“Yes, but” means it’s possible to see when organisms that cause non-compliance are building up. Operators can cut non-compliance off at the pass by tweaking processes to stop the proliferation of contributing constituents.

This is called metagenomics testing and reporting and is too expensive for most public water utilities.

Before I go on, I want to thank the three readers who took the time to walk the American Water Works Association (AWWA) show floor with me when I asked last week. They graciously answered all my questions and didn't laugh at me once:

  • City of Joliet Plant Operations Superintendent Nick Gornick, who oversees Illinois’s largest publicly owned water and sewer utility
  • AWWA Vice President and DuPage Water Commission Operations Manager Terry McGhee, who’s based in Elmhurst, Ill.
  • Village of Mount Prospect, Ill., Water/Sewer Superintendent Matt Overeem

Back to monitoring water quality.

It’s developed to the point where we can get instantaneous sampling results in the field as well as the lab. But that’s a lot different than watching potential problems develop so you can nip them in the bud.

Many water and wastewater utilities have supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that enable operators to track and tweak equipment performance, effluent levels, etc., remotely from a single command-and-control location. Sensors strategically placed throughout the collection and treatment systems send digitized data that's presented in an easily digestible format on a screen. The technology alerts operators whenever a performance parameter exceeds prescribed thresholds.

Similarly, “real-time microbiological monitoring” tells operators when certain thresholds are exceeded. Instead of measuring electrical impulses, the technology measures water’s genetic content. Otherwise known as environmental DNA.

Sensors collect data on, say, organic constituents that indicate a disinfection byproduct – trihalomethanes and chloramines if the utility disinfects with chlorine; cyano chlorine and organic chloramines if it uses chloramines. The data’s sent to equipment that analyzes the amount of each based on DNA sequencing. (By the way, this ongoing focus on collection and distribution processes has made it possible to pinpoint the smallest weaknesses that could cause a water main to break.)

Like all new technology, these capabilities don't come cheap. Companies that make the required equipment and software say the technology pays for itself by lowering capital costs of building holding tanks and increasing consumers’ confidence in the quality of their drinking water.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know at sjohnston@hanleywood.com.