With the Clean Water Act poised to turn 40 in October, many are asking if the Act can still meet the changing needs of the 21st century. This discussion will continue in the years to come. But, as President of NACWA, I have sought to ensure that the Association is leading the way on this issue. I have had the unique opportunity to help NACWA shape its “2020 Vision: The Water Quality Utility of the Future” initiative. This initiative is aimed at highlighting the innovative and transformational efforts occurring at the Nation’s utilities that are changing the landscape of our industry—from water conservation and reclamation, green infrastructure, resource recovery, to energy conservation and production, among others.
Earlier this year, East Bay Municipal Utility District, California, (EBMUD) unveiled its newest green technology: a state-of-the-art turbine that nearly doubles the utility’s capacity to produce clean energy from waste previously thought to be too gross, too toxic, and too difficult to manage. Now, communities across the nation are exploring options for resource recovery and developing similar programs to convert wastes into renewable energy. The same materials that once no one wanted to touch, now have become so valuable everyone wants them.
In the past, the wastewater treatment industry focused exclusively on treating and disposing of sewage. No wastewater utility wanted to treat organic wastes, like fats, oils and grease, food scraps, or dairy and animal farm wastes. With nowhere else to put them, these waste streams were left to decay in landfills or pollute groundwater.
With the addition of a 4.6 megawatt turbine, similar to a jet engine, EBMUD may be the first water and wastewater utility in the nation to meet all of its power demands solely from the waste it treats and then sells excess electricity it produces back to the grid. Today, the new turbine supplements three existing engines; combined they can produce enough electricity to meet the demands of more than 13,000 homes.
One impetus for EBMUD’s new turbine and increased production capacity was the energy crisis that roiled California and the Nation nearly a decade ago. We had to find a way to control our energy costs and now, on most days, EBMUD produces more than enough electricity to power its wastewater treatment plant.
EBMUD’s waste-to-energy effort can lead one to ask how to balance Clean Water Act water quality goals with other broad national policy objectives such as the transition to clean energy and, even more broadly, national energy independence. Complicated issues like this cannot be answered in a short blog but they will only become more common as we explore the “Water Resources Utility of the Future” concept.
The bottom line is that we must all become advocates, through NACWA, for the types of efforts that are making our communities better. The federal government should support these efforts and, minimally, should not stand in our way.
I urge you to respond to this blog and share your stories of innovation. After all, what you are doing today may be what we are all going to be doing in the years to come.