NEWIN hosted its first Water Leadership Conference in November, 2014 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to examine water and wastewater utility challenges and opportunities and the role of innovation. The event welcomed over 100 attendees from New England public water utilities, academia, government, technology startups and established companies, and professional service providers . The opportunity to hear from a diverse group within the water industry provided immense insight about the challenges and barriers municipal water operators face when considering innovative water technology and ideas about how to minimize these barriers.
The conference speakers and panelists presented a variety of barriers to innovation they had seen and experienced in their work. Many of these barriers to innovation discussed by the municipal operators and policy leaders at the NEWIN Water Leadership Conference were echoed in “The Path to Water Innovation.” These barriers include regulatory restrictions, absence of regulatory incentives, minimal funding and capital, and the risk to public health associated with adopting a new technology. A review of some of the leading municipal barriers to innovation presented at the NEWIN Water Leadership Conference is discussed below.
Seven Leading Municipal Barriers to Water Innovation
- Public health – Public health is the number one priority of municipalities. Drinking water that leaves facilities must be clean and safe. Michael Hornbrook explained that concerns of public health drive a conservative approach in an already risk averse industry.
- Lack of regulatory incentives – Regulatory permits are written based on the operating parameters established at a facility. To make a change, even a temporary process change, can require significant time and effort on the part of the municipality and the company bringing in the new technology to either have the permit amended or insure that there will be no impact on the effluent.
- Technology needs to be tested and proven – Water innovation is making advances in water treatment, metering, materials, measuring and more but these innovations need to be proven in the real world and have data captured from similarly sized facilities for most municipalities to consider adopting a new technology which will directly impact their community. There was consensus among the municipal operators that they need to see technology that shows measurable benefits and impacts in similar environments and systems. Jeffrey Neece captured the value of measurable benefits when he said “risk through proven innovation is not a risk at all.” Programs like LIFT by WERF and the UMass Amherst recently-funded Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems program are addressing the need to pilot innovative water technology to prove their viability in real world settings.
- Regulatory changes and restrictions – There are strict permits and regulations imposed on drinking water to protect public health. New technologies need to be resilient not just to meet current limitations, but also to meet any new or increasing restrictions on the horizon. New technology needs to have a firm grasp of regulatory restrictions and should seek to anticipate potential regulatory changes.
- Minimal funding demands cost effective solutions – The rate payer’s money funds municipal operations and conservative spending is essential. “Cost effective solutions are needed”, explained Karla Sangrey Director at Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District which serves a quarter million people and has a very strict discharge permit due to its location at the head of the Blackstone river. They have strict nutrient limits for nitrate and phosphorous and conventional solutions barely meet the nutrient limits for phosphorous. Cost effective innovative solutions are clearly needed to better meet regulations.
- Maintenance and reliability – Long-term access to spare and replacement parts can be an ongoing battle as technologies and equipment change and water technology municipalities rely on may become obsolete when maintenance is needed. There was consensus that “simple is good.” Michael Hornbrook noted the need for the machinery to be manually operated. Technology needs to use durable products and materials that are easily maintained and replaced. Many of the pipes in MA are from pre-civil war and still robust though in need of maintenance. For example, Chandler Street in Worcester, MA had a leak in the valve that is 100 years old. The valve still works, even the bolts are functioning after a century, but some repairs are needed. On the other hand, some 20 year old valves are failing and needing replacement rather than maintenance and require parts that are difficult to locate.
- Public acceptance – Municipalities answer to the public and value the public’s input and perspective on potential water innovations and technology. Phil Guerin explained that if innovation cannot garner public acceptance and seek to understand any potential public concerns then it will hit a road block. The innovation agenda needs to prioritize connecting with the public to produce products and services that align with the needs of the communities they seek to serve.
In summary, the morning panel on water and wastewater utility challenges and opportunities included a practical common message from the municipal operators: the need for water innovations to be cost effective, durable, low maintenance, aware of regulation, and able to connect with public acceptance. These goals for new innovation are demanding, but many of the municipal operators on the panel agreed, if innovation improves productivity and efficiency and meets the regulations in place it is a good investment.
The conference program also included presentations and a case study. Highlights included Alan Cathcart, Superintendent at the Town of Concord Public Works, who presented the CoMag Technology in Concord, MA and outlined the best practices. Representative Carolyn Dykema discussed recent legislation to fund water infrastructure and to accelerate water technology development as well as the need to create a vetting procedure to validate new technology.
NEWIN’s Water Leadership Award
The afternoon at the Water Leadership Conference kicked off with the NEWIN Water Leadership Award In recognition of those individuals and organizations who, through hard work, selfless dedication, exemplary behavior and vision, have made a significant and lasting impact to the New England Water industry. The award was bestowed on Daniel O’Brien, a well-respected industry leader who spent 13 years of his career at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 27 years at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). Mr. O’Brien stated “I am extremely honored to be the first recipient of the NEWIN Water Leadership Award and humbly accept it on behalf of the many men and women who work to protect the New England water environment. We are all fortunate to have organizations such as NEWIN that continue to promote and lobby in support of innovative solutions to our municipal water challenges.”
Innovation solutions and opportunities
The afternoon panel discussion considered solutions and opportunities to collaborate across sectors to tackle the challenges facing our water resource managers. The conference brought together thought leaders and innovators from academia to startups to utilities and highlighted that players from across various water sectors are coming together with the collective goal for greater water industry collaboration. Chris McIntire, Senior Vice President and President of Xylem, spoke about Xylem’s focus on water productivity, quality and resilience. Michael Murphy, Director of Water Innovation at MassCEC, discussed the services MassCEC offers to utilities including convening water stakeholders and the potential of funding for testing facilities. The afternoon panel also spoke about the value of fostering greater relationships with the universities in the area and the opportunity for utilities and companies to engage the bright students across New England in using utility facilities for real world classroom testing and analysis.
Bringing together water clusters, utilities and the industry at large
So, what are our takeaways and what can NEWIN and local water leaders do?
- We can listen and learn from this critical water industry segment. A better understanding of the needs of municipal facilities is the first step.
- We can bring together some of the best minds in the academia and entrepreneurial communities to address needs – like nutrient removal.
- We can develop a testing network of facilities and a process to vet and demonstrate new technologies (NEWIN Exchange).
- We can work with the regulatory agencies to understand and anticipate new regulations so that new technologies do not result in new obstacles and to attempt state to state recognition of successful pilot tests.
- We can spread the word of success as new technology shows measurable improvement.
Sally Gutierrez, Director Environmental Technology Innovation Cluster Development and Support Program at the U.S. EPA, emphasized at a recent WaterWorld interview this opportunity for greater collaboration between water clusters and municipalities noting “the utilities offer the insight into what technologies they need, what problems they need to have addressed, and it is a very, very powerful position in these clusters. So since they are the end users, the ultimate adopters… they have a very central role in the cluster organization.” We couldn’t agree more.
Water clusters such as NEWIN have an opportunity in front of them to bring the important industry stakeholders and players together around common issues and goals for the water industry. Michael Murphy of MassCEC captured this sentiment noting “all of the players here are running for the same goal and there is a sense of collaboration.”