Shedding light on the state of U.S. water infrastructure

 

From filling up the bathtub to boiling a pot of water to watering the plants, we rely on a ton of water for our daily needs and activities. 

And because water utilities like Aqua work so hard behind the scenes to make it seamless, it can be easy to take Earth’s most essential resource for granted. However, there’s a lot more that goes into our steady and reliable water supply than meets the eye. In fact, sometimes you have to go hundreds of feet underground to see it. 

The intricacies of water infrastructure tend to be out of sight and out of mind for many of us, and we wanted to shed a bit of light on the state of all those systems. So, we talked with Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin to get the scoop on the state of water infrastructure systems across the United States. 


Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin (left), employees and board members tour an Aqua facility in Illinois.

You mentioned water infrastructure. What does that look like?

First, let’s go back in time to the beginning of the 20thcentury, which is when the U.S. started laying miles and miles of pipelines deep within the Earth (one million miles, to be exact). These are the pipes that collect water from the ground and surface sources and transport it all the way to your tap. 

The good news is that underground water pipes last up to 100 years, so this infrastructure has provided us with reliable drinking water throughout the past century. The bad news, though, is that a lot of time has passed and those pipes desperately need to be replaced. 

How desperately? 

Well, every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the current status of water and wastewater infrastructure across the nation. Let’s just say it wasn’t a report card you’d want to bring home to mom and dad. (Spoiler alert: the United States got a D). 

Here’s the thing: we are facing a very serious water quality challenge in the U.S. due to aging water systems, stringent drinking water and wastewater regulations, and budgetary constraints. The time to take action is now.

Tell me more about this dilemma…

According to Franklin, many aging water systems are falling behind because it’s simply too pricey for communities to upgrade or replace all those old, deteriorating pipelines. And we’re talking big bucks: according to the American Water Works Association, we need about $1 trillion over the next 20 years to get water infrastructure to where it should be. 

Most of the country’s water systems are municipally managed, and the truth of the matter is that municipalities having competing priorities for funds to improve and replace the pipes. They have to prioritize water projects with other needs like schools, police and fire departments, roadways, and bridges, which can be rather tricky. However, prolonging investment in water infrastructure improvements can have serious consequences on the safety and quality of our drinking water over time. 

“Although the challenge to the U.S. water infrastructure is less visible than other infrastructure concerns, it’s no less important,” Franklin reminds us.  


Pipes, pipes, and more pipes: Looks like infrastructure! 

What about Aqua’s water? 

“Since Aqua’s only focus is on water, Aqua customers can feel confident that we are actively updating and upgrading infrastructure to meet the needs of their families and communities,” Franklin says. 

This means new pipes, efficient treatments from the source through the plant, and sturdy storage tanks for all. Additionally, Franklin assures us that because investment in water infrastructure is a key pillar of Aqua’s business strategy, Aqua customers can continue to expect clean, safe, and reliable drinking water and wastewater services

Back to the infrastructure dilemma. There has to be a solution, right?

Thankfully, yes, and that’s where Aqua comes into play. Over the past several decades, Aqua has teamed up with and acquired many municipal and private water companies that are struggling to keep up with their water and wastewater systems and injected some much-needed capital into their aging water systems. 

Plus, when Aqua makes these infrastructure improvements, cost-effectiveness is always kept in mind. That means that we take measures like purchasing pipes in bulk and using scientific approaches to tracking main break history, pipe age and more to ensure that rate increases are kept to a minimum for the benefit of our customers.  

 Our board looks forward to any opportunity to learn more about Aqua’s infrastructure systems.

In just 2017 alone, Aqua invested a ton of money (as in more than $450 million) in water and wastewater infrastructure, and since 2007, Aqua has acquired (and drastically improved) 174 water and wastewater systems. Looking forward, you can expect Aqua to play a leading role in fixing up many of these deteriorating water systems. 

“Aqua is committed to renewing and improving water and wastewater infrastructure through thoughtful and continuous capital investment,” Franklin adds.

 The next time you take a sip of water or wash your hands in the sink, try to remember all the hard-working Aqua team members that are dedicated every day to bring you clean and safe water. See you back here next month, where we’ll reveal the best kept secret to safe, reliable drinking water.  

 

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Breaking Down the (Dirty) Details on Wastewater Treatment

Between showering, cooking, doing a load of laundry and washing the dishes, we go through a lot of water. In fact, a typical family produces approximately 200 gallons of wastewater each and every day. 

In addition to the municipal wastewater that comes from our homes, restaurants, and commercial businesses, there’s also industrial wastewater from factories. Long story short: there’s a ton of used, dirty water in the world, and it all has to go somewhere.

Because most of that wastewater ultimately ends up back in local rivers or streams, there are a few steps Aqua takes to make sure it is impeccably clean before it gets there.

We spoke with Tom Bruns, president of Aqua Indiana, to learn exactly what those steps are.

Okay, I just flushed the toilet. Now what?

The second you flush (or drain, or pour, or rinse), the used wastewater shoots down a pipe, merges with other people’s sewage and flows off to a treatment plant for some intensive cleaning. 

First up is the screening process. Because solid objects, such as money, jewelry, toys, personal hygiene products and wipes might accidentally make their way into our wastewater, it’s important to first filter out these items so they don’t clog up the treatment system. Note: While some wipes call themselves “flushable,” they cause all sorts of problems in wastewater collection systems, so throw them in the trash instead of flushing.

After the initial screening, it’s time for gravity to do some of the heavy lifting. Cue primary clarification. During clarification, heavier materials (think: toilet paper) sink to the bottom of the tanks, while lighter ones (like the leftover oil and grease from last night’s dinner) float to the top. All of that gunk is then skimmed out. 

Is that it for the gunk?

We’re glad you asked. Because most of that gunk, like feces, bodily fluids and foods, will not settle on its own, microscopic organisms are introduced into the mix to help break down organic material. 

During this process, which we refer to as biological treatment, the microscopic organisms consume the waste (yum!) and transform it into solid particles that are captured through a round of final clarification and removed from the tank once and for all. 

Just because the sludge and gunk is gone, though, does not mean that the water is squeaky clean. In fact, if the water were to re-enter our world at this point, a lot of people would end up very sick. The water must first be disinfected with the help of ultraviolet light, which is beamed onto the water to sterilize and eliminate any remaining disease-causing organisms.

After all that, it’s time to discharge the final product. Most of the treated water is fed back into local rivers or streams. In areas of the country where water supplies are limited, this treated effluent water is often used to irrigate parks or golf courses. How’s that for a little something to think about next time you find yourself admiring the greens on hole nine?

Why do we do all of this, anyway?

Sure, it may seem like a lot of effort to put into something as undesirable as wastewater, but it’s something we have to do, especially if we don’t want to be living in our own filth. More importantly, though, we treat wastewater in order to prevent pollution, protect our health, protect wildlife and, of course, protect our environment.

Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of the ways in which Aqua treats different types of water, we’re ready to go green and figure out exactly how Aqua stays sustainable and eco-friendly throughout the year. See you back here next month where we’ll celebrate Earth Day and all the ways in which Aqua does its part for the environment.

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Mossy Madness! Our DIY Guide to the Ultimate Marimo Aquarium

It’s February, and, for a lot of us, there isn’t much green to go around. While we still have to wait a few more months for vibrant greens outside to bloom, we have a solution for your mid-winter viridescent cravings.

Last year, around this time, we taught you about DIY terrariums. This year we have something even more unique in store. Marimo moss balls have a cultural significance in countries in the Northern Hemisphere, most notably in Scotland, Iceland, Estonia and Japan. The term “marimo” originates from Japan, combining the prefix “mari” (meaning “ball”) and the suffix “mo” (meaning “water plant”) to give you, quite literally, “water plant ball.”

While this water plant ball is often referred to as a moss ball, it is actually made of algae and grows naturally in ponds and lakes in many northern countries. The balls are now domesticated for consumer use, and they are a great way to fight off winter blues and brighten up your home.

Here is a step-by-step guide to help you set up your own marimo aquarium:

What you’ll need:

  • Clear bowl or container of any size
  • Water
  • Pebbles, rocks, sea glass or decorative items of your choosing
  • Additional aquarium decorations (optional)
  • Marimo (which you can buy on Amazon, Ebay or from individual merchants)

What to do:

  1. Clean your bowl and container and place it on your work area.
  2. Take your choice of assorted gravel and spread evenly on the bottom of the container.
  3. Place your marimo into the container and fill with cool (70 degrees Fahrenheit or lower) water.
  4. Add your decorations, and voilà—your marimo aquarium is complete!

Tips to keep your marimo healthy:

  • If you use tap water to fill up your marimo’s tank, be careful of the chlorine content, as a high level of chlorine could make your marimo sick.
  • Marimo aren’t used to sunlight, so keep them away from the window to avoid burning them.
  • Marimo need their water to be changed every few weeks, so be sure to give them the fresh water they need.

Remember to have fun with your marimo! You can put them in containers of all sizes, from jars that are the size of a necklace, like the above photo, to the size of a standard goldfish bowl. It’s up to you to personalize your marimo’s home.

Let us know how your aquarium turns out! Tag us on Facebook or Twitter with pictures of your very own DIY marimo habitat. 

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Digging Deep into Groundwater Treatment

Welcome back to Aquastructure, our year-long blog series where we help you, loyal water user, become a real-life expert on all things H2O. We’re going behind the scenes of Aqua’s daily operations to break down all the complicated systems that work together to bring you clean, refreshing water each and every day.

Last month, we learned all about surface water and the treatment process that goes into making water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs clean and crisp. This month, we’ll tackle groundwater and learn a bit about how that water becomes something we actually can put into our bodies.

We turned to Alissa Vanim, manager of environmental compliance at Aqua New Jersey and Joe Mingle, director of operations at Aqua New Jersey, to get the 411 on groundwater treatment.

So what makes groundwater special?

Let’s start with the most obvious fact: groundwater comes from—drum roll, please—the ground. Deep within the earth, there are underground wells that collect buckets beyond buckets of water from aquifers, which are layers of rock and soil that transmit water. Those aquifers contain water from a mix of natural sources, such as precipitation (like rain or snow) and nearby rivers and streams.

But that well water isn’t as drinkable as we’d like—it’s been hanging out in the dark hundreds of feet below the ground, after all.  

Okay, but how does the groundwater leave the ground?

After a while, those wells fill up, and it’s time for all that groundwater to see the light of day. So off it goes to a treatment plant, where the water undergoes various treatment processes depending on its quality. This may include a bit of the ion-exchange process. The ion-exchange process sounds super complicated, but it’s really just a mix of positively and negatively charged ions doing some black magic to remove contaminants such as nitrate, fluoride, sulfate and arsenic.

Is that all?

Of course not—that’d be too easy. There are also activated-carbon contactors that absorb other chemicals that don’t belong in our drinking water. This improves the taste of the water and removes odors as well.

Sometimes nuisance metals, like iron or manganese, seep into the water, so that’s where sequestration comes in. This process makes sure the water isn’t discolored or metallic.

Lastly, there’s aeration, which raises the pH levels and removes CO2 gases from the groundwater. All in all, this pre-treatment process is just a necessary step we have to take to remove a ton of harmful pollutants from our water. 

Is the next stop chlorination?

Back in the day, waterborne diseases wreaked havoc on society. But thanks to chlorination, all those harmful bacteria and viruses (think: salmonella, E-Coli, Coliform, Legionella and fecal coliform) get destroyed so we can go on living happy, healthy, hydrated lives.

Once all that water has been chlorinated, it moves on to post-treatment. Here, green sand filters pull out any additional iron manganese and hydrogen sulfide to achieve optimal water quality. Finally, post-treatment chlorination is added as the last process before delivery.

Can I get the water now?

Now that the water is clean, it’s time to send it off to you, the water customers of the world. If the water is not immediately needed, it is transported into large, elevated storage tanks. From there, all that safe, drinkable water gets distributed to you via underground pipes so that you can drink it, cook with it, wash with it or flush it away to your heart’s desire.

Ta-da! That’s all for groundwater treatment, folks. Join us next month, where we’ll provide all of the (dirty) details on wastewater. 

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Winter is Freezing—But Your Pipes Don’t Have to Be

As we all know, winter is here, and that means it’s cold outside. While you can keep yourself warm by throwing on another jacket or blanket, it’s important to remember that your pipes don’t have the same option. The water inside them can freeze and expand, causing major problems throughout the winter season.

Want to avoid that nightmare? We want to help you do so. We’ve recruited the help of our old friends Fred Wags and Felicia Fluff to help teach you the steps you can take to prevent frozen pipes.  

Step One: Thaw

If your pipes are starting to freeze, follow Fred’s lead and grab a hair dryer. Hold it about six inches away from the frozen area of the pipe, and move it back and forth to thaw out the pipes and get your water flowing again.

Step Two: Insulate 

Fred and Felicia are keeping warm, but that’s because they have fur. Pipes don’t have jackets or fur, so insulation is the next best thing! If you’re unsure about how to insulate your pipes, check out this video by the U.S. Department of Energy. Make sure you follow the step-by-step instructions to insulate the pipes in the cold areas of your house so you don’t have to worry about breaking out the hair dryer again.

Step Three: Open Doors

While we aren’t telling you to keep any major entry or exit points open, there are a few doors in your house that should stay ajar this winter season. Any cabinet doors underneath a sink should be left open to allow hot air to flow in and warm up the pipes. Just make sure Fred and Felicia don’t get their paws on anything they shouldn’t!

Step Four: Remove Hoses

Before it gets too cold, make sure to go outside and pack your hoses away for the winter. It sounds simple, but this quick action will keep hoses from getting exposed to the elements, freezing or getting damaged over the winter months.

Step Five: Keep Water Running

Felicia and Fred are thirsty little creatures, and if you want to keep them hydrated, listen up. Make sure to keep the water source furthest away from your heater running with a small stream if the temperature outside gets below 10 degrees. Moving water doesn’t freeze, so this trick will ensure that your pipes don’t, either.

Step Six: Eliminate Drafts 

If you want to keep Fred, Felicia and your pipes warm, it’s important to eliminate any drafts you have coming into your house. Your pets will be happier, and you will be too. If you’re not quite sure how to fix drafts, this guide from This Old House should send you in the right direction.

Thanks for taking the time to learn about ways to prevent your pipes from freezing this winter season. Fred and Felicia are feeling confident the pipes won't freeze this winter, and you should too.

Stay warm, and stay safe!

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