Tag Archives: infrastructure

The fix: world waterworks near obsolescence

Globally, water systems in developed countries are nearing the end of their useful life. The lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a wake-up call. Can innovative technology and financing prevent the next disaster?

An official records data during work on a project in Michigan in 2011. USDA photo by Lance Cheung, public domain

An official records data during work on a government waterworks project in Michigan in 2011. USDA photo by Lance Cheung, public domain.

People in developed countries turn on the tap and safe drinking water flows, a dramatic health benefit they tend to take for granted. That complacency was dramatically disrupted in the U.S. last year when American children in Flint, Michigan, started testing positive for lead poisoning and the source was traced to tap water.

But Flint shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise; in fact, water industry professionals have been sounding the alert for years. Much of the water infrastructure in the developed world was built 70 to 100 years ago and is nearing the end of its useful life. The American Water Works Association says we have entered “the replacement era,” in which we must rebuild “the water and wastewater systems bequeathed to us by earlier generations.”

Most pipes, depending on their materials and the environment in which they reside, have a lifespan of 60 to 95 years. Treatment plants’ mechanical and electric components can serve 15 to 25 years. Without prompt upgrades, we are likely to see deteriorating water quality, with more incidents of lead or arsenic poisoning and bacterial and viral contamination, and increasing numbers of leaks disrupting water service and leading to costly emergency repairs.

In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. drinking water system a grade of D. Across the United States, 240,000 water mains burst a year, or about one every two minutes. Every year, more than 32 billion cubic meters (41 billion cubic yards) of treated water are lost to leaks around the world — enough water to serve almost 400 million people, according to the World Bank. And although drinking water in the United States remains quite safe overall, contamination with bacteria or viruses regularly makes people sick. In 2011–2012, the nation saw 32 drinking water–associated disease outbreaks, causing 431 cases of illness and 14 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Upgrading the more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of drinking water pipes in the U.S. — along with other water infrastructure — and expanding systems to meet the needs of a growing population is projected to cost more than US$1 trillion over the next 25 years, according to the AWWA. Although the financial investment required is mind-boggling, putting off upgrades can mean degraded water quality from leaky pipes or outdated treatment facilities, service interruptions and even higher costs: It’s much cheaper to prevent a leak than to fix water damage afterward in moldy buildings or buckled roads.

To perform targeted triage, new technologies — sensors, smart meters and data management platforms — are helping water managers to make informed decisions about how to allocate precious funds and stay ahead of problems.

“We preach asset management. Don’t just replace x percent of pipes a year,” says Tommy Holmes, legislative director of AWWA. “Do an analysis of your system and choose which 2 percent of pipes need to be replaced, rather than just focusing on a geographic area. You want to replace pipes on the verge of failure first.”

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Tech Arsenal

Helping to make these strategic decisions are water meters, which are going high-tech. Cities are beginning to install smart meters at customers’ houses and businesses to measure water use. Because advanced meter infrastructure (known in the business as AMI) can transmit data about water consumed via wireless technology to central offices in real time, it can “tell you a lot more than just water usage,” says Ken Thompson, deputy director of intelligent water solutions for CH2M, a global engineering company based in Colorado that helps municipalities plan upgrades to water infrastructure, choose technologies and integrate equipment into a single management system. Thompson says that AMI meters can find leaks on the customer’s property by spotting unusual usage patterns. They can also zero in on pipeline breaks under the street, which create suction and draw water out of residents’ houses. “If you see a cluster with a backflow problem, there’s probably a pipeline break on that street,” says Thompson. Using that data, managers can calculate the location of the break and fix it promptly before it damages nearby houses and roads.

Sensors are another key component of modern water infrastructure, used to detect both leaks and contamination. Water passes directly over the sensor, which is designed to measure specific chemical characteristics of the water. The sensor is contained in a cylindrical case, usually made of metal or plastic and 8 to 12 inches long, that can screw directly into a pipe. The cylinder also contains electronics for data collection and communications. For its water management systems, CH2M typically uses three types of sensors, says Thompson. Drinking water has a standard chemical profile, so the sensors are designed to spot deviations, rather than test for individual pollutants. If the sensors flag an aberration, that alerts water managers to test the water to determine the cause of the change and whether it’s harmful to public health.

“There are hundreds of thousands of compounds,” says Thompson. “You can’t look at everything.”

The sensors CH2M’s clients use typically cost a couple of thousand dollars each, says Thompson. A larger utility like the one that serves Dallas, Texas, might use 10 to 20 sensors, he says, while a really small one serving a few thousand people “might get away with one or two.”

At Canada’s McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, researchers are working on a different approach to water sensor technology — one that is vastly cheaper. Gay Yuyitung, executive director of the McMaster Industry Liaison Office, says university researchers are working to produce sensors that cost around US$10.

Researchers are achieving this dramatic price slash by miniaturizing the sensors (to about the size of a sesame seed) and using low-cost materials and manufacturing methods. “It’s like fabricating sensors using an ink-jet printer as opposed to highly specialized manufacturing,” says Yuyitung. “They are reducing the components so that it can be mass produced cheaply.”

McMaster engineering professor Jamal Deen and his team, including fellow engineering faculty members Raja Ghosh and Ravi Selvaganapathy, have developed chemical sensors that can detect chlorine and pH in drinking water. On top of the basic material, they can apply different chemical interfaces so the sensors can test for a variety of pollution issues. In the future, this innovation in sensors might make these technologies an easier reach, particularly for small water utilities. In the U.S., 84.5 percent of community water systems serve fewer than 3,300 people.

Because the sensors are cheap and can communicate wirelessly, they can also be used to help ensure safe drinking water in small, remote communities not yet connected to a municipal water treatment system, such as First Nations communities in Canada’s north or rural villages in India. New water infrastructure is required to meet the needs of growing populations worldwide, but even before it’s built, communities can benefit from technologies that measure the quality of their water. People living off the water grid might use the sensors to test their lake, stream or well to determine whether, say, naturally occurring arsenic spiked in their water supply or cows had a recent bathroom break upstream.

Systems Management

Software offers another technological tool for prioritizing upgrades to municipal water supply infrastructure. Two big players are Microsoft’s CityNext and IBM’s Smarter Cities, which analyze data from smart meters, sensors and other sources to pinpoint emerging leaks and contamination.

Miami–Dade County’s parks system in the U.S., which uses more than 300 million gallons (1.14 billion liters) of water annually, is using IBM’s platform to detect irregularities in water consumption and dispatch park managers to check them out. “We’re saving literally months in finding and reacting to those repairs that are needed,” says Jack Kardys, director of Miami–Dade County, Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Department. The department anticipates 7 to 12 percent savings on its annual US$4 million water bill.

CH2M also provides water utilities with a systems management platform that helps operators be proactive in solving problems, rather than reactive, says Thompson. In 2013, with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding, CH2M installed surveillance and response systems in Philadelphia, New York, Dallas and San Francisco. Although the systems were conceived to protect drinking water from foul play, the cities are using them for quotidian water quality management, says Thompson. CH2M has completed about a dozen large water systems in the U.S. and thousands of systems of various sizes worldwide, he says.

The true strength of data platforms is bringing together in one location various streams of information — water flow rates, infrastructure condition, water quality — that were previously siloed.

Michael Sullivan, sales manager for IBM Smarter Water Management, says such systems could have identified Flint’s lead hazard much more quickly. “Part of the problem with Flint was there was no real visibility,” he says. “There were pockets of information, but the problem didn’t really come into view until much farther along the line.”

“Treating citizens like a sensor,” as Sullivan puts it, is particularly popular in developing countries.Data platforms like IBM’s and CH2M’s can incorporate other salient information as well, such as the material and age of pipes in a certain area and their projected life expectancy in local environments. They can also flag problems in near real time when a customer calls about leaks or altered water quality in a specific area surpass a baseline threshold.

Relying on customers’ eyes on the ground is not new. The 1993 Cryptosporidium parvum outbreak in Milwaukee that sickened 400,000 people was initially flagged when a local pharmacy called public health officials, saying it couldn’t keep Imodium in stock, Thompson says.

Human feedback is especially important for systems that do not yet have smart meters or sensors. “Treating citizens like a sensor,” as Sullivan puts it, is particularly popular in developing countries. In South Africa, people tested an IBM-sponsored app called WaterWatchers that allowed them to report issues like leaks, contamination or stream obstructions via their mobile phones, says Sullivan.

The Funding Question

While smart technology can help water utilities make more savvy decisions about where to spend capital investment dollars, potentially saving money overall, there’s still the question of where to get the $1 trillion the AWWA predicts we’ll need to fix ailing U.S. drinking water infrastructure over the next quarter-century.

In the U.S., federal, state and local governments spent US$109 billion on water infrastructure (including water supply and sewage treatment facilities as well as drinking water treatment and delivery) in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Just one-third of that — about US$36 billion — was for capital investments such as new pipes or updated drinking water treatment facilities.

Such dollars come primarily from local water fees, tax-exempt municipal bonds and the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which allocated $863 million in grants to states for drinking water facilities in fiscal year 2016. Congress created a new low-interest loan program in 2014 but has not yet appropriated money for it.

These pools of money are not enough. To reach the more than $1 trillion in investment needed, the U.S. will need to spend an average of US$40 billion annually. Of the US$36 billion spent annually on capital investments by water utilities, less than half, $18 billion, is likely going to drinking water, with the rest going to wastewater treatment, stormwater control and new supplies.

Ultimately, customers will likely have to pay more for water so utilities in turn have the funds they need to replace aging infrastructure. Private investment via public-private partnerships is a likely path for struggling municipalities, according to the multinational professional services firm EY, despite two significant hurdles. Businesses have typically shied away from water infrastructure investments because the water sector is heavily regulated and conservative about change because people’s health is at stake. And human rights activists have long been concerned that getting corporations involved in water delivery will lead to prices too high for poor people, an untenable situation when water is critical for life. Nevertheless, the trend toward private investment in water delivery took a step forward March 22, World Water Day, when the White House Water Summit announced that more than 150 companies committed $4 billion in private money to improve U.S. water infrastructure.

Ultimately, customers will likely have to pay more for water so utilities in turn have the funds they need to replace aging infrastructure. According to the AWWA, most Americans pay less than $3.75 for every 1,000 gallons of water delivered to their taps. Tommy Holmes, legislative director of AWWA, says that vastly undervalues safe drinking water. “People have this idea that because water is a naturally occurring thing that falls from the sky, it shouldn’t be expensive,” he says. “But Mother Nature doesn’t collect the water, treat it and deliver it through pipes. People do that, and they need to be paid.”

Creative Commons

This story was first published by Ensia.  View Ensia homepage


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Can clean power plants be things of beauty?

The proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides.

The proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides. Image: Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay

NICOLE PORTER, University of Nottingham 
March, 2016

Energy suppliers often refer to their industry as being caught in a “trilemma”, as people demand electricity that is both secure and cheap, while also being clean.

But maybe it’s time to add a forth consideration to the list – beauty.

Just as we marvel at Roman aqueducts or Victorian railways, so we could design power plants, solar panels, turbines and other infrastructure to be beautiful additions to the landscape. As we move away from ugly coal and gas, we have a great chance to celebrate low carbon energy with imaginative new designs.

United Kingdom energy minister Amber Rudd seems to agree. Speaking last year about nuclear energy, she stated: “I think it is a reasonable ambition to make sure that these big projects have aesthetic appeal as well [as being functional] to help win the public over.”

Yet there are two problems to look out for. First, it is unreasonable to merely mask controversial or potentially environmentally damaging developments with a veneer of “attractiveness”. Managing public opinion with pretty designs does not supplant other valid concerns such as the choice of location or huge construction costs.

Second, even where “beautiful” design is sought as part of an environmentally responsible scheme, how individuals define and perceive “beauty” will certainly be a highly variable affair. One person’s majestic wind turbine is another person’s imposing eyesore. Like any type of architecture, judgements about beauty will depend on highly personal preferences, and how the new design relates to its existing context.

The quest to find an appropriate aesthetic when designing novel infrastructure is not new. When the Victorians built the UK’s railway system a century and a half ago, the scale of this new technology and the visual and environmental changes it brought to urban and rural landscapes alike were immense – and hotly debated.

Engineers and architects designed large viaducts and impressive stations to be beautiful as well as functional. Though their alien structures were decried by some as ugly impositions, with time those same buildings have come to be part of the cherished character of British landscapes.

In the 1950s, nuclear power once again called for unprecedentedly large and unusual buildings. At Trawsfynydd in Wales, the leading designers of their time took up the challenge. Architect Sir Basil Spence and landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe designed a nuclear power station in a bold modernist style.

Although decades have passed and the plant has been decommissioned, opinions about its aesthetic value continue to be divided; some praise the architecture as “optimistic, triumphant [and] pioneering” while others would be happy to see the building completely disappear.

We need innovative and sensitive design ideas for new energy systems, not just to “win over” the public but to actually improve the environment. Recent examples of well considered and multifunctional energy landscapes do exist.

At Georgswerder Energy Hill in the German city of Hamburg, large wind turbines stand proudly atop an artificial mountain of landfill in a post-industrial area. Purified groundwater onsite is captured and used for energy, and the sunny side of the mountain is graced by solar panels. Visitors learn about renewable energy at a visitor centre before walking up to an elegant public “horizon line” walkway that encircles the mountain and gives expansive views of the city beyond.

In Norway, the Øvre Forsland hydroelectric power station similarly aims to be educative, to reflect the local context, and to unapologetically attract attention.

One interesting example on the drawing board is the proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay. The power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides.

The plans include space for walkers and cyclists along the top of the sea walls, and an iconic, ark-shaped offshore visitor centre (pictured above, by Juice Architects) on the far side of the lagoon. Landscape architects LDA have already received the highest accolade in their field – the Presidents’ Medal – for creatively developing a scheme which “puts place-making at its heart and seeks to integrate a major renewable energy project into the lives of local people”.

Given the grim consequences of climate change and the political stakes associated with generating energy, the question of aesthetics may seem trivial. Investments in renewables obviously need to be based on more than just appearances.

However, as society quickly transitions to better sources of energy, designers are embracing the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the change. Seeing how big power plants, as well as hugely important small-scale community initiatives, can fit within the landscapes that people use and enjoy is a real challenge.

There will probably never be a power plant or solar panel that everyone deems beautiful. But debating beauty and design alongside function is vital to achieve better renewable energy developments.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Nicole Porter is an Assistant Professor, Architecture & Built Environment, University of NottinghamThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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New waterworks designs deliver larger environmental change

The designers and operators of water infrastructure have been forced, in a cost-cutting era for public works, to think outside the pipe, writes Natural Security columnist Chris Wood. And what they’ve learned hold lessons for all of us. An excerpt of Wood’s new column, Thinking Outside the Pipe: Reflections on flood season in the Pacific Northwest:

Water pipe in Brisbane Glen, U.K. via Wikimedia

Water pipe in Brisbane Glen, U.K. via Wikimedia

Infrastructure is an ugly word, but a big part of what governments do — especially those we live closest to, our town or city government. ‘Infrastructure’ is also the service backbone of everything else we do in our active lives — the bridges we drive over to work and the internet connections we jump on when we get there, the pipes that bring water to the tap and the others that carry away the toilet flush. It’s a mostly unglamorous subject. But it’s about to revolutionize, in ways that will also revolutionize how we deal with environmental issues. 

Three forces are driving that revolution. The first is the effect of time on the infrastructure that serves us now: a lot of it in North America is crumbling or obsolete. The second is climate destabilization: most of that same infrastructure, even if it’s not past its design life, was designed for climatic conditions that went out with the last century. But third, and most hopefully, thinking about urban infrastructure design has broken out of the single dimension in which it has been trapped for decades, and discovered the extraordinary potential of thinking in all four … Log in first to continue reading Thinking Outside the Pipe (subscription required*).

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