By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD
Water as a commodity is not easily managed by utilities… The POU industry, however, is poised to be the perfect partner to utilities, particularly those struggling with current and future challenges of degraded water quality and increasing regulatory compliance issues.
In August, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) released its 2014 AWWA State of the Water Industry Report (SOTWIR). This annual report identifies some of the current and key issues and priorities for the water industry, with metrics ranging from quality to sustainability to services. Much of the report’s data was derived from a voluntary survey of AWWA members, culminating in an industry self-assessment tool. In agreement with the 2013 SOTWIR, industry stakeholders identified state of water and sewer infrastructure as the primary critical issue for the future. Some previous priority issues, however, have dropped in rank while others moved up the scale of concern. Overall, the SOTWIR clearly reveals broad needs for monitoring and managing waterborne contaminants and provides guidance on where the POU industry can help.
An industry authority
AWWA has been an authority in the water industry for more than 133 years since it was first established. The founding meeting of the AWWA took place at Washington University in St. Louis, MO and was attended by 22 utility representatives from six US states, primarily from the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas) and the South (Kentucky, Tennessee).(1) An early mission of the association was to share information and advance utility operations. Nearly a century later, the association identified its role in terms of promoting public health through improving water quality and quantity with a focus on conducting research to identify problems and develop resolutions.
Today, AWWA is comprised of more than 50,000 members from 43 local sections in the US, Canada and Mexico. Each section hosts an annual conference for local participants to gather, exchange information, participate in trainings and discuss priority, water-related topics. Member benefits include access to resources and publications addressing water quality and sustainability topics that affect consumers, utility operators and also the water treatment and purification industry.
The POU water treatment and purification industry has sometimes been shunned by municipal water suppliers, given that the mere existence of the POU industry suggests a deficiency in public water supply. Few examples exist of the two industries working together toward providing the best available product for consumers. While information from individual utilities is often lagging and difficult to decipher, the municipal water industry as a whole is largely transparent on topics needing attention. Information such as that contained in the 2014 SOTWIR provides an opportunity for the POU industry to identify areas where change can be affected.
State of the water industry
The 2014 SOTWIR reflects responses from 1,739 respondents solicited via email in September, 2013. Respondents are identified as ‘all-water industry professionals’ and are assumed to have an understanding of water industry issues.2 The majority of respondents self-identified as affiliates of the drinking water or combined water/wastewater utility career groups, followed by consultants, government or regulatory agencies and product manufacturers. Based on respondents’ opinion, the top five issues facing the water industry in 2014 include:(2)
- State of water and sewer infrastructure
- Long-term water supply availability
- Financing for capital improvements
- Public understanding of the value of water resources
- Public understanding of the value of water systems and services
A common theme in the report is concern over the need for increased revenue and support to sustain current and future infrastructure needs. More than 63 percent of respondents feel this is a critically important issue facing the water industry. According to a US EPA report, US water and sewage infrastructure needs are estimated at $2 trillion over the next 25 years.3
Meeting future supply needs is also a top concern given issues of growing population centers, uncertain use patterns and climate-related events affecting water availability and quality, including drought and flooding. Sixty-four percent of respondents felt this was a critically important issue for the water industry; however, 52 percent think the water industry is only moderately or not at all prepared to address climate change. Utilities continue to seek alternative options to meet supply needs, including sources of reuse water (better known as toilet-to-tap resources). Diminishing and vulnerable groundwater and surface water supplies and emerging contaminants need further attention as well. Pollutant discharges, DBPs and combined sewer overflows (CSO) all present problems relative to maintaining quality water supplies. While CSOs are designed to collect stormwater and wastewater for municipal treatment, rainfall or snowmelt influxes can overwhelm the system, resulting in direct discharge of the raw, untreated waste into the environment, including drinking water sources. CSOs and other climate-related issues are of major concern for utilities.
Respondents are also apprehensive about future regulatory topics, such as pharmaceuticals and other endocrine-disrupting compounds and water security, including emergency preparedness and response. The 2014 SOTWIR points out that identified concerns are not necessarily new but that there is a renewed sense of urgency to address some of these issues because upgraded infrastructure is becoming a reality as pipes and equipment approach and surpass their life expectancy. Infrastructure requirements suggest the likelihood of future rate increases, which consumers often reject. The water industry has repeatedly identified a need for consumer education and understanding of current challenges and future needs so that stakeholders can help to make informed decisions about capital financing and managing expectations.
POU industry opportunities
The US ranks eighth in the world in the most total water use per capita with 1,146 gallons (4,338 liters) consumed per person per day. The majority of water withdrawal is for industrial use (46 percent) followed by agricultural (40 percent) and municipal (14 percent) uses. Water as a commodity is not easily managed by utilities, as many variables of uncertainty contribute to the quality and availability of the product. The POU industry, however, is poised to be the perfect partner to utilities, particularly those struggling with current and future challenges of degraded water quality and increasing regulatory compliance issues. The 2014 SOTWIR does not mention the practice of water purification at the point of use as a means for improved management of drinking water quality. Part of educating the public about the importance of water supplies and services is to also consider their knowledge of options for self-management of their drinking water quality. Even if our improved infrastructure goals are met over the next 25 years, there will always be risks associated with treatment and distribution of drinking water that impact public health. Moving forward, the POU industry should be aware of the needs of the water utilities and be a part of the discussions relative to solutions.
- AWWA History, American Water Works Association, 2014. [Online]. Available: www.awwa.org/about-us/history.aspx. [Accessed 13 08 2014].
- 2014 AWWA State of the Industry Report, American Water Works Association, Denver, CO, 2014.
- Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. Fifth Report to Congress, US EPA Office of Water. 816-R-13-006, Cincinnati, 2013.
About the author
Dr. Kelly A. Reynolds is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. She holds a Master of Science Degree in public health (MSPH) from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Arizona. Reynolds is WC&P’s Public Health Editor and a former member of the Technical Review Committee. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org