Treating America’s Water Supply
In the United States, there are approximately 170,000 public water infrastructures, many of which feature poor or deteriorating systems. Many of these systems were build in the 1970s and are now due for upgrade or replacement. 54,000 of these infrastructures serve more than 264 million people as community water systems. The population served is significantly higher than 10 years ago, and as our nation’s population continues to rise, there will continue to be an unstable balance between those in need of water and the amount of quality water available. In addition, many regions in the U.S. with the highest population growth also suffer the greatest water stress like California, the Southwest, and Florida.
To help solve this issue, civil engineers have been treating our water with innovative techniques and technologies, as well as generating ideas and methods on ways to improve our current water treatment infrastructure.
Treatment techniques and technologies
Civil engineers have long been developing innovative solutions to our growing water conundrum. Through these efforts, engineers have created effective techniques to:
- Transform murky lake water into pure, potable drinking water
- Turn sea water or salty ground water into drinking water
- Treat polluted wastewater so they reach the level of purity necessary for waterways or reuse
Engineers generally treat water through a variety of physical, chemical, and biological methods. When first treating raw or polluted water, engineers remove individual dangerous elements from the water through individual unit processes. The water can be purified when these processes are linked together, referred to as a treatment train.
Like physical trains, treatment trains feature a series of connected components or stages that water goes through in order to become pure. While there are a myriad of stages and techniques, some of the most popular are sand filtration, membrane-based separation, ion exchange, carbon-based adsorption, and disinfection treatments.
New disinfection treatments have become increasingly important over the years due to the influx of illnesses caused by waterborne pathogens. By adding oxidizing agents to water, civil engineers have uncovered an effective technique which destroys many of these pathogens.
Formerly, these oxidation agents were chlorine-based, which proved to be both efficient and effective. Yet, this method was soon found to be risky in regards to health and safety, as chlorine gas is known to be highly toxic and poses a terrorism threat. In addition, the use of chlorine can form carcinogenic disinfection byproducts. To solve these problems, engineers have implemented alternative methods for disinfection, some of which include ultraviolet light, ozone, hypochlorite chemicals, chloramines, and hydrogen peroxide.
America’s current water infrastructure
A large majority of the country’s 170,000 water treatment facilities are in need of extensive upgrades and repairs. Yet, such upgrades often cost well beyond what our government is interested in investing.
For example, in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report estimating that the United States would need to invest $91 billion in order to maintain and upgrade our water systems. Of that amount, only $36 billion was raised, leaving a gap of over $55 billion.
This lack of funds has the potential to hinder civil engineers’ ability to create innovative solutions, designs, or techniques that could help improve our water infrastructure.
This budget shortfall has had increasingly noticeable effects all across the country. For example, the western portion of America – California, in particular – is currently dealing with both a population influx and drought. This places immense pressure on individuals and families, as many cities don’t have enough quality water available to support all the needs of the community including drinking water, agriculture, and maintaining healthy water bodies for wildlife.
If the gap between water infrastructure upgrades and government investment continues to grow, the quality of our water and treatment infrastructures will suffer. This could then result in nation-wide water shortages, more leaking pipes, and higher rates of water-borne illness.
Furthermore, if our government investment continues to fall short, businesses and families will face an increasing financial burden having to implement their own technologies or paying for medical bills relating to water-borne diseases. The ASCE estimates that by 2020, the overall cost of under-developed water infrastructures to businesses could be $147 billion, while the cost for those with houses could be $59 billion.
In efforts for prevention, businesses and households are recommended to utilize sustainable methods for water production and use, including water regulations, awareness of water usage, and the implementation of sustainable technologies like water-recycling systems.
As a whole, America’s water treatment infrastructure is in need of massive improvements. Although many of these improvements will need to be financed by the government, there are a variety of innovative techniques that engineers are currently utilizing to sustain and recycle our current water supply. Furthermore, our population as a whole can improve the state of our water supply by practicing sustainable methods of water use, such as using recycled water to water lawns or maintaining an overall awareness of water use.
For more than a century, Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has been teaching engineers how to create for good – how to engineer a better future with responsible and sustainable design. Learn more about our online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program and master how to effectively supervise, plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructures essential to connect the modern world.