utility, municipal or other water governing entities, many experts will utilize The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) framework, which is a planning tool, to assess, design, implement and monitor sustainable water systems. Although the framework can be used at any level, it is likely most practical for larger scale and long term planning activities. The Global Water Partnership defined IWRM as follows:

Integrated water Resource Management is a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

In addition, IWRM rests upon three principles that together act as the overall framework:

1. Social equity: ensuring equal access for all users (particularly marginalised and poorer user groups) to an adequate quantity and quality of water necessary to sustain human well being.
2. Economic efficiency: bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users possible with the available financial and water resources.
3. Ecological sustainability: requiring that aquatic ecosystems are acknowledged as users and that adequate allocation is made to sustain their natural functioning.

For private sector organizations the process of identifying cost saving opportunities in the water sector will generally begin with a water footprint, where an expert(s) will analyze the water use associated with one or more of an organization’s facilities and operations. This generally includes an analysis of water utility bills, water used for building processes (i.e. steam and chiller plants), irrigation, benchmarking to similar facilities, and identification of potential conservation strategies. Such an analysis may in turn lead to identification of specific opportunities that require large capital investment, at which point conducting a detailed feasibility study may be warranted to explore the available technologies, initial and operating costs, revenues, regulations, and risks, as well as important financial indicators such as the IRR, NPV, payback period, and a sensitivity analysis on these results.

Such analysis can also be expanded to include the water foot print of specific products or services, and can also consider the overlap and impacts of water on energy requirements, and food production. The Water, Energy, and Food Security Nexus is a concept that states that the three resources are inextricably linked and that one cannot be impacted without impacting the others. This is certainly true and can be seen in the basic example of a drought affecting food crops, and resulting lower crop production reducing the demand for fuel to operate tractors.

Case Studies

End users of water everywhere are responding to the need for a more sustainable water infrastructure. Semiconductor and chip manufacturers are going to great lengths to make water use more sustainable due to ultrapure water requirements in that industry, real estate developers are employing low impact development technologies and water conservation measures to earn LEED credits and reducing water use and stormwater runoff, and communities are utilizing unique projects to replenish groundwater levels.

In one prime example, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) which has been in operation since 2008, uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and a combination of ultraviolet treatment with hydrogen peroxide to treat wastewater, and then injects it back into the local aquifer (typically treated wastewater is applied to the land or discharged into water ways). At that point nature takes care of the final treatment before the water is eventually extracted and fit for potable use by the citizens of Orange County. The system produces 70 million gallons of treated water per day and is planned to produce 100 million by 2015.

On the service side expert companies like Sustainable Water, are not only offering water technology investment related services including detailed feasibility studies, design, permitting, construction and operational services, but also offering clients the option for zero capital investment on water reuse and reclamation systems through WPAs (water purchase agreements). These contracts involve the client agreeing to purchase water from the provider (Sustainable Water) for a set rate and for a specific duration of time, and offer a hedge against future water rate price hikes.

In an equally impressive case major beverage company Coca-Cola has teamed up with inventor Dean Kamen, to offer sustainable multi-use kiosks known as Ekocenters. The kiosks offer clean drinking water via Kamen’s Slingshot water purification technology, electricity from solar panels, wireless internet, refrigerated vaccine storage, health education, and female entrepreneurship opportunities to people in remote locations who lack such services and opportunities.








Ekocenter, Credit: techmesimply.blogspot.com

Finally, it’s worthwhile citing a study conducted in 2009 by the Alliance for Water Efficiency titled “Transforming Water: Water Efficiency as Stimulus and Long-Term Investment,” which found significant potential economic benefits for the US water sector from water related investments, including:

  • Economic output benefits of investments in water efficiency estimated to range between US$2.5 and US$2.8 million per million dollars of direct investment.
  • GDP benefits for the US economy ranging between US$1.3 and US$1.5 million per million dollars of direct investment.
  • Employment potential ranges between 15 and 22 jobs per million dollars of direct investment.
  • A potential boost in U.S. GDP by US$13 to US$15 billion and employment by 150,000 to 220,000 jobs and a potential savings of 20 and 40 trillion litres of water, with resulting energy reductions as well from a direct investment on the order of US$10 billion in water/energy efficiency.

The economic opportunity is there, now it’s up to homeowners, organizations, governments, and schools around the world to follow suit and tackle their own quantitative and qualitative water issues and capture the ROI hidden in water related investments.


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Dallas Terry is a sustainability professional, business consultant, and project manager with real interest in projects that entail innovation, sustainability, whole systems design, and collaborative aspects. He is a Senior Advisor and Lead Consultant for Lombard Global’s Sustainability Practice.