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Industrial Water Management: the New Normal

lankford, perry, tetra techNot too long ago, water was inexpensive, high quality, and plentiful for industrial users.  Whether water came from municipal supplies or from surface or ground water sources, it reflected a small portion of their operating cost.  Industry-specific standards for wastewater discharge regulations emphasized a level playing field regardless of a plant’s location or design.  Water and wastewater decisions were primarily technical (i.e., meet the quality requirements) and secondarily financial.

However, during the last ten years drought, competing uses, and environmental limitations have made water less available.  Consequently, its cost has increased dramatically.  A direct relationship has developed between water quality and water cost.  Regulatory limitations on wastewater discharges have become more strict and site/process-specific.

Responding to these factors since 2007, many corporations began adopting a policy of “triple bottom line,” or “profit/people/planet” (3P), in which a nexus of economic, social, and environmental factors constitutes a viable and responsible business strategy, often driven by shareholders.  Social and environmental responsibility has been pushed down to the local level; greenhouse gas reduction is practiced by industries worldwide; and decreasing global water, energy, and environmental footprints is now emphasized in the corporate board room.

Linear Approach to Project Work is History

In the past, industrial water management projects were relatively simple and linear: Engineering solutions proceeded forward, step-by-step, to a technically sound and cost-effective result without much deviation from standard practices or a more intensive examination of water use or wastewater generation.

As engineers, we worked with the plant to establish the essential facts: The quantity of water the plant requires and discharges; the quality of the water before its treatment; water quality requirements for use inside the plant; the discharge limits permitted under federal regulation by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which were the same for similar types of plants; the regulatory deadline for implementation; and demonstrated technologies that would do the job, usually including a well-accepted form of biological treatment, sometimes followed by filtration or adsorption. Estimating the upfront capital and on-going operating costs was then relatively straightforward; the least cost solution that met technical requirements was implemented.

Non-Linear Approach to Project Work Today

Today, industrial water management projects are more complex and substantially non-linear; that is, each step frequently reveals complexities that force engineers to revise their assumptions and to come back a step or two and work through the issues, now better understood, and to then proceed accordingly.  Such stops, starts, and circles are the new norm.

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