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Shifting Populations Demand New Innovative Water Systems for the Future

Written by Janette F. Kennedy

owc5.26A new trend is emerging in the United States. From 2010-2015 the United States has seen a continued shift in migration—rural to urban. Rural population growth from net migration peaked in 2006, and then began to decline quickly as it shifted geographically in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, energy sector developments, and other factors. While hundreds of individual rural counties have lost population over the years, this is the first recorded period of overall population decline.

Population growth is a direct determinant of increases in water demand for domestic uses. Change in the geographic distribution of population modifies the spatial pattern of demand for water resources. Problems are especially acute when urban growth is based on the migration of rural unemployed poor rather than on organic economic growth. This state of flux provides opportunities to rethink the way that water resources are addressed and infrastructure developed or modified to meet the decline in rural America along with the growing demand in urban cities.

Infrastructure improvements often cost more, per job generated, in rural areas than in urban areas because rural areas lack economies of scale. Rural towns whose aging water systems once served many may now serve few thus requiring smaller, more efficient and less costly systems. As the planning for improvements occur, the economics of water need to be considered particularly in regards to managing water for green growth, cost, adaption to climate change, and water security.

Breakthrough products and technologies are needed to tackle these pressing challenges, such as reducing environmental footprints, using less and cleaner energy, and decreasing water usage and waste generation. Many of these new technologies are promising to transform wastewater into a resource for energy generation and/or resource recovery while at the same time supplying a source of drinking water all at a smaller portable scale. “There is an urgent technological need for wastewater systems that are more compact, so that new plants can be built in urban areas where land is scarce and for upgrading and expanding extant facilities,” says Dr. David Lloyd Owen, an advisor to the board of Bluewater Bio, a specialist in wastewater treatment. Communities have begun to look for solutions on the local scale and realize that a pull out from the traditional system might be beneficial by leading them to focus on alternative energy and autonomous systems.

These new systems are often at the scale of households, communities, and industry clusters. For instance, Micronic Technologies, a rather new R&D company, has patented a portable technology, MicroDesal™, that can clean even the most putrid of water to potable standards, in one pass without using filters, chemicals, or membranes with a smaller footprint than current systems.  For financially strapped rural communities with dwindling populations and an aging inefficient infrastructure, a small MicroDesal™ purification unit could be retrofitted to existing utilities to treat a small percentage of the contaminated water via a side steam that, once it is ultra clean, could be introduced back into the existing system to help meet Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) levels before discharge. This strategy offers a much lower cost than upgrading the current infrastructure or installing a whole new system.  The same strategy could be used for urban cities that are over stressed due to a growing population.  Others are introducing modular hybrid activated sludge digesters that are now removing nutrients to be used as fertilizers and are, in turn, driving down the energy required for treatment by up to half.

Flexibility in design, usage, and implementation; as well as scalability, will dictate which innovative water technologies move forward. A broad range of factors will influence the future of rural and urban water, with water scarcity and the need for efficient systems being the most influential. Local communities will increasingly need to focus on local water sourcing, reuse, and recycling in order to sustain their population. Just like humans, those technologies that can multitask will be deemed more valuable and efficient seeing their way to the future.

Janette F. Kennedy

Janette Kennedy serves as Senior Environmental Analyst with Micronic Technologies, Inc. located in Southwest Virginia. Her experience in water regulation and compliance began in 2011 as an Environmental Compliance Assistant in the Coal Industry. She holds a Masters degree in Environmental Law and Policy from the Vermont Law School of South Royalton, VT. She also holds an undergraduate degree in Acquisition and Contract Management. She currently sits on the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board as a Governor appointed at large member. Janette is also a publicly elected Director to the Lonesome Pine Soil and Water Conservation Board. Janette is currently working with state and local agencies on several pilot projects in the area of Acid Mine Drainage, Slaughterhouse Wastewater, and Utility Wastewater Management. Janette resides in Wise, Virginia.

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