Water Treatment in the U.S.: Techniques and Technologies

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View of a water treatment plant from above.

In the United States, there are over 148,000 public water infrastructures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many of which feature deteriorating systems. Many of these systems were built in the 1970s and are now due for upgrade or replacement.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 9% of all community water services provide water for more than 257 million people. The population served is significantly higher than 10 years ago. Additionally, as our nation’s population continues to rise, there will be a growing imbalance between those in need of water and the amount of quality water available. Moreover, many regions in the U.S. with the highest population growth also suffer the greatest water stress, particularly in the country’s Southwest.

To help solve these issues, civil engineers have been treating our water with innovative techniques and technologies. They are also generating ideas and methods to improve our current water treatment infrastructure. By earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, graduates can gain the skills to make a difference in improving our water systems, and reach their professional goals.

Water Treatment Techniques

Civil engineers have long been developing innovative solutions to our growing water challenges. Through these efforts, engineers have created effective water treatment techniques to:

  • Transform murky lake water into pure, potable drinking water
  • Turn seawater or salty groundwater into drinking water
  • Treat polluted wastewater so it reaches 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 dangerous elements by applying a range of individual unit processes. The water can be purified when these processes are linked together. This process is referred to as a treatment train.

Like physical trains, treatment trains feature a series of connected components or stages. The water goes through these components and stages to become pure. While there are a variety of stages and techniques, some of the most popular are sand filtration, membrane-based separation, ion exchange, carbon-based adsorption, and disinfection treatments.

Water Treatment Technologies

As water treatment technologies continue to advance, new technologies are put into place to improve and streamline processes. New disinfection treatments have become increasingly important over the years due to the influx of waterborne pathogens that can cause illnesses. By adding oxidizing agents to water, civil engineers have uncovered an effective technique that 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 regard to health and safety, as chlorine gas is known to be highly toxic. 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 the use of ultraviolet light, ozone, hypochlorite chemicals, chloramines, and hydrogen peroxide.

Through advanced degrees and graduate work, civil engineers are able to build the in-depth knowledge and skills to not only apply new technologies but innovate new solutions in their field. With the evolution of new technologies, current water systems can become more efficient and environmentally friendly, improving the quality of water and decreasing harmful operating emissions.

America’s Current Water Infrastructure

A large majority of the country’s 148,000 water treatment facilities are in need of extensive upgrades and repairs. Yet, such upgrades often cost much more than our government is interested in investing.

For example, in 2010, the EPA released a report estimating that the United States would need to invest $91 billion to maintain and upgrade our water systems. Of that amount, only $36 billion was raised, leaving a gap of over $55 billion. In response, the EPA announced a $6.5 billion dollar investment in water infrastructure and resources that they expect will provide more than $13 billion in projects while creating over 40,000 jobs.

This infusion of funds has the potential to aid civil engineers’ ability to create innovative solutions, designs, and techniques that could help improve our nation’s water infrastructure. While it is by no means a fix, civil engineers engaged in water infrastructure projects have the opportunity to greatly improve the lives of others and begin the process of restoring America’s current water system.

Potential Problems

​​The challenges facing our water infrastructure system have noticeable effects all across the country. For example, the western portion of America 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 to support all the needs of the community including water for drinking, agriculture, and maintaining healthy water wildlife habitats.

If the gap between water infrastructure upgrades and government investment grows, the quality of our water and treatment infrastructures will suffer. This could then result in nationwide water shortages, more leaking pipes, and higher rates of waterborne illness along with increased costs for treating those diseases.

To prevent these issues from happening, it is recommended that businesses and households 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, such as using recycled water or maintaining an overall awareness of water use.

What Do Civil Engineers Do?

Civil engineers make the improvement and innovation of water treatment projects possible. Responsible for the planning, design logistics, scheduling, and oversight of projects, they are the experts who ensure projects run as smoothly as possible. With each project comes new challenges, and laws and regulations that must be followed. For civil engineers, the obligation to ensure the safety of both a project and the people constructing it falls on their shoulders.

Gaining the knowledge to oversee projects takes time. Engineers should complete an advanced degree and earn the proper accreditation before taking on project supervisory roles. Through the study of topics such as design principles and laws that enforce them, engineers gain the skills to design, plan, and manage projects, shouldering the responsibility of their safe completion.

Help Others With a Degree in Civil Engineering

Water treatment and water resources are a critical part of daily life. Access to clean, potable water is not simply a convenience, it is a fundamental right and essential to the health and wellness of every citizen.

As the U.S works to provide, improve, and repair water infrastructure resources across the country, well-educated and skilled civil engineers play a key role in the planning, development, and completion of essential projects. For those who are looking for a new and exciting career in engineering, civil engineering provides a chance to help others and contribute to our growing society.

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 through responsible and sustainable design. With its integrated, specialized, and flexible program, the online Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Ohio University can help you reach your professional goals. With the ability to specialize, you’ll be able to gain the in-depth knowledge to excel in your chosen field.

Discover more about how you can make a positive difference with a master of science in civil engineering today.

Recommended Readings

10 Ways Access to Clean Water Can Improve the World

How Technology Is Providing Solutions for Clean Water

The 4 Steps of Treating Your Community’s Water


American Society of Civil Engineers, Drinking Water

American Society of Civil Engineers, Infrastructure Report Card – Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure

Axios, “Americans have been moving where the water isn’t”

National Integrated Drought Information System, National Current Conditions

International Society for Water Solutions, Water Education & Resources

Sustainability, Overview of the Main Disinfection Processes for Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment Plants

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Civil Engineers Do

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Drinking Water Regulations

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Drinking Water Technologies

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA Announces $6.5 Billion in New Funding for Water Infrastructure Projects”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, Information about Public Water Systems

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Water Treatment