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Ralph Exton: Closing the Gap Between Treating Wastewater and Reusing It

By making the most out of the water already being used, we can protect increasingly scarce freshwater supplies.


Over 700 million people live in water-stressed areas today. By 2030, the Water Resources Group expects a 50 percent growth in global water demand, which will yield a 40 percent shortage given the expected water supply in the same time period.

It is a scary thought to think that something so precious as water — which is essential for all elements of life from health to manufacturing to food and energy production — could be at risk, if globally we do not take new measures to protect our freshwater supplies and make the most of the water already being used in the world. But while the statistics are scary, I am optimistic that with existing technology and the right education, policy reform and industry involvement, we can turn the course of events around.

Today, the majority of “used water” in North America is treated through municipal wastewater  treatment plants that collect wastewater from a variety of sources — homes, office buildings, commercial properties, industrial parks, manufacturing and more. That water is most often treated through a local treatment plant and then discharged into surface waters.

In North America, 75 percent of wastewater is treated. That is 16 trillion gallons of water a year. However, only 3.8 percent of that water is reused; which is about 600 million gallons per year. That is a gap worth closing.


Today, more and more communities are realizing they should (and can) divert treated wastewater and reuse it in non-potable applications, agriculture, power generation cooling and even additional applications such as light industrial manufacturing. Forward-thinking communities are taking that even further by adding a few steps to the treatment process in order to reuse water in indirect and direct potable applications.

Industry offers a significant opportunity all on its own. Consider the fact that industrial demand represents 45 percent of freshwater use in advanced industrial nations. Even more compelling is the inextricable tie between energy and water. In the United States alone, 40 percent of water use is related to the production of energy. Power and industrial water needs could be met through other sources, such as treated water effluent.

With so much potential for water reuse, the real question is why is such a small percentage actually reused? What are the barriers that exist and need to be overcome?

First, there is a substantial lack of connectivity between where and how this wastewater is generated, and what demand centers may exist that could use this treated water to displace their freshwater demands. It is essential that industry and municipalities alike start with a plan that identifies water source opportunities, evaluates infrastructure needs, and maps out the potential outcomes.

Second, you have policy and regulatory frameworks that warrant examination and reform to allow for water reuse potential. For example, municipal wastewater treatment plants have stringent, but various effluent requirements, depending on the receiving stream they are discharging into. However, by opening up regulation to allow for lesser water quality to match certain end applications, thereby reducing operating and energy costs for industry, we can see an increase in reuse potential.

Third, you have the private sector, which most often lacks the knowledge and expertise to take on a project that represents many unknowns and is by definition “noncore.” In these cases, financial, regulatory or other incentives for water recycling and reuse could help spur adoption. Incentives can take many forms ranging from direct subsidies, to payments for reintroduction of recovered water, to regulatory relief for recycled water users.

Finally, there is the general public, whose opinion can sway water reform, but is in many instances unaware of the criticality of the water crises. For many, the water is always there, so there is no action. It’s no surprise that those communities that have embraced water reuse have active public education programs. Education and outreach are critical to overcoming public concerns on safety and quality.

Communities, businesses and industry that are leading the world in water reuse are paving the way through education, smarter policy and government, business and public collaboration. By moving water reuse to the forefront of the fight against water scarcity, we can create not only a sustainable world, but a resilient one as well.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)


Ralph Exton is Chief Marketing Officer at GE Water & Process Technologies.





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