Interview: Kati Bell, Stantec global reuse leader
Canadian engineering giant Stantec acquired water business MWH Global for $795 million, back in 2016. Now that the dust has settled on the deal, how well is the integration of the two organisations proceeding, and as the global water reuse practice hits its stride, how could its work help to shape the water markets of the future?
Since Stantec’s takeover of MWH Global back in 2016, the integration of the two businesses has moved at a slow and steady pace, as leadership sought to bring the best and brightest of both organisations together in a mindful and constructive way. Now that connections are being made and new relationships forged, the size of the opportunity for the business in water, and particularly in the burgeoning water reuse market in North America, is beginning to emerge.
“The estimate for capital expenditure on water reuse is in the order of $11 billion to $15 billion over the next seven to 10 years, in the US, so that is a pretty significant number,” says Kati Bell, global practice leader for water reuse at Stantec, and a visiting scholar at John Hopkins School of Public Health, Maryland, US. “What we’re seeing is this shift in the mix of reuse projects. Where historically most of them have been for non-potable reuse — reuse for cooling towers, irrigation, that sort of application — now as pressures continue in the urban areas, especially where we have drought conditions on and off, we’re seeing an increased interest in moving away from purple pipe systems, to integrating that reuse into the main water supply,” Bell says.
Rise of reuse
Bell’s own career covers a lot of experience in drinking water and wastewater, including specialised work in wastewater disinfection, which “naturally rolls us into the reuse framework. The past 10 years of my career have been focused on the interaction between wastewater and drinking water,” she says. Her perspective is that, particularly in North America, there is a gradually rising acceptance within utilities and among the wider public, that recycled water will become one of the elements of a broader set of water supply solutions.
A lot of the work that Stantec’s water reuse practice is involved in, therefore, including in its collaborations with academic research institutions, is addressing wastewater derived constituents. “There is a huge body of research going on in that field right now. Wastewater derived constituents are pharmaceuticals, personal care products, endocrine disrupting compounds. The big one in the news right now is perfluorinated compounds. These are the kinds of things that we are mindful of,” Bell says.
This move toward greater acceptance of potable reuse in North America is supported by the introduction of more stringent water quality monitoring requirements across the states. This is one area where Stantec is drawing together the expertise that is embedded across the organisation, whether historically from the Stantec or MWH Global teams, to deliver an enhanced service. “One of my water clients is building a new facility, and they wanted to add a pretty sophisticated analytics laboratory as part of that. I was able to tap into our architectural group, which has specific experience in that sort of work, and so that was a big value add,” Bell explains. “The architectural group actually designs college and university laboratory facilities, and so we can tap into that, which is great, because that’s not something we in the water business do on a day-to-day basis. This is for a sophisticated drinking water treatment plant in a large urban area; and this is where we are starting to see this recognition of incorporating planned potable reuse into our drinking water supplies,” Bell adds.
Science meets finance
In another example of business integration, the global water reuse practice has been working together with Stantec’s financial experts to develop a new mechanism for industrial wastewater surcharges. “One of my clients in Tennessee added a new treatment process to be in compliance with a new permit. They have a plant that discharges into the Mississippi River, which has traditionally not required wastewater disinfection, because it has not been what we consider a recreational water. Now we have pressures that are requiring us to disinfect that water. The new process that we selected was peracetic acid,” Bell explains.
This meant that the conventional means of billing the client, an industrial surcharge based on biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), reflecting the cost of biologically treating the wastewater, was no longer appropriate. “We are making a switch from BOD to chemical oxygen demand (COD), in order to be equitable in distributing the additional treatment charges to industry, and to ensure that it’s affordable,” Bell says. The switch is potentially controversial, because it could represent a rise in cost to industry.
“In the US, many communities attract industry by providing low sewer rates. So when you have industries that have relied on those low rates for their operations, if there is an increase, it changes their bottom line. So there is a balancing act between making sure that the rates support industry, and ensuring compliance for environmental discharge,” Bell says. “It is a little bit complicated, and it has required this meeting of the minds of some biochemists and treatment people, along with the financial experts.” The next step will be for Bell and her counterpart on the financial side to present to Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the industrial stakeholders in that community.
As part of the integration of MWH Global into Stantec, expertise also flows in the other direction. In one example, a Stantec client who was designing a new building sought a system for water reuse within that building. “We have established practice groups and, as we have begun to create this connectivity of the leadership between these groups, it is beginning to trickle throughout the organisation in the day-to-day work that our staff are doing. It’s a big shift, and we’re taking it slowly, but the kind of opportunities it brings for staff are pretty exciting,” Bell says.
The other dynamic is sharing expertise across borders, and the reuse team based out of North America is working as far afield as projects in Ankara, Turkey; and in the UK. Bell, who was project manager for developing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines on reuse, is well placed to support policy work on UK reuse regulations, which are likely to be developed separately from European Union (EU) rules after Brexit. “The UK currently has no regulatory guidance on reuse, and though the UK Environment Agency (EA) recently put forward guidance on incorporating reuse into the EU Water Framework Directive on water quality, Brexit is an opportunity to tailor this specifically to fit the UK. For colleagues in the UK to have access to my knowledge gained from developing US guidelines, enables us to leapfrog some of the issues that might otherwise be stumbling blocks,” Bell says. “In the US, we have examples of reuse all the way from restrictive access irrigation up to direct potable reuse. We want to develop solutions to provide the water quality that matches the end use.”
The other big focus for Stantec’s water reuse practice is on integrating water reuse in a holistic way as part of the wider picture of water supply planning. This includes identifying alternative treatment processes, and developing big data analytics solutions that are aimed at optimising the efficiency of water operations, from managing the source water quality and watershed management, through the water treatment plant operations, to customer billing, wastewater operations, and monitoring the collection systems.
“We can start to pull all of those pieces together on a single dashboard where we have the ability to use that data for decision-support. That’s something we are looking at doing utility-wide, as opposed to focusing on a small element of the treatment process, for example,” Bell explains.
“If we have several water treatment plants in a utility, we might have the opportunity to maximise production from one of the plants, if it’s operating more efficiently, or with a higher water quality than the others.” The importance of real-time monitoring, including water quality monitoring, in water reuse, includes that it can help to reduce the volume of water held in storage (see quote above). “We’re trying to reduce the engineered storage buffer, and in order to do that we need to squeeze that response time as much possible, so that we can immediately divert water if it’s not of the right quality,” Bell explains.
In the city of Atlanta, Georgia, Stantec developed an analytics solution to predict when and where a combined sewer overflow will occur. “This gives the city hours or even days to respond proactively, either by cleaning out a blockage, or addressing another maintenance issue. That has really reduced the number of system outages, and because of the success of that programme, we have a second phase of work extending that into other parts of the utility,” Bell says. On an individual plant basis, work is going on to develop digital twin capabilities, enabling Stantec to train operators in appropriate responses to system upsets.
The water reuse practice is associated with numerous academic research institutions, including the John Hopkins School of Public Health, while Bell’s own academic research continues apace. Current areas of focus include work on the reliability of direct potable reuse treatment trains to protect public safety; and efforts to discover new treatment solutions for inland water reuse. As connectivity between Stantec’s practice leaders grows, and networks within the organisation develop, the opportunity to create more innovate responses to client’s challenges is growing all the time.
'In reuse, the size of the engineered storage buffer is of considerable concern...'
"In potable reuse, absence of the environmental buffer may shorten failure response times and potentially require more stringent effluent water quality or process monitoring goals. Ongoing research is investigating the efficacy and reliability of direct potable reuse (DPR) treatment trains to provide the same or higher level of public safety as existing drinking water treatment plants, or indirect potable reuse (IDPR). DPR treatment trains strive to replace the value of the environmental buffer with additional unit processes, and process monitoring, and yet still require engineered storage buffers. The size of the engineered storage buffer is of considerable concern because of space limitations, inability to obtain permits for reservoirs, and cost. This is required even though elimination of an environmental buffer may actually reduce risks and provide greater control over source water. For example, in January 2014, 4-methylcyclo-hexanemethanol was released into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, US, upstream from the principal intake and treatment and distribution centre, leaving 300,000 residents without access to potable water. In August 2014, the fourth largest city in Ohio, US, was without drinking water due to a cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie that released microcystin, a dangerous algal toxin, into water supplies.”
Kati Bell is water reuse global practice leader at Stantec