How to reclaim water and turn it into gold

Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource, with national water rates rising by an average of 9 percent annually.

Coupled with the billions of dollars needed for infrastructure overhauls over the next 20 years, it is likely these rates will continue to skyrocket. With stricter regulatory and environmental constraints compounding these hurdles, our economic future may depend on how we, as entrepreneurs, manage water resources today.

When was the last time you looked at how much water your organization uses? For many, the answer is never. Yet, that single first step -- analyzing consumption and patterns -- can accelerate change by saving millions of gallons of freshwater a year, along with millions of dollars. Measuring and understanding water usage paves the way for the most impactful solution: water reclamation and reuse.

While states such as California are in the process of studying water recycling for potable, or drinking, uses, non-potable reuse already is common throughout the country. Nationwide, about 2,000 communities and more than 60 major power plants use reclaimed water for cooling. In addition, hundreds of college campuses reuse graywater and stormwater for irrigation and toilet flushing.

Here are just a few numbers to think about:

• On average, 45 percent of all campus water use is for non-potable demand and can be displaced with alternative sources of clean, safe water.

• In the industrial sector, up to 75 percent of water use is for non-potable demand, including power, heating, cooling and process requirements.

Considering the millions of gallons of potable water flushed into our heating and cooling systems on a daily basis, it is time to start thinking about water as renewable, rather than as consumable. Through water reclamation, universities, businesses and other organizations can harness an untapped resource and transform what was once a waste into an asset, right on campus.

The first stage in the process is the water footprint assessment (WFA), a preliminary water balance. By breaking down overall water use for a campus, manufacturing facility or office park, the WFA helps identify potential conservation opportunities and the viability of on-site water reclamation and reuse.

After an initial WFA is performed, many organizations opt to move on to a detailed feasibility study to develop a water reclamation strategy and examine the overall economic impact of water reuse. Beyond water reclamation, this study helps lay the groundwork for a master water plan, developing near-term conservation opportunities as well as long-term water management strategies.

A unique financing arrangement called the water purchase agreement (WPA) helps qualifying entities make reclamation and reuse possible. Similar to a power purchase arrangement, a WPA is a financing vehicle used to build turn-key water reclamation systems at no capital expense to the end user. Water savings incurred by the project are used to pay off the cost of the facility over time, with the end-user receiving substantial savings beginning in the first year. A WPA can take many forms. It can be set up as a performance contract, a design-build-operate contract or even an operating lease.

Case study: A university in the southeast

A theoretical mid-size university in the southeast, located in a water-stressed urban area, may have seen rates rise dramatically over the past decade, with no end in sight. A total annual water demand of around 400 million gallons -- 38 percent of which is made up of utility process water and irrigation -- prompts the university to take forward-thinking steps to ensure a lasting, sustainable future for their campus.
 
A Sustainable WaterHub reclamation facility. Source: Sustainable WaterThrough a WPA, the university can maintain guaranteed pricing for 20 years by installing a reclamation and reuse facility on campus. The innovative ecology-based facility would satisfy nearly all of the university's non-potable demand, while allowing for growth and providing insulation from rising rates and water availability issues. The benefits extend outside the campus and into surrounding areas as the university works in partnership with community water and sewer authorities, reducing its burden and enabling for growth without increasing reliance on an overtaxed municipal system.

Water reclamation enables clear cost savings linked to discounted water rates, reduced potable water intake and reduced sewer fees. Substantial operational benefits include de-risking operations by localizing an alternative water supply source during drought and protecting against mandatory municipal water conservation programs. There are multiple environmental advantages, such as a decrease in water being diverted from ecosystems, less wastewater discharge and improved net energy efficiency resulting from treating water onsite. On campuses, student engagement is possible at all levels of the study, from awareness to possible internship opportunities.

Above all, assessing the water footprint of a campus or business provides an overall perspective, along with a customized, holistic solution, which can save millions of gallons in a way that is profitable and environmentally responsible.

Gold water drop image by Jezper via Shutterstock.