United States: 17 states rally to look beyond drought for their long-term water supply strategy

Conventional water supplies no longer come with an element of certainty for many municipal water utilities across the United States (US), and that has translated into a tide of investment in water reuse and desalination projects that have gone over US$18 billion. One of the biggest drivers behind their acceptance are the cost competitiveness and declines among the traditional water supplies, according to a research study Bluefield Research recently released.

“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,” Erin Bonney Casey, Director of Bluefield Research, said. “Utility customers are already facing higher water rates – up 25 per cent since 2012 – and the prospect of stabilised water rates is unlikely without more efficient water supply management.”

According to Bluefield Research’s cost of water analysis, conventional water supplies cost US$3.90 per 1,000 gallons (3,785 litres) of water. However, water supplies from reused water cost US$3.60 on average in the US, less than water from conventional supplies. Seawater desalination facilities in the US supply water for an average of US$5.15 for 1,000 gallons (3,785 litres) of water.

Reused water – treated wastewater that is recycled for irrigation and potable requirements – is an industry that is still gaining momentum. In the United States alone, 17 states have water reuse projects planned and in the pipeline, with total investments going over US$18 billion. California and Florida continue to lead in the area of water reuse development, but the planned additions in Georgia, Hawaii, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wyoming are indicators of adoption on a much wider basis. Bluefield Research’s database of water reuse projects has swelled from a mere 135 projects to 763 projects, underlining the industry’s potential.

In California, where 48 per cent of the planned projects are located, there is also a growing awareness that droughts come in cycles. Even when the rainy season in Sierra, Northern California, came in with a strong start, Southern California – far drier than its northern sister – still remains the centre for water reuse development in the US, and shows absolutely no sign of letting up in their chosen quest; after all, the state must continue to prepare for the next drought as the cycle continues, even if the recent drought is over.

“The fact that project development is happening in new states shows that water reuse is no longer just a drought mitigation strategy, but instead a viable option for utilities to boost water supplies,” Bonney Casey explained. “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.”

While water reuse has come out the favourite among a variety of alternative supplies, water utilities continue to elevate and explore other supply options, much like brackish water and seawater desalination. Over the last ten years, desalination costs have significantly reduced with the introduction of energy recovery devises and reverse osmosis technology, and the cost of membrane solutions have gone down more than 60 per cent when compared to thermal desalination. Unfortunately, permitting seawater desalination plants has been demonstrated to be a colossal task, and quenching interest in desalination of brackish water.

“At the end of the day, repairing aging pipes to reduce leakage is still the most cost-effective option at US$1.21 per 1,000 gallons, and one that is often overlooked as a source of water,” Bonney Casey continued. “The bottom line is that water supply concerns aren’t going away. Fortunately, a group of forward-looking utilities are taking a portfolio of solutions approach.”


Source: Bluefield Research