A water technology expert tackles high-profile and important topics currently affecting municipalities, industry, and the community at large.
Wes Lobo is the Global Business Unit Director for Industry and Agriculture at Xylem Inc., a water solutions company with broad experience covering all aspects of water and wastewater treatment and management. As Lobo's role spans both the municipal and industrial sectors, he was the ideal interview subject for a discussion on wide-ranging water issues. I asked for his insight on five topics that are particularly buzzworthy from my perspective as chief editor of Water Online — topics that are popular in the mainstream press, within the research community, or among engineers, policymakers, and treatment professionals. Municipal-industrial crossover, as well as public safety and water security, were common themes throughout the set… with a dash of controversy for good measure. It all comes with the territory for Lobo, who offered level-headed, professional insight on water matters that are currently boiling to the surface — perfluorinated compounds (PFOA/PFOS), pharmaceutical and personal care products, fracking, water reuse, and climate change. Here’s Lobo’s take on each:
On the topic of PFOA/PFOS contamination, we are still trying to understand the size of the problem, to categorize how big it is.
The issue is more regional today than national or international. West Virginia, New Jersey, and California, for example, are some of the main states and areas where there have been some industrial discharges in the past leading to contaminated water bodies, which in turn are affecting municipalities. Understanding where the issue exists is key to assessing whether it's a regional, state, or federal topic.
Today, the U.S. EPA has a health advisory level in place, with no specific regulation where states are required to treat for PFOA/PFOS to meet a certain limit. Until we have strict regulatory governance on the topic, it is unlikely that municipal entities will invest in monitoring and treatment to meet an unregulated standard.
Some of the unanswered questions here relate to funding, treatment capability and testing capability. Even if regulatory drivers are implemented, who will be responsible for covering the cost of “clean up,” and/or required upgrades at municipal treatment facilities? Will the industrial companies responsible for the contamination be indicted to cover the cost of the clean up? Will cleanup be publicly funded through the municipalities? It's a political and environmental topic.
We have available technologies that can treat these constituents, such as activated carbon. The question is whether the technologies that exist today will meet the levels that regulatory agencies ultimately decide is safe. We can measure/test for PFOA/PFOS, but can we do it on-line, reliably, at the confidence interval required for safety? I think these are ongoing questions.
PPCPs (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products)
These are all everyday products that are getting into our waterways through human use and consumption. Within our industry, this is not a new subject — it’s been around for a couple of decades. More and more scrutiny comes to the topic each passing year, but I’m not sure there is true awareness from a public perception perspective. I believe the reason is because it’s a slow-moving topic.
In laymen’s terms, we may know that flushing pharmaceuticals down the toilet is poor practice, but we don’t necessarily see the impact of it. Out of sight, out of mind. It's an invisible problem that manifests over time. Whereas, look at Flint, MI — you saw front-page articles showing children in a bathtub of black water. People can see what’s going on, the pictures and stories evoke an emotional reaction and connection to the cause, which raises public concern and a call for action. The impact of PPCPs in our waterways is not obvious to the public, so reaction isn't as strong as it needs to be.
At the end of the day, if it ever does come to the forefront of our thinking, the municipalities are the ones who will have to deal with it. Wastewater treatment plants are going to have to put in treatment technology to treat it, because today the majority of our water and wastewater treatment plants do not have that capability within the typical primary, secondary, and even some tertiary facilities.
The other issue is that the world of PPCPs includes a broad range of constituents. If there were ever to be regulations set forth, the EPA would have an action list of substances what would be quite long, and then the question comes back to our ability to measure/test these things from an analytics perspective to a certain degree of accuracy and confidence.
While we know of existing technologies, such as advanced oxidation, activated carbon, UF/MR/RO, which can treat some or most of these constituents, different categories of PPCPs require different levels of treatment and not all can be easily reduced down to safe levels. There’s a common thread here around our ability to measure/test and treat these topics things to a level of confidence that actually provides the healthy solution, along with the financial implications on funding.
Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)
Until we get to a utopian society where affordable and environmentally-friendly energy is available to all, I think we’re going to be dealing with a balancing act on source energy. There’s a lot of controversy around fracking — if you read 10 articles, five of them are going to argue the pros and five will argue the cons, while all 10 will cite facts.
Oil itself is polarizing, as is coal-fired energy. If it’s a question of environmental impact, coal-fired power is probably more environmentally harmful [than fracking] when you consider the overall impact of carbon emissions and coal byproducts.
It’s really a question of whether fracking is a general environmental issue or a local issue. You can argue that natural gas is cleaner than coal, but fracking is an issue at the extraction site because people don’t want it in their backyards — it’s a more sensitive topic than to have oil rigs sitting in the middle of the ocean.
Part of the problem is the lack of governance around safety and regulations. Companies in the last couple of years have become more open about the “cocktail” that they use for fracking fluid, so at least there’s an awareness around ingredients such as benzene and methanol and what goes into frack water — and some of it is fairly innocuous. But, again, from a regulatory compliance perspective: Are there harmful constituents getting into the environment that we need to regulate?
Some of the issues with fracking aren’t so much about extraction; it’s actually during transportation of the frack fluid where there have been spills. I think it would help to have better governance around safety and handling to avoid spills that can contribute to surface runoff, contaminate local estuaries, and get into water intakes to water treatment plants.
I’m not going to advocate for or speak against fracking in and of itself — we need a viable solution for energy. That’s more political than anything else. If there is a long-term environmental impact, we need to be thinking about improving the safety regulatory mandates around the handling of frack fluid, and also around better governance as to the ingredients used in the frack fluid cocktail.
There’s been a lot of discussion, especially in California over that last few years, about the need to expand our water reuse footprint. I see a natural fit here between the industrial and municipal sectors, and opportunity for a symbiotic relationship.
Reuse is no longer a ‘nice to have’ — it is a ‘must have.’ It’s going to be a much more prevalent need as water scarcity driven by climate change is becoming pervasive. This is more a topic of water resiliency, and good corporate stewardship, as well as public perception and education.
Earlier this year, we published results of a public perception survey of CA residents on the topic of reuse, where 89 percent said that the drought has made them more supportive of recycled water and 90 percent of Californians believe the state should continue to invest in recycled water, even if El Nino brings the expected rainfall. This study shows that the public is now embracing the concept of recycled water, so we are breaking down the public perception barriers, which is an important milestone.
From a corporate stewardship standpoint, there’s good precedent out there. For example, Coca-Cola, who we have a very strong relationship with through our flow control business, set forth a plan 10 years ago as part of their sustainability and water stewardship initiative to be water neutral by 2020, which they achieved by 2015.
In February, Xylem partnered with San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the CA Water Resources Control Board, and the US Water Partnership to host a conference in San Francisco, which included technology experts across industry, government, finance, and academia to discuss water resilience. Participants included Google Inc., Black & Veatch, CDM Smith, The Dow Chemical Company, McWane, Inc., OSIsoft, Inc., Valmont Industries, Pegasus Capital Partners, XPV Water Partners, the Westly Group, and many others. The group discussed the importance of collaborating across sectors to establish a unified vision and accelerate progress in technological innovation towards addressing our nation’s water infrastructure needs, and reuse is a key component. Events like these, bringing together the public and private sector, are key in further promoting the conversation, relationships, and shared interested in advancing the topic of water reuse.
More tactically, as municipalities look toward water reuse to curb the impact of water scarcity — moving from secondary to tertiary treatment and beyond, to indirect or even direct potable reuse, the current driver is more need based than economic. A great example is the work being done by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, who in 2010, with the City of San Jose, approved the construction of two advanced water purification centers to support the public and private growth in the Silicon Valley. The district considered both the public and private needs in their asset management plan, and focused on educating the public as to the long-term benefits of reuse to help advance the project.
Industrial companies will always have a reliance on municipalities when it comes to meeting their requirements for source water for their facilities and manufacturing processes. We are seeing a trend towards better partnerships and planning around water use, sustainability, and reuse.
The cause of climate change can be a polarizing subject, but if you look at climate events, it’s a fact that we are experiencing more extreme events, such as prolonged droughts, and severe storms leading to flooding and ocean rise. We’re seeing more flooding in odd places like Baltimore, in inner-city areas, and of course in coastal areas. What we commonly refer to as 50-year or 100-year flood events are now occurring every couple of years.
In Florida, any big storm creates havoc around the Miami region; areas like Miami-Dade are investing heavily in infrastructure to better manage the increased flooding events. Our Flygt business has partnered with [Miami-Dade] very closely to help with the design and model to mitigate and abate flooding, which is an unbelievable impact in terms of quality of life, insurance, and rebuilding. We’re working with those types of communities on energy efficient and reliable solutions now and plan to continue in the future.
The impact of climate change can be seen in the industrial sector as well. As population grows, the world demand for food will grow with it, and agriculture is still that largest consumer of water. We have heard of the water-energy nexus, which should really be the water-energy-food nexus. For example, the impact of drought on agriculture requires farmers to consider tapping into deeper sources of groundwater. Farmers are investing in higher-quality turbine pumps because they’re more efficient than the 20-year-old pump and may need to run for longer periods of time.
Climate change and reuse, in this context, are not mutually exclusive. Where prolonged drought and reducing water tables create a supply shortage for farmers, there is an increasing need to tap into reuse water supplies, and the municipality’s ability to provide a cost-effective rate for farmers is critical to an industry which traditionally runs on thin margins.
We’re seeing a continually-increasing focus on operating cost as it relates to energy efficiency, and greater awareness of asset management among all customers, who today have the benefit of economically-viable solutions that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. There’s the energy consumption piece, and also lifecycle efficiency — both industrially and municipally, the total cost of ownership is becoming a bigger focus.