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Students, academics, and entrepreneurs join forces to tackle the future of water utilities

Fifth annual MIT Water Summit brings together interdisciplinary panelists to give multiple perspectives on major issues surrounding the water sector.

Turn on the faucet and it is likely that clean, drinkable water will come out; water that can be safely consumed. However, one in four cities around the world are water-stressed, and almost 97 percent of the Earth’s water is undrinkable. From the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to droughts across the country, the significance of water utility and sustainability is more prevalent than ever before.

To address the future of the water utilities, academics, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and thought leaders came together to discuss the future of water in the United States and around the world at the fifth annual MIT Water Summit on Nov. 17 and 18, hosted by the MIT Water Club. Members of the MIT Water Club moderated five panels over the two-day summit. This year’s topics ranged from the role of policy and economics on the future of water to the influence of industry and academic advances, but the overall vision was toward the future.

“My aim was to hold an event with a broad enough appeal, but a specific focus explored through different approaches, such as technology, finance and policy,” said Gualtiero Jaeger, director of the MIT Water Summit and PhD candidate in the MIT- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program. “The theme ‘water utilities of the future’ gradually developed out of our initial ideas, and we looked for speakers with relevant expertise. Here our alumni and other connections helped us immensely.” 

Finding creative solutions to challenging problems

“Creativity is part of the daily DNA of the water industry,” said keynote speaker George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water. Hawkins noted that many solutions to water problems require thinking outside the box, and cited the modernization and re-branding of DC Water to increase public awareness of their water utility. Similar creativity emerged through the interdisciplinary discussions at the MIT Water Summit.

Luis Montestruque, president and CEO of EmNet, suggested the possible overlaps between green energy and water systems. Noting the use of solar energy to power electronic street signs, he questioned whether water utilities could follow to lower the energy costs. Stephen Estes-Smargiassi '79, director of planning and sustainability at Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and an alumnus of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), served as a keynote speaker and gave the Massachusetts perspective of water and energy. In his talk, Estes-Smargiassi highlighted the significance of water as an energy source, pointing out that 31 percent of the energy needed by MWRA is renewable energy, meaning the amount of money spent purchasing energy and power has decreased. By recycling water, Massachusetts is simultaneously creating energy.

Ed McCormick, president of McCormick Strategic Water Management, cited potable reuse as one major example of creativity in the water sector during the panel on the role of economics. Potable reuse is the use of technologies to treat wastewater without putting water back into the environment and through the water cycle. McCormick acknowledged the negative perceptions people have of associating human waste with drinking water. “We replicate the water cycle with technology; we can do as good a job as nature. Those negative perceptions are changing and that’s where I see the creativity coming big time. It hasn’t quite swept to areas where you have more water than you need, but it’s certainly happening in the Southwest,” he said.

Professor Gabriella Carolini of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning suggested that there is no shortage of technological innovation, but that technological implementation is the major issue in the water sector. “Implementation is a problem that is not just financial, regulatory, technological or social; it’s a combination of all of those things, so we need to look at the implementation issue,” she said.

Current policies and regulations are also not always conducive to rapid execution of news ideas. One component to this issue is the extensive pilot period, when technologies and ideas are studied before used widely. “We pilot for so long that by the time you actually determine that something is effective, there’s a new technology that we want to pilot. What we want to do is release some of the regulations a little bit so that we can promote some of these innovative technologies that are out there” said Mary Barry, executive director of New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA).

Instead of hindering creative ideas with regulations and pilot programs, “We should be promoting innovation. That’s the only way we are going to grow and the only way we’re going to make things more efficient, both on the energy side and on the financial side,” she said.

The creation of innovative technologies and their aligning with regulatory standards are only worth so much until the general public is on board with their implementation. As Ed McCormick suggested, changing the public’s perception of an issue of new innovative solutions is critical to the success of the product and the water sector.

Communicating with the public to implement new ideas and technologies

Speakers noted that reaching the general public is a difficult task, especially with the wide variety of media outlets and fragmented audiences. “I think the media can be a great asset to us as an industry, I just don’t think water is their focus,” said Mary Barry of NEWEA. One way to reach adults is through their children, who often talk about what they learn with their parents at home, she highlighted, citing the effectiveness of marketing to children. “Talking to students in schools allows them to go home and talk with their parents about something their parents might not be thinking about, because it has always been a luxury for them to have clean water and sanitation,” Barry said.

The media is still considered a valuable method, however: “The full spectrum of media is an extremely useful tool, for even controlling outstanding systems like our own. I would say that the situation in Flint is an experience that is super important. It’s one thing to say that we have achieved amazing results in drinking water in this country, but I might suggest that we are only as good as our weakest link, and if something like that can happen in Flint, then it can happen anyplace,” said Carolini.

Communication takes many forms beyond the media as well, such as through access to data. The availability and transparency of data in the water sector was a theme that continued throughout the Water Summit. During the panel “Visions for the Future,” panelists discussed the presence of smart systems, and the observation of resulting consumer behavior changes.

Professor James Wescoat of the Department of Architecture and the MIT Tata Center spoke of staying in a hotel in Europe that displayed water meters in each room and showed how much water was used when a visitor turned on the shower or the sink. He recalled hearing fellow travelers discuss how few liters of water they used, each wanting to be lower than his counterpart. On that note, George Hawkins pointed out that when DC Water installed automatic meter readings in 2002, they noticed drops in water use. DC Water noted similar decreases when they began sending high-use notification alerts to customers, courtesy messages notifying customers of significant changes in water use, which could indicate leaking pipes.

Alexander Heil, chief economist of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, made a similar point about water usage during the panel on the role of economics, noting that without smart systems and up-to-date information of one’s water usage, there is a disconnect between how people pay for water and how they use it. “There is a discrepancy between the point of usage and the point of payment. For example, if you have a quarterly billing cycle, nobody remembers how they used water three months ago.”

The availability of data at water utility plants is crucial for the plants to troubleshoot any issues with their product. Anupam Bhargava, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at Xylem Inc., discussed this importance through disruptive sensing capabilities, one of the areas Xylam is looking into for the future. Disruptive sensing capabilities would allow water utility plants to detect issues immediately and allow them to be proactive in finding a solution. Noting that water, unlike other products commonly sold, cannot be recalled once it leaves the plant, Bhargava said that “real-time sensing capability is going to allow our customers to operate and manage their plants a lot more productively and safely.” Disruptive sensing capabilities would thus allow water utility plants to have important information at their fingertips and to avoid major public health hazards.

Collaborating to solve major issues in the water sector

Collaboration is often seen in the water sector to address major issues and find solutions. However, collaboration does not always mean centralized ownership. George Hawkins of DC Water mentioned the challenges of creating a centralized water system, because smaller municipalities prefer to maintain ownership of localized water sources. Instead, he proposed the creation of a more coordinated system on a broader scale, rather than centralized ownership.

Ed McCormick shared that he has started to see such coordination through regional partnerships between smaller utilities. “In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are nearly 60 utilities that all discharge in the San Francisco Bay, some of them are very small and others are very large. What we have seen are agreements where small utilities can connect with other utilities to purchase bulk chemicals and get the benefit of scale, that larger utilities can get,” McCormick said.  

Marcus Gay, executive director of New England Water Innovation Network, pointed out that “innovation isn’t just about new technological solutions, it’s about bringing both innovative technological solutions and market adoption together. It’s an entire process.” One way to do this is to foster collaboration between academia and the water industry markets, to create a well-researched product or plan to implement and have a real-world impact. This was brought to life by the Water Summit’s panel on “Academia to Markets.”

John Lienhard V, professor in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, noted that the best partnerships are with people who understand the need for water. “We have worked with a number of international institutions from countries that have serious water challenges. We have tried to get into these issues with them because they understand that these are not simply academic problems, but they are problems that can be translated back into the needs of their countries and societies in a way that provides water to people’s taps, that help people actually live and survive. In those cases, we have seen that the research is productive, it is viewed as important, it is supported well and it has the impact we need in both the practical and academic side,” he said.

The fifth annual Water Summit was a full house, complete with academics from MIT and neighboring schools, business leaders, thought leaders, and students. Sami Harper, a graduate student in CEE, attended the summit to find out more about how changing technology is affecting the way we get our water. “I learned a lot from the keynote addresses which shed some light on water utility operations and the future of the industry,” she said.  

Members of the MIT Water Club also benefited from the event. “The interactions with professionals beyond our academic research was immensely valuable. We received insight into the water industry and the workings of institutions and companies in the water world,” Gualtiero Jaeger said.

Sponsors for this year's Water Summit included Desalitech, Gradient Corporation, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, New England Water Innovation Network, Pepsico, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Xylem.

Originally published December 21, 2016 by Carolyn Schmitt, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for MIT News.