In the Face of Drought, Innovative Approaches are Keeping Water Flowing

On June 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann. As one of more than two dozen interstate water compacts that allocate water in various areas of the country, the Red River Compact governs water rights between Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. For more than a decade, Texas and Oklahoma have disagreed over the amount of water that should cross their border - a fight that has only intensified during the devastating drought of the past two years.

In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the agreements in the Red River Compact do not overrule Oklahoma's own state statutes, which limit the transfer of water across its border to Texas. By ruling in Oklahoma's favor, the Court affirmed the State's ability to enact legislation that could be seen as trumping the Red River Compact, which used the same language included in many similar compacts around the nation. The aftershocks of this decision could affect a variety of cities that are part of water compacts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Denver, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City, just to name a few. And we can expect to see more battles as water scarcity increases throughout the nation.

The water scarcity issue has grown in importance since 2002 - when, after that year's drought caused wildfires and water shortages across the Midwest and West, Congress directed the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to survey state water managers in an effort to determine how the Federal government could help states meet their water needs. The results of that survey were staggering, suggesting that "...even under normal conditions, water managers in 36 states anticipate shortages in localities, regions, or statewide in the next 10 years."

A decade later, with extended droughts taking hold in many areas of the country (such Texas) and with a variety of news reports of water shortages elsewhere, that prediction has been remarkably prescient. However, the water industry has shown extraordinary ingenuity in meeting the challenge of water shortages, turning to innovative approaches designed to combat scarcity.

Wastewater recycling is one of the many methods the water industry is utilizing to manage increasing water shortages. The innovative technology involves a process of distinguishing wastewater from potable water and treating it for suitable reuse--both for replenishment of groundwater supplies and for use in non-drinking purposes (such as irrigation for agriculture or within industrial facilities). In areas of our country where water scarcity is a particularly pressing issue, wastewater recycling has proven to be an effective and cost-efficient solution.

For example, American Water designed, built and currently operates an onsite wastewater treatment plant at the Wrentham Outlet Mall in Wrentham, MA. To overcome land constraints in the area, the facility was built using a compact layout measuring only 34 by 96 feet. It also minimized the environmental impact on a nearby wetlands area with its onsite disposal system. This recycling effort was the first-ever commercial water reuse project permitted in the state. It saved the shopping center $1 million in planning costs and significantly reduces water bills by reusing half of its wastewater.

In El Segundo, CA, United Water has been working with the West Basin Municipal Water District since 1995 to operate and maintain an internationally acclaimed water reuse program. The recycling facility is capable of providing 50 million gallons of water a day to be used for commercial, industrial and irrigation applications. The process of substituting recycled water for potable water has greatly reduced the strain on the district's already scarce water supply. The increase in recycled water also has resulted in a healthier marine life within the nearby Santa Monica Bay, as less treated wastewater is released into the ocean. Partnerships like this have been occurring for years and continue to be renewed due to the high levels of success.

With the world's population increasing at a rapid rate, water scarcity issues are becoming a serious concern for cities around our country and the world. Proactively instituting innovative water purification techniques and continuing to study and develop new processes will ensure safe, clean drinking water for generations to come, and private water companies are helping lead the way.