Water issues roundtable

August 2006 » Exclusive
Three experts in stormwater, wastewater, and potable water participated in a recent roundtable discussion with CE News regarding the impact of water issues on land development.
Bob Drake

Participants discuss a key ingredient in successful development projects

During the recent Land Development East Conference & Expo in Boston, three experts in stormwater, wastewater, and potable water participated in a roundtable discussion with CE News regarding the impact of water issues on land development.

Roundtable participants:

  • Richard C. Cote, P.E., LSP, is manager of engineering and COO for Comprehensive Environmental, Inc., in Milford, Mass. He has more than 20 years of experience in civil and environmental engineering and has served as senior engineer for multiple stormwater management, best management practice, low-impact development, and brownfield redevelopment projects.
  • Paul Klein, P.E., is vice president and Sacramento office manager for RBF Consulting in Sacramento, Calif. He has more than 18 years of experience in both water resources engineering and management of land development projects, including working with the development community and municipalities on planning and design of water, wastewater, stormwater, and recycled water infrastructure.
  • Brian F. Lynch, P.E., is assistant chief engineer within VHB's Land Development Group in Watertown, Mass. He has more than 30 years of experience in civil and environmental engineering design and management, including utility system development, water supply and wastewater system improvements, onsite wastewater treatment systems, project permitting, and development master planning.
  • Bob Drake, editor of CE News magazine, served as moderator.

BOB DRAKE: How are water issues—stormwater, wastewater, potable water, and recycled water—impacting land development projects today, compared with 10 years ago?

RICHARD C. COTE, PE, LSP: Eastern Massachusetts [now] has stressed basins. There's been a progressive decline in base flow in streams, which has been attributed to the way we've been handling stormwater for eons.

[Government] agencies have been looking at withdrawals from these watersheds as being the primary culprit as to why there is a reduction in base flow. If a developer wants to hook up to the local water supplier, the water supplier has a permit on how much water they can withdraw. The water supplier may not be able to support the size of development that the property may justify being built. That's putting the developer in a position of coming up with alternate water sources.

PAUL KLEIN, P.E.: In the West, [water] is the driver behind many development projects because different areas have limited potable water supplies. If that isn't the issue, it could be stormwater quality issues. If that doesn't get [developers], then it's wastewater treatment capacity. They need to build additional capacity, and then they get hit on the other end in terms of being able to discharge the treated effluent from the wastewater treatment plants. There are restrictions on live stream discharge. There are significant restrictions on discharges above the groundwater basins. [Water] really becomes the driver, or a stopping point, for a lot of projects these days.

BRYAN F. LYNCH, P.E.: We seem to be involved with a lot of river basins that are distressed, or stressed. The issue hasn't done anything to development except raise the price.

Engineers are in a situation where they have to come up with innovative ways to provide water treatment, stormwater recharge, and wastewater reuse, and minimize the extraction or use of any potable water or irrigation supplies.

VHB has two or three projects right now where we're not allowed to hook up to the municipal sewers that are available because it would increase the base flow in the rivers. [Regulators] are concerned about this because the base flow in the rivers is essentially all effluent from wastewater treatment plants. Regulators feel that that's not an acceptable solution in the summer—most would probably agree. It's forcing us to do a lot of in-ground disposal, on-site treatment, and water reuse, and looking at alternatives so we can reduce the water use on a particular project. It's been successful, but it's also been expensive. The cost of doing business in this state is probably going to follow the trend—it's going to be more expensive.

DRAKE: Yesterday in a keynote address, James R. Mahoney, Ph.D., former assistant secretary of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deputy administrator, and director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, said, "The prospect of climate change introduces significant risks and opportunities for land developers." If the United States experiences prolonged weather extremes—heavier precipitation events in some areas, more pronounced droughts in other areas—what changes or trends do you foresee in the design of stormwater, wastewater, potable water, and recycled water systems?

COTE: The primary focus used to be controlling wastewater because that went into the rivers and streams. It was a single media approach. A company had to have a wastewater management plan, and growth was [dependent upon] how they were handling their wastewater, which usually led to sewers. Now that's changed to integrated water resources management plans—looking at a combination of water, stormwater, and wastewater. So if you're within a specific basin, you don't want to have industrial developments over the solesource aquifer. Even if you haven't put a well in there, that's a resource that needs to be protected.

There's a move away from regional wastewater treatment plants to more localized [plants] within a specific basin—smallerpackage systems that either handle pieces of development or individual developers.

There's movement toward increased on-site recharge of stormwater to offset withdrawals of the water within the basin as part of supporting the stream base flows. So, I think there's this bigger movement away from single media to multiple media to include water, wastewater, and stormwater.

KLEIN: Things are looked at from integrated water resources solutions. We're looking at the bigger picture. In the design community, we're looking further out than just what works over the next year or two to the long-term vision for water, wastewater, and stormwater. For supply alternatives, what makes sense? A year of heavy rain or a year of drought has less impact on how we design for land development because you are looking at integrated solutions and you are looking much longer term now than in the past.

LYNCH: We're pretty much seeing the same thing. The towns we're going into are now more aware of the need to control and regulate how water is used and disposed.

The state is looking at the recharge into the river basin systems, and we're seeing that it's pretty much a standard condition now for most places. I predict that in the future, we're going to see discharge permits issued with treatment levels for stormwater.

[Water] withdrawal is going to be very limited, so it's going to force reuse. And of course, wastewater disposal is going to become a matter of water reuse to the maximum extent possible. We're going to see this change over a period of time. In probably less than 10 years we're going to see the maximum extent of regulatory changes, and then we're going to see the implementation part as projects are built.

The change period is going to come upon us more quickly than it has in the past.

DRAKE: What are the roadblocks to acceptance of sustainable development concepts such as low impact development, recycled water, and decentralized wastewater treatment?

LYNCH: The biggest obstacle is the financial impact. Things such as sustainable or low impact development don't come at a small price. From my perspective, these are owner-driven responses that have to be brought to the forefront for them. You can design to some extent, but then there's a limit [at which] you're adding cost, and you have to identify the cost to the client and at that point, [the client] has to make that decision. Some are willing to do it; some are not.

Look at the regulatory issues and ask, "How do we get through the process?" Going through the process essentially ends up being, what can you sell? For a lot of developers, it's definitely a cost premium.

Some of the clients we have want to do the right thing, it's just a matter of how much they can really invest in the project.

COTE: The problem is evident, but it's shown up before everyone is really ready for it. Today, we're paying $3 a gallon for gas, but we're still [measuring] water in thousand cubic feet. People were born and raised [thinking] that water is free. It's everywhere. Now what they're finding is that, because it's been ignored for so long, it's not a perpetual resource. What little clean water we do have we're slowly contaminating in some form or another.

It's an issue where the development community is starting to see the problem before the municipalities and regulators have developed a regulatory solution to it.

For example, with stormwater, cities or towns want curbs and gutters to collect the water and get it off [the streets], period.

That's what they require. Even if a developer wanted to go with low impact development to maximize onsite recharge, they're running into the older way of thinking—"That's not how we do it here. You don't leave water; you put it in a pipe and get it off." That has a host of problems, so even the developer who is trying to get out in front may find that some cities and towns and municipalities are not ready for it.

Municipalities are now getting with the Phase II regulations and are finding out that they have to deal with [inherited] stormwater issues. They're now looking at stormwater as a utility. The concept of having to tax anybody for anything, much less water, is almost heresy. The problems are being recognized long before the solutions are really in place.

KLEIN: On the topic of decentralized wastewater treatment: In California, the regulators definitely desire centralized treatment. From their standpoint, there are limited resources for what they need to do.

[Decentralized treatment] taxes them in terms of trying to regulate and monitor the number of reports that need to be turned in. Decentralized plants also tend to be closer to the community and neighborhoods, so there's public perception issues—potential for odors, noise, and related issues—that tend not to be very favorable to the local community.

There are similar issues on water reuse and recycled water. The biggest single issue has been public perception, closely followed by, or maybe exchanged with, the cost of the infrastructure and putting in the dual systems to be able to utilize a beneficial source of water as part of an integrated solution.

So you have public perception and cost. Developers are willing to do it, especially in California because the housing market is so strong, as long as everyone else has to do it and it allows them to be competitive with their prices for the houses.

DRAKE: In relation to these issues, what are some effective techniques for gaining approval from regulatory agencies, developers, the public, and even the engineering community for newer products and design methods?

LYNCH: We communicate the pros and cons that newer products and design methods will have on a project from an environmental perspective. We're not the salesmen for these products, and often suggest that the maker of the product make the presentation.

We want to be careful, especially on the engineering side, of being perceived as having designed this product, because we haven't. We're just buying the product off the shelf and there's a whole host of liability issues that go with having designed the product.

We make use of the innovative technologies where applicable, and we'll make the presentations to try to use the technologies in projects we think are appropriate. But, regulators have a say in this, and the owner may have an issue with cost. The presentation to regulators is really about overcoming some of the "staid" thoughts that they have on their approval process and the designs required to meet their standards.

KLEIN: The advent and greater use of membranes on the treatment side gives you better options for decentralized wastewater treatment and for some smaller footprints and easy-to-operate type systems. There are some opportunities to be a little bit more creative, but they all carry a cost and you have to look at it from a cost-benefit standpoint.

There are opportunities and constraints with each one of the applications, and sometimes the old tried-andtrue really still is the best.

COTE: Just recently, [Massachusetts] has started to upgrade some of its stormwater policies and to look at retaining some water onsite. We've been involved in rewriting some of their bylaws, which in many cases were restricting developers from implementing these technologies. We provided some design criteria for departments of public works and town engineers as to what these innovative technologies are and how they might work and be applied. So, they have something to work with the developer on, to say, "You can do these kinds of things and this is the kind of performance you would expect to get out of them." The engineering design capability is there, it's just a matter of not having it outrun what somebody is willing to pay for. Nobody wants to be quite the first out of the gate.

LYNCH: A lot of towns have regulations that prohibit some of this. [You can] convince one group, say a conservation commission, to do something, but you turn around and have to get a permit from the planning board, and the two of them contradict each other on exactly what they're going to allow. So, now you're back to what is the least controversial [design] that's going to get the project approved, because the other issue developers are faced with is, [the fact that] time is money. They can't keep dragging the approval process out.

KLEIN: The new technologies really struggle through that approval process because there's so many layers of approvals that need to take place that it sometimes becomes difficult. Developers aren't going to be patient waiting for each approving agency to do research or look into something that's being proposed. There has to be a track record to be able to implement it—show that it has worked in five previous circumstances before you're going to move forward with something that's too new.

COTE: Depending upon which state agency you deal with—in New England, they're all different—you can have something that's been used throughout the country for years, and it's a year-long process to bring that through the permitting [process] to be able to use it on one project, on one site in that state alone. And then maybe, after you have a year's performance on top of that, you might be granted a special label for permitted use, and then someone else can use it. That's a two-year time frame, and that's a lot of upfront money and a lot of effort to get people comfortable with something.

DRAKE: What led to some of these prohibitions in the first place?

LYNCH: I think a lot of it is simply what was the state-of-the-art from the 1930s and incorporated into regulations or laws in cities and towns. Some cities and towns have barely changed from clay to plastic pipe for the sewers. We're dealing with inertia on the regulatory side, not at the state level, but at the local level, which is where you have to go to get a lot of permits.

KLEIN: It's what people are comfortable with, a "what-we've-always-used" type [attitude].

When you look at water, wastewater, and stormwater—the issues, the treatment—those things haven't changed very much in terms of how you do it. The products have [changed]. So if there was a triedand- true method—something people have been comfortable with—it tends to continue. [They don't] look at some of the newer technologies or the newer materials.

COTE: If you look at the industry in terms of wastewater, in the late 1970s and early 1980s we had rivers in Ohio on fire just because of all the [pollution]. Cities and towns and everybody else were just pumping [wastewater] to the rivers, and the EPA came in and [mandated centralized treatment]. Now there's this move away from centralized systems. Most of the [decentralized systems] are still biological, it's the same stuff, but because you don't have the mandate from the EPA, essentially the higher-order regulatory driver, now it falls to the cities, the towns, and the states to learn the process and do it on a smaller scale. It's different. Now there are more "black boxes" or they're using different materials. It's the same process, it just has different controls and it takes them a while to get up to speed on that, and do it one system at a time. It won't be easy.

KLEIN: There has been a history of situations where the new technology gets implemented and then in the long term doesn't work. So people are concerned with those types of issues. The one that comes to mind is the old Techite pipe situation where that was the favorite pipe to put in. Well, then it ended up failing in numerous situations.

That's where the concern is. It may be good year one, year two, year five, but what's the long-term history and track record for it?

LYNCH: We're developing more advanced treatment techniques as time progresses. As we look at trends, we're going to find there are more and more criteria that have to be met to do certain things with water, especially if we're going to reuse water.

The state is even starting to ask the questions: What do we do with surfactants? What do we do with the medical drugs that show up in some of this stuff? These are tough questions. We have to do research to figure out the half-life of some of these drugs in water. There is almost no information on this kind of thing. But that's the stuff that's going to be asked in the future, and it has to be [asked], because as soon as you start reusing water, you have to begin to look at the contaminants, and people want to know the effect of that.

This is kind of like a self-perpetuating engine for change—as we learn more, we have to change more. It's going to start to ratchet up as we go through this process of [water] reuse. I think definitely it's here to stay because there's no going back on some of this. There's only so much water to go around and there's only a little bit of it that we can actually use.

COTE: Back in the good old days, to get your water supply you stuck a pipe in [the ground] or pulled it out of the river, and it was good, clean water. Now, you get into filtration and you have Giardia, and you have to worry about viruses. So now there's more layers of treatment. In Massachusetts, we're putting in a system for perchlorate.

Five years ago, nobody knew what the hell it was. All of a sudden, not only do you have it, it's messing up the primary water supply.

The contaminants and challenges for what has to be handled are becoming greater, and people are still trying to get in front of it.

We've actually been looking at the easy stuff. Wait until we get into the pharmaceuticals.

We can't even test for them, much less treat for them. Having more, smaller systems spread out everywhere is going to be a little unnerving for the regulators.

KLEIN: All these issues have become hot-button topics for anti-growth [advocates] because they can put them on the table and ask questions [to which] we may not have answers supported by science.


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