U.S. utilities increasing water reuse investment

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Courtesy of Fluence Corporation

Decreased technology costs are prompting more municipal water utilities in the United States to invest in new water reuse infrastructure. In fact, a new forecast projects more than $18 billion in water reuse and desalination projects are on tap in 17 states, according to Bluefield Research analysts.

Although water scarcity is a conventional driver for this type of project, the analysts say the expenditures are attributable to the affordability of these technologies, which is making the cost of water reuse competitive with the cost of traditional water supplies.

Utilities are implementing water reuse for both irrigation and potable water use, according to Erin Bonney Casey, research director at Bluefield Research. She explains:

Without a doubt, California’s five-year drought has been a catalyst for recent project development. Utilities as far away as Georgia are seeking ways to mitigate water risk. […] Utility customers are already facing higher water rates — up 25 percent since 2012 — and the prospect of stabilized water rates is unlikely without more efficient water supply management.

Competitive Water Costs

Water from traditional supplies costs $3.90 per 1,000 gallons, which includes $2.95 used for “transmission” and $0.95 used to purchase water rights. In comparison, reclaimed water supplies now cost an average of $3.60 per 1,000 gallons.

The cost of seawater desalination ranges widely, averaging roughly $5.15 per 1,000 gallons.

Of the 17 states that have announced plans for reuse projects, California and Florida continue to top the list. Hawaii, Georgia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee also have projects in the works, which comes to a total of 763 projects. Much of that growth has occurred in the past six months, according to analysts.

California accounts for 48 percent of planned projects, with 363 in development now. Although there has been significant precipitation so far this year, analysts say “dry southern California remains the U.S. epicenter for reuse development and is showing no signs of letting up.”

Bonney Casey added:

The fact that project development is happening in new states shows that that water reuse is no longer just a drought mitigation strategy, but instead a viable option for utilities to boost water supplies. Several years ago, when our project pipeline database was only 135 projects, many were identified as an immediate response to drought, but now that the drought has subsided, we are still coming across new projects aimed at expanding system capacity in the long-term.

With water reuse, cities can have a dependable, locally controlled water source. It also frees them from dependence on groundwater and surface water sources.

Desalination for an Alternative Water Supply

Water reuse remains the most popular alternative supply option in the U.S., but municipal utilities are now evaluating other technologies, namely seawater and brackish water desalination. Analysts attribute this to a drop of more than 60 percent in the cost of membrane-based technology in the past 10 years, the result of reverse osmosis technology and addition of energy recovery devices.

Permitting seawater desalination plants remains a significant challenge, which has increased interest in brackish water desalination. There are now 17 brackish water desalination plants in the planning stages in California, with a combined capacity of 252,000 cubic meters a day.

Water Infrastructure

Another focus for municipalities interested in protecting their water supplies, Bonney Casey said, is reducing non-revenue water loss. This term refers to water that is pumped or produced, but which is subsequently lost or unaccounted for in the system as a result of theft, evaporation, leaks, or even poor metering and data gathering. In the U.S., the estimated loss in 2016 was is between 10 and 30 percent; the federal government places the losses from leaks at 16 percent.

Infrastructure repair, she said, is the most cost-effective source of added water for utilities. The average cost of supply and distribution line repairs is roughly $1.21 per 1,000 gallons. She concluded:

The bottom line is that water supply concerns aren’t going away. Fortunately, a group of forward-looking utilities are a taking a portfolio of solutions approach.

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