July 28, 2005

Stretching Washington's water supply

  • Reclaimed water can be used to satisfy our growing water demand.
    Golder Associates

    Photo courtesy Golder Associates
    The city of Bremerton has a partial system for distributing reclaimed water.

    The Washington Department of Ecology recently released a report entitled "Case Studies in Reclaimed Water Use." By the end of 2004, 17 wastewater treatment facilities had been updated to operate under the state's reclaimed water standards.

    The motivation for each facility varies, but the main goal is to meet discharge regulatory requirements to protect environmental factors such as surface and ground water quality, and the nearshore marine environment. Future regulatory developments, such as total maximum daily load restrictions for discharges to streams under the Clean Water Act, are expected to further boost water reclamation efforts.

    Many of these projects are heavily grant-funded due to the high cost of treatment, and the lack of an adequately compensatory market for the product. The technology for reclaimed water is well-developed and its cost is expected to rapidly decrease over the next few years as technology continues to advance and economies of scale for treatment equipment develops.

    However, encouraging the use of reclaimed water can be a hard sell in parts of Washington where fresh water is cheap and abundant. As the demand for water continues to grow, the available supply in the form of permitted water rights may not meet that demand.

    Already purveyors are making tough decisions to stretch their existing permitted water supplies, while building moratoria based on limited water supply are becoming more common. Purveyors are also facing pressure to conserve water, primarily through education and, more effectively, water rates. As the cost of reclaimed water drops, and the cost of fresh water rises, reclaimed water is expected to become an accepted and indispensable resource of value.

    Reclaimed water already is part of the supply pool in several parts of the United States. In Florida, reclaimed water is being applied to the restoration of the Everglades. It is a commodity in Arizona and California where end users cover a significant, if not all, cost of reclamation.

    Closer to home, major reclaimed projects are being developed in King and Thurston counties. King County produces almost 1 million gallons a day of Class A reclaimed water. Contracts are being drafted to deliver reclaimed water from the county's planned Brightwater regional treatment plant to end users.

    Also, a consortium of the cities of Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater, along with Thurston County, is in the advanced construction phase of upgrading treatment facilities to produce 4 million gallons a day of Class A reclaimed water and the associated distribution system.

    Kitsap's efforts

    An effort to re-evaluate reclaimed water is just starting up in the Kitsap Peninsula as a follow-on to watershed planning. Although the draft watershed plan was not ultimately adopted, the planning process resulted in closer relationships among water resource managers, an improved dissemination of public education through citizen participants, and an improved technical understanding of the natural system.

    The Kitsap Peninsula is essentially an island surrounded by salt water. Groundwater provides about 80 percent of the water supply, and may provide all future new supply. Approximately 30 percent of all water used is discharged through wastewater treatment plants to marine waters — the rest either evaporates through irrigation (about 15 percent) or is returned to groundwater through septic systems (about 55 percent).

    One of the special studies conducted during the watershed planning effort was an evaluation of reversing the export of freshwater to marine waters, and returning reclaimed water to the freshwater system. All 15 permitted wastewater treatment plants in the watershed were evaluated, and detailed consideration was given to four plants with a combined effluent volume of approximately 12 million gallons a day.

    One of the unique aspects of the project was the focus on environmental benefits, primarily restoring wetlands habitat and increasing instream flows for salmon, rather than being a response to regulatory requirements.

    Additional benefits include conventional water reuse applications (such as industrial and irrigation uses), aquifer recharge, prevention of saline intrusion, minimizing the need to develop new water sources, and possible use in mitigation for the issuance of new water rights. A mix of all beneficial applications is expected to have the best chance for building broad support and getting the program implemented.

    This project met with such a high level of enthusiasm from the stakeholders and Ecology that a larger study was commissioned to advance regional reclaimed water efforts. A group of stakeholders — including wastewater treatment plant operators, water purveyors and Kitsap County — are working to develop a reclaimed water program that may be among the most integrated in the state.

    One of the challenges is the patchwork nature of water resource management, including municipalities, public and private water purveyors, and wastewater treatment plant operations that are variously operated by entities that in some cases are also purveyors.

    Regardless of who the entities are, all are in agreement that reclaimed water is part of the near future.

    A successful reclaimed water plan may involve streamlining different programs and service rates across jurisdictions, effective public outreach, accounting of intangible costs and benefits, and direction from policy makers.

    Chris Pitre is an associate at Golder Associates specializing in water resources management. Golder has been assisting in development of the Kitsap integrated reclaimed water program.

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