When it comes to the nation's potable-water supply, critical issues remain the same as last year, though some items—like U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations—shift slightly as scientists obtain more information about the effects of various compounds and impurities on public health.
Knowledge is power, but it also requires water treatment plant operators to gain more knowledge as the EPA powers pass more stringent regulations.
While multiple sources claim the nation's water systems suffer from a chronic lack of funding, grants are more readily available for drinking-water systems than for wastewater systems.
The EPA predicts $277 billion is needed to replace or rehabilitate drinking-water infrastructure over the next 20 years. The U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Water Infrastructure Financing Act of 2002 provided $15 billion through a State Revolving Fund, but only 8% to 10% of that has reached large municipal systems with the greatest need.
Technologies abound. New disinfectants and purification processes are making it easier for treatment plant operators to meet federal, state, and local regulations. Water utilities are becoming more savvy about which disinfectants to use, thus allowing them to meet EPA requirements via high-tech products. The question, however, is cost: Which technologies will have the most bang for the buck?
Asset management is more prevalent. Now that we have all these technologies, what do we do with the data they generate? With highly sophisticated technologies, operators can monitor assets in real-time, enabling them to be proactive rather than reactive.
Capital spending is up. According to the American Water Works Association, capital spending on drinking-water systems should increase 14% from 2006 levels. Of this total, 34% is slated for replacing or upgrading existing infrastructure, an 11% increase from last year. Still, many observers say it's not nearly enough to keep up with operational costs, and that consumers must pay the “true” price of drinking water through rate increases.
Knowledge swirling down the drain. Also known as the “brain drain,” some of our most knowledgeable water treatment plant operators are nearing retirement. Without trained operators, chemists, and engineers to ensure drinking water is safe, a critical piece of the infrastructure puzzle is missing.
Known and unknown contaminants. The number of emerging contaminants is outstripping resources for assessing their risks, and there aren't any quick-and-simple solutions. For example, endocrine-disrupting compounds, such as pharmaceuticals and hormones, need to be more closely watched and then, if necessary, removed.
A new EPA groundwater rule. Public water systems now have to look for pathogen viruses and bacteria in their source water and treat it, if necessary. Instead of requiring operators to disinfect water from all groundwater sources, this rule—effective this month—requires operators to identify groundwater sources susceptible to fecal contamination. Systems at the greatest risk must take corrective action to reduce the number of cases of illness and death due to exposure to microbial pathogens. Compliance date: Dec. 1, 2009.