Big Challenges Facing Local Water Utilities


 

 

"We need to look at this industry as a resource industry, not a waste industry."

Cordell Samuels, Cole Engineering Water Consultant

Global warming is often associated with the melting polar ice caps, rising tides and the plight of land animals in the far artic. Although the large-scale effects of global warming on our planet is a clear and present danger, it is also affecting us in our very own backyards through wastewater management and the way water flows in and out of our homes.

Wastewater management is an important component of a healthy, regulated water system. Yet as we speak, the local water utilities industry is facing major challenges in management, design and public interest. While some of these issues have clear solutions, many do not. 

Public Interest

“One of the things we now know is that you never waste an opportunity,” says Cordell Samuels, former Water Environment Federation (WEF) President and Water Consultant at Cole Engineering. "Where they're making huge strides [in water management] are the places that have huge issues with drought that we don't have here. They have a crisis that pushes them."
The California drought, the legacy of Walkerton and more recently Flint’s water crisis, have put water and wastewater management at the forefront of public scrutiny. Water is unfortunately one of those things that nobody thinks about until there isn’t enough of it to go around; a universal right we take for granted.  

Lynn Patterson, Director of Corporate Responsibility for RBC’s Blue Water Fund says, “For me, the biggest challenge has been getting people to understand the ‘so what’.” While in Canada we haven’t seen the effects of long-term drought, such as in California, getting people to understand the importance of water quality and water delivery remains a hurdle.

Are conversations about water too technical for people to get impassioned about? Public opinion bleeds into hiring practices, design and disaster preparedness, and so getting consumers involved in and excited about the state of water may be one way to overcome this challenge. 

Talent

Turnover is a large component of the industry’s difficulties. Highly skilled field workers, who have been working in the industry for more than 40 years are retiring, leaving less-experienced trainees or new hires to keep up with aging systems.

In decades past, as Ontario’s current facilities were being built, procedures were not documented in manuals, a practice that has only started in the last few years.

Cordell Samuels thinks that a lot of the information regarding the system sits in people’s heads. “...And when [employees] leave, they take it with them.”

While one solution is ensuring standardization and training protocols are followed, another is to try something completely different: to focus on new design, innovation and creation in the water industry.

Design

Funding isn’t necessarily the issue when it comes to aging infrastructure. Many utilities are run 'close to the line' financially, but funding itself isn’t prohibitive to new and innovative design. 

Facilities and systems need to last. This is key to a well-run water industry. Because of this, innovation sometimes takes a backseat to durability. In Ontario, Samuels says we’ve done really well. But now, it’s time for Ontarians to look differently at design. We can incorporate what other parts of the world are incorporating; California’s social policiers, Singapore’s design infrastructure, or even create our own completely unique system.

Canada has some of the best engineering programs in the world, and some of the greatest innovative minds are just entering the industry. Allowing room for new design, innovation and unique perspectives can help generate public interest, and create new systems for an old problem.

Disaster Management

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. Proactively preparing for the worst-case scenarios is necessary in an era of increasingly unpredictable weather. Can our water system handle sudden volume increases, or extreme shortages? Or, as many Canadians experience every winter, prolonged freezing temperatures?

Samuels believes a piece of the puzzle is in altering our approach to wastewater. “We need to look at this industry as a resource industry, not a waste industry.” The possibilities for energy reclamation, for filtration and re-use, or even things like urban farming, are all great ideas that make much more sense than the simplicity of dumping. 

There is huge potential for using wastewater beneficially, and at both lower costs and more environmentally than traditional methods. 

Disaster preparedness means preparing for worst-case events, but also for the long-term inevitability of water difficulties. By creating innovative design and getting excited about water’s possibilities now, we can ensure that we have strong wastewater infrastructure for generations to come.