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The Rise of Sustainable Water Solutions: Decentralized Wastewater Treatment

Aerial view of a decentralized wastewater treatment facility
Aerial view of a decentralized wastewater treatment facility

Several companies are at the forefront of developing decentralized wastewater treatment technology in the water sector. These advancements are designed to offer sustainable water solutions, helping clients adhere to environmental and regulatory standards. By integrating circular economy principles, these innovations aim to enhance water management efficiency while also reducing operational costs.

Understanding Decentralized Systems in Wastewater Treatment

To explore the benefits and opportunities of decentralized wastewater treatment approaches, we interviewed subject matter experts and conducted thorough research. In this article, we share our insights on the role of decentralized solutions in water ecosystem planning. We particularly focus on their contribution to sourcing water for non-potable purposes and advancing towards a circular economy model.

Defining Decentralized Systems

First, it’s essential to begin with a definition of decentralized systems, especially in the context of wastewater collection and treatment. The term “decentralized” encompasses a broad range. Understanding decentralization begins with contrasting it against a “centralized” approach.

Centralized vs. Decentralized Approaches

A centralized system-design approach suggests consolidating water and wastewater treatment in one place. This includes centralized system-planning and centralizing the facilities and execution, typically undertaken at a national, state, or county level, and sometimes at a metropolitan district level.

Conversely, with a decentralized approach, some or all of the treatment facilities and execution are spread out, occurring at local points—closer to the source (be it water or wastewater) to be used or dispersed locally. There are cases where strategic planning is national or centralized, and as part of the planning, some of the treatment facilities are decentralized.

Adaptability and Scope of Decentralized Systems

The approach and technology will depend on the specific needs and strategic decisions for each location. This can apply to remote, rural, and small communities, specific neighborhoods, detached facilities such as resorts, RV camps, remote malls, or oil & gas facilities, and can also be considered at the individual building or household level. The scope and role of decentralized systems depend on a holistic approach, taking into account circular economy opportunities, economic, operational, and strategic considerations, such as water economy resilience.

The Advantages and Future of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment

Enhancing Circular Economy and Water Resilience

In the water industry, specifically in wastewater treatment, decentralized approaches, when planned and implemented correctly, can be integral to establishing a circular economy through reuse. They also significantly enhance water resilience at both local and national levels.

The Growing Role of Decentralized Systems

The role of decentralized systems is expected to increase significantly, in line with the global need to think strategically about sourcing water. Society needs to learn how to maximize and optimize water sources and usages. An example is the use of local wells for sourcing water for either potable or non-potable use. Consider an extreme centralized approach where water from a local well is sent hundreds of miles for treatment, then transported back for use. Theoretically possible, this approach is economically and environmentally unsustainable compared to treating water locally.

Local Treatment for Sustainable Water Management

Centralized treatment facilities collecting and distributing water from and to surrounding communities is common, but even then, locally treated, separate sources can provide water security and backup, and an ability to operate independently if the central distribution system is compromised. Recognizing “wastewater” as an important water source is crucial. When treated properly, wastewater can significantly contribute to the overall water economy, both nationally and locally.

Economic Benefits and Practicalities of Local Wastewater Treatment

The economic benefits of treating wastewater locally can be substantial, transforming what was traditionally a burden into a strategic asset, and in some cases, an economic net-positive opportunity. This is especially true when considering the value of water. The main focus here is on non-potable decentralized use cases, primarily for irrigation, agriculture, and some industrial applications. However, with technological advancements, local potable decentralized reuse may also become relevant soon.

Small Communities: Concerns and Advancements in Decentralized Systems

Potential Concerns with Decentralized Systems

While the benefits of treating wastewater locally are clear, several concerns may arise when considering a decentralized solution. These concerns can affect remote, rural, and small communities as well as the regulators. Fortunately, significant advances in technology have emerged to address these issues.

Operational Challenges and Technological Solutions

The main concerns revolve around possible improper operations, maintenance, and general negligence, leading to non-compliance with effluent standards and risks to public health. Small communities often face challenges in finding highly trained operational staff and justifying the cost of a full-time dedicated workforce for water or wastewater treatment facilities. However, new technologies minimize the need for operational attention, allow for remote monitoring and adjustments, require only basic equipment, and are highly cost-effective while delivering consistent results.

Regulatory Considerations and Simple Alternatives

For regulators, the concern is that negligence or lack of resources might lead to non-compliant effluent. Historically, simple solutions like septic tanks or lagoons were used, but these do not meet modern standards for treated effluent reuse. Addressing these concerns is crucial, and technology that meets these needs already exists.

Innovative Solutions for Effective Management

Today’s solutions reduce operational overhead, enable minimal supervision, and provide high-quality effluent suitable for irrigation and agriculture. Such systems are already in use worldwide and have been approved by regulatory bodies in the United States. Another option is to contract external support for ongoing operations, which should be considered during the planning phase to incorporate the cost into operational expenditure (OPEX).

Overcoming Barriers and Forecasting the Future of Decentralized Systems

The Challenges Samll Communities Encounter with Adopting Decentralized Systems

Key barriers to the widespread use of decentralized systems stem from adapting to new technologies. Prevalent misconceptions about the capabilities of decentralized systems, a lack of familiarity with new technologies, and a general preference for familiar methods — even if they are costlier or less efficient — are significant challenges. These issues are more pronounced in small communities, where there is often a lack of dedicated staff to stay updated with new technologies, and a difficulty for technology providers to reach out and educate.

Financial Considerations and Initial Investment Hurdles

Financial constraints also play a critical role. Even if a technology is economically beneficial in the long term, the immediate funds required for financing the project might not be readily available. This barrier is particularly acute for small communities and technology providers.

Proactive Roles of Regulators and Central Authorities

My expectation is that regulators and central authorities will increasingly play an active role in identifying and validating new technologies. This involves not just piloting and approving new technologies but also proactively matching them to relevant communities. A more engaged approach from these bodies can streamline the process, cutting red tape and facilitating funding. There are various paths to fund infrastructure projects, and a proactive approach from these organizations can help direct these funds effectively to match projects with the required technologies.

Predictions for the Future

As technology providers continue to innovate and central authorities take a more active role in technology adoption, we anticipate a significant shift towards the use of decentralized systems. This shift will likely be facilitated by streamlined validation processes and increased financial support for small communities adopting these technologies.

National Planning and Decentralized Water Management

Incorporating Decentralized Systems into National Water Planning

When planning the overall water economy and resilience for the future, it’s vital to consider all possible resources and usages and optimize across them. Not all water resources are equal; potable water, for instance, is a more limited resource than non-potable water. One critical planning consideration, therefore, is to align potable water sources with potable use.

Optimizing Water Use Through Decentralized Treatment

In the context of decentralized wastewater treatment providing non-potable water suitable for irrigation, it makes sense to utilize this water locally rather than employing potable water resources for such purposes. This approach aligns with broader national strategies for water management and conservation.

Case Studies: Incentivizing Decentralized Solutions

An example of national planning influencing decentralized solutions involves a synergy between private entities, governmental bodies, and technology providers. Local supply of drinking water, for instance, can be sourced from regional aquifers, incentivizing water independence and cost savings. However, issues such as pollution in aquifers (with substances like Nitrate, Perchlorate, and EDB) demand attention from both local and national water authorities.

Emerging Decentralized Technologies and Applications

Emerging technologies in decentralized water treatment are proving beneficial in varied settings, including RV parks, campsites, and eco-tourism businesses. These entities seek sustainable, affordable solutions without odor, noise, or visual impacts and with minimal operational requirements. Several technologies now offer odorless solutions for treating wastewater locally, with minimal electro-mechanical equipment, blending seamlessly into the landscape and requiring minimal oversight.

The Future of Decentralized Water Management

In conclusion, decentralized water treatment plays a crucial role in national planning, especially in maximizing the use of different water resources. As technologies advance and become more accessible, the role of decentralized systems in achieving sustainable and resilient water management is set to grow.

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