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Utilities Tech Outlook: The New Future of Wastewater Management

“Event Horizon:  The New Future of Wastewater Operations”

Over the past 30 years, just as environmental oversight has impacted most other industries, so too has it affected the wastewater industry.  With increased regulatory oversight and aggressive environmental mediation, both federal and state agencies have elevated the need for both treatment effectiveness and operator competency.  As an operator working in the state of Georgia for the past 14 years at all levels from trainee to executive management, I have seen a marked increase in the need for more efficient and effective technology to meet today’s demands, but a decline in available certified operators.  

An emerging business model many municipalities are transitioning to is the public-private partnership of wastewater operations as either full operations or supplementary consulting services. The latter being only on a certification compliance basis under the pretense of providing a consulting service to municipal employees who operate day-to-day.  Having worked for municipalities to my now current private employer, EOM Operations, I have seen both sides of the wastewater business model. The capabilities of private companies are essential for the success of many small and medium-sized municipal markets faced with more stringent permit limits as they approach renewal cycles. Larger markets have also found that the reduction of human resource liability and ease of budgeting has made outsourcing a very attractive option.

The capabilities of private companies are essential for the success of many small and medium-sized municipal markets faced with more stringent permit limits as they approach renewal cycles

Operationally, our company has found significant success in approaching challenges faced in the industry by developing and cross-training talent in order to competently assist in all managed facilities. The result has been the reduction of the operational knowledge gap and the creation of an environment predicated on a holistic approach to wastewater treatment rather than the typical compartmentalized approach adopted by many municipalities. In essence, presenting a much more efficient solution to wastewater operations. 

Why is this the case? Over the years, we have observed that the compartmentalized approach typically used in the industry today tends to limit the knowledge available to only a single operator, or a small few, which creates a greater potential for non-compliance, operational failure, and increased cost via shortened plant asset life. Each wastewater treatment plant, while similar in process basics, will inevitably have vastly different mechanical components, an array of technology, SCADA controls, influent quality and concentrations, and effluent parameters, causing a massive learning curve even for seasoned operators. As administrative bodies use Federally backed testing programs such as the Unregulated Contaminate Monitoring Rule 4 (UCMR4) to establish recommendations for benchmark limitations on new potential contaminates, the compliance landscape of wastewater treatment will likely not only become more expansive and complicated, but it will also require a qualified workforce that’s operationally prepared to navigate these new challenges.   

Municipalities embarking on new permit cycles and more stringent environmental parameters have to plan for a more aggressive approach to continued training that’s focused on diversifying their operational knowledge. This alone will be imperative to the long term success of both the private sector and the overall growth of the new age of professional operators. Municipalities are responding to the industry demands through private partnerships better preparing them for a future that looks bright for not only the wastewater industry but the environment as a whole.