What Water Research Means to the Drinking Water Industry
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What Water Research Means to the Drinking Water Industry

The pressure for water utilities to continually optimize treatment, operations, and performance monitoring is ever-present. There are constant demands to minimize costs, maintain regulatory compliance, and prepare for emerging contaminants and other unknowns. Sadly, our source waters are degrading in quantity and quality and our finished water regulations are becoming more stringent. Staying ahead of new technologies and innovative strategies is paramount for our clients to ensure that safe drinking water is provided as reliably and economically as possible.

Admittedly, I’m strongly biased towards the value of applied research in the water industry. After all, I’ve studied drinking water biofiltration for nearly half my life! What’s biofiltration, you say? I’m glad you asked! Biofiltration is the operational practice of managing, maintaining, and fostering biological activity in a granular media filter. Fundamentally, it is a process that intentionally allows non-pathogenic, naturally-occurring bacteria to thrive in a conventional drinking water treatment process. These organisms can actually improve finished water quality by degrading contaminants through metabolic processes. I call them “BUGS” — Bacteria Under Guided Supervision, that is (credit to a Gabriel Bitton, a past professor).

Biolfiltration is a cutting edge water treatment technology, but not long ago, ultraviolet (UV) irradiation, ozonation, and low pressure membranes were also considered “cutting edge.” At least, they were until a series of public health crises, like the 1993 Milwaukee Cryptosporidiosis outbreak, focused national attention on the safety of our drinking water. Were our water treatment technologies and monitoring strategies as cutting edge as we thought?

As a call to action, the EPA established the Surface Water Treatment Rules (SWTRs) and Disinfectant/Disinfection By-Products Rules (D/DBPR) to provide guidance and regulation. As a result, many utilities were required to make substantial modifications to their treatment facilities to meet these new SWTRs and D/DBPRs, creating significant technical, economic, and institutional hurdles. To help water purveyors meet this challenge, our industry collaborated on applied research studies that sought to validate and optimize UV, ozonation, and membranes as alternative disinfection technologies. These studies served to establish industry standards for performance modeling, design criteria, and monitoring strategies. Today, we know that each of these processes can greatly reduce the risks associated with contaminated water supplies and offer other unique benefits to overall facility performance. Applied research proved these unconventional methods to be credible and effective – so much so that they are now commonplace technologies in our industry.

When I began my studies in water treatment, biofiltration was still an emerging technology in the US. It was poorly understood and didn’t have wide acceptance in the industry. Traditionally, the focus of water treatment was to destroy bacteria.  As you can imagine, convincing drinking water utility directors and plant managers to allow organisms to grow within their treatment facilities was quite the challenge. My work sought to characterize and optimize the biofiltration process. That is, how to make the BUGS happier so they would work harder and produce a better treated water quality. We ultimately identified operational conditions that allowed biofilters to remove a wide range of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, tastes and odors, and dissolved metals while achieving all the benefits of traditional granular media filters.

This research allowed me to be part of a paradigm shift in drinking water: bacteria can be beneficial to drinking water treatment! The expertise I gained allowed me to share findings and collaborate with utilities, academics, and regulators across the country. The knowledge transfer and exposure these experiences afforded me boosted my personal and professional development immeasurably. I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities and the mentors who guided me.

To say I am extremely proud of HDR’s ongoing role in applied drinking water research is an understatement. I am a true supporter of our Water Institute, and it’s exciting to extend research opportunities to others within our firm through it. Applied water research is important to us, to our clients, and to our industry. We will continue to push ourselves to be a technical leader in our industry and provide our clients the best solutions to meet their water challenges today, tomorrow, and well into the future.

Director, Drinking Water
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