Water Sector (R)Evolution in Houston

11 Dec 2017  |  Isabel Kezman

The city of Houston is turning the devastation wrought by Harvey into an opportunity to test innovative solutions to water and wastewater problems. The question is, will this effort produce lasting changes in the water sector as a whole?

I was in Houston earlier this week to meet with engineering firms, national research foundations, and the city of Houston’s water and wastewater utility to start a discussion about how the city can be a leader in the water industry. A central focus of the meeting was to push the envelope in terms of possible solutions for the city’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater management needs.

Houston Water Innovation Hub

The Houston Water Innovation Hub ( aims to provide an opportunity to test, through full-scale pilots, new technologies to address ongoing issues faced by water and wastewater utilities nation-wide. Areas of focus include biosolids removal, nutrient reduction, data and instrument integration for the water system, and oils, fats, grease byproduct treatment.

Although the program was in the works before hurricane Harvey impacted the Houston area, the need for system improvements post-hurricane has created an opportunity for the city to leverage the new solutions tested through the innovation hub program. Programs like this are essential to help the water industry, traditionally very conservative and slow to embrace change, adopt technologies and management strategies to improve operational efficiencies and reduce costs.

The water industry relies heavily on traditional solutions and business models to treat and transport drinking water and sewage and maintain utility networks. However, the industry increasingly faces new challenges – for example, increased storm events due to climate change or the emergence of micro-pollutants as contaminants of concern– amidst ongoing financial constraints on utility budgets.

We continue to track ‘shocks to the system’ that have ripple on effects and can prompt change in the municipal water sector beyond their immediate impacts.

Recent water industry shocks

The length and severity of the California drought prompted utilities to explore emergency water suppliers, including municipal wastewater reuse as a means to quickly augment dwindling supplies. Even though the drought has officially ended, the state continues to move forward with its reuse projects in planning, shifting the water supply strategy for the long term. The growth of the planned reuse pipeline, as well as California’s efforts to streamline the permitting process for new reclaimed water projects, have impacted the national push for new water reuse projects.

The lead crisis in Flint has prompted utilities around the country to initiative programs to replace remaining lead service lines and has further heightened public awareness of water quality issues in general. Similarly, algae blooms like that in Toledo, and boil water advisories that pop up regularly in communities around the country, draw attention to the ongoing efforts to maintain the quality of drinking water supplies that most Americans rely on without a second thought. On the flip side, the crisis in Flint was initiated by an operational change, which may make water managers even more reluctant to pursue new operational strategies.

The trio of hurricanes to hit Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017 has focused the national conversation on resiliency and emergency management. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes, utilities were focused on maintaining drinking water quality and operating wastewater treatment plants with minimal interruptions, despite flooded systems and wide-spread power outages. Solutions to these problems center on the logistics of quickly deploying emergency equipment. In the longer term, utilities are looking at how to avoid disruptions during inevitable future storm events through flood water management, distributed power systems, and water and wastewater facilities designed to operate in extreme conditions.

A final thought 

In addition to the conservative nature of the industry, a major barrier to entry for new and innovative technologies is financing. While the demonstration hub seeks to facilitate the adoption of new technology we still need utilities willing to explore alternative means of financing projects.

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