The overall amount of water on our planet has remained the same for two billion years.
Of all the water on Earth, only 2.5% is fresh water, the rest is salty oceans. Rivers and reservoirs make up only 1.2% of all fresh water, the other 98.8% is stored as permafrost and groundwater. Recycling water is critical to meet the high demand for use by individuals, communities and industry. The Earth, water quality professionals and you are all part of the process — find out how:
The water cycle — the ultimate recycling process.
You may not know it, but water is continuously recycled and reused through the Earth’s natural water cycle.
Think about the water we use every day to wash dishes, do laundry, take showers and flush toilets. That water comes from the ground and community reservoirs. It is supplied to our homes through underground municipal pipelines. Once we use it, the dirty water goes into a town’s wastewater system where it’s filtered and cleaned, and finally returned to the environment for future use.
The water we use is part of the natural water cycle. The sun evaporates rivers, streams and oceans into vapor that eventually becomes clouds. The water returns to the Earth in the form of precipitation such as rain and snow to replenish our waterways and environment. The stream trickling down a mountain, for example, will flow into the ocean and continue through Earth’s amazing natural water cycle.
All of the water that the planet is ever going to have is already here, so it makes sense to protect it and keep it clean so we can use it again.
What happens to water once it goes down the drain?
It goes back into the oceans and waterways, but not before it’s cleaned up!
Water leaves your house through a sewer pipe and travels to your town’s wastewater treatment plant. There, the wastewater is filtered to remove heavy material and allow solids to settle. The grit is hauled away, but the water moves into a primary settling tank to separate solids and sludge, then to an aeration tank where oxygen and good bacteria help clean the wastewater. After more settling and filtering, the water is disinfected then discharged back into oceans, rivers or groundwater replenishing systems.
Wastewater operators have an important job to make sure we’re putting clean water back into the environment. Their jobs include working in the field to maintain collection systems, monitoring bacteria levels in a lab, and using different technologies in wastewater treatment plants. The work they do helps protect our environment every day!
Wastewater systems – including miles of pipeline that carry water to and from treatment plants – are supported and owned by end users. This valuable infrastructure helps make our lives easier and safer by taking dirty water away from ours home and cleaning it up for future use.
Let’s talk trash.
The overall amount of water on our planet has remained the same for two billion years. Our job is to help keep it clean by being careful about what we’re putting down the drain, and ultimately putting into the natural water cycle. Be sure that the only thing you flush down the toilet is toilet paper. Two culprits that clog drains and pipes and burden the wastewater system are trash and chemicals.
Baby wipes, dental floss, hair – anything except toilet paper – doesn’t break down, and can even join together to clog pipes and damage equipment. A broken wastewater pump could result in backups and overflow into homes and the environment, and higher maintenance costs for end users.
Chemicals too dangerous to put down the drain include pharmaceuticals and agricultural pesticides. Old medication flushed down the toilet could mix with water and pass through wastewater filtration systems — ending up in oceans, rivers and groundwater. The safest way to get rid of unused medication is find a local medication take-back program.
Pesticides applied to your lawn or garden are made from harsh chemicals that contaminate groundwater that could reach our drinking water supply. Runoff could eventually end up in the rivers, streams and oceans. Minimize the chemicals you release into the environment by avoiding potent weed killers and fertilizers.
Being mindful about what goes down your drain could help ensure that there is clean water for the next billion years.
Water infrastructure is more than managing sewers and storm drains — it’s big business, especially for John Sullivan, Boston Water and Sewer Commission Chief Engineer. Here’s how his work affects 660,000 residents, the natural water cycle, and future generations
Early in his career John Sullivan, chief engineer of Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), discovered the challenges of water delivery and sewer collection systems. When he joined Boston’s Water Division in 1972, water leakage from the old water distribution system was “tremendous” at more than 50 percent. When he became director of engineering for the newly established water and sewer commission five years later, the sewer system was discharging more than 14 million gallons per day of raw sewage into the Boston Harbor.
In the face of that challenge, he recognized opportunity: a “green job” where he could learn, grow, and help make things right for the city – and the environment.
“We were a modern city, yet some of the problems we had didn’t reflect that,” Mr. Sullivan recalls. “We needed to undertake major capital improvements.”
One of the first projects was to upsize an interceptor that ran along the east side of Boston – a pipe dating to 1874. It was rebuilt in sections from the city’s North End to Columbus Park in South Boston, where the system ties into the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA). (MWRA provides all treatment of water and wastewater for 61 communities in and around Boston, and communities in the western part of the state.)
In 1988, Mr. Sullivan became chief engineer, responsible for overseeing maintenance and engineering, planning and design, and construction. One of his key strategic initiatives was to shift from treating immediate problems with quick fixes to finding total solutions to prevent problems in the first place. Understanding the financial cost of that, Mr. Sullivan complemented his engineering degree with a master of business administration (MBA) from Northeastern University.
“I wanted to be sure that I understood the business end because it’s not all about engineering; it’s about running a business. You’ve got to understand how to get the money to build the product that will deliver the service.”
The MBA also helped him better understand how to lead the organization and be ready for change, which soon came from massive rainstorms in 1996 and 1998.
“We hadn’t seen rainfall and inundation like that since the mid-1950s when the city felt the impact from several hurricanes,” he recalls.
A subsequent master’s degree – this time in emergency management – provided Mr. Sullivan with additional insight to build systems to coordinate emergency response among institutions, the business community, and city and state agencies, and laid the early groundwork for climate adaptation planning. “To operate utilities, you have to totally understand the interconnections between what you do and what everyone else does in an emergency situation to take care of people and recover systems,” Mr. Sullivan explains. “It’s a balancing act.”
Mr. Sullivan’s accomplishments are proof that his holistic approach has worked. By the mid-1990s, the BWSC interceptor system was upgraded, and in December 2015 it completed its combined sewer overflow (CSO) plan that has positively affected the cleanliness of Boston Harbor and local watersheds. And even though the water system is one of the oldest in the country (it still operates pipes dating to 1848), it has the lowest number of water-main-break interruptions of any major U.S. city, he says. For the past 10 years, in fact, water leakage has been just 8 percent.
“Since the commission encompasses both water and sewer, we’re able to do full utility reconstruction instead of looking at it as just a drainage problem or just a sewer problem,” Sullivan notes. “Our work also drives gas, electric, and telecommunications. We can collaborate with other utilities to renew everything so that we disrupt people’s lives for a year, but then we don’t bother them again for another 80 to 100 years.”
His ultimate goal is to help people better understand and value both drinking water and wastewater as part of the natural water cycle. “There is a total water solution in everything we do.”
In 2010, BWSC conducted a major assessment of the water system; a risk number has been assigned to every water pipe in the city to help determine when it will need repair, and 95 percent of the system has been replaced or rehabilitated with cement mortar lining. A similar 10-year assessment plan will determine the internal conditions of the sewer system. Currently, eight rain gauges monitor water levels in various sewers during rain events to help identity problems with sanitary sewer overflows in the collection system.
“This kind of total asset management is important to allocate long-term spending and avoid emergencies that would cause a major rate increase and rate shock for customers,” Mr. Sullivan says.
Avoiding leaks of clean drinking water into the sewer system reduces maintenance costs to treat water that is not dirty. Fixing water leaks also prevents possible damage to other underground utilities. From a sustainability perspective, successful water management maintains water supply in a drought – a major advantage as some areas of the country face water scarcity. (According to Mr. Sullivan, the city of Boston has enough water to sustain its population for four years in a drought.)
Mr. Sullivan’s knowledge has helped establish him as a national expert of water and sewer infrastructure. But he credits much of his success to people.
He originally joined Boston’s Water Division at the urging of his father, who was then chief engineer. (His grandfather served in the role from 1911 to 1962.) When the water and sewer commission was formed, Mr. Sullivan says he realized that he needed a better understanding of complex sewer systems.
“I learned early to ask lots of questions to people who know the answers that I don’t,” he says. “But you can’t just cold call people; you need to develop relationships first, then the help will come rolling in.”
He joined NEWEA in 1979, intent on building relationships with state regulators and industry experts. Conferences provided a venue to share problems and explore potential solutions. “These are the people you can count on to help you out.”
He serves on the MWRA advisory board as well as the boards of the National Water Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), and the Water Research Foundation. He is commissioner for the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC) and past president of New England Water Works Association (NEWWA).
“None of us truly have the capability to solve all of the problems we face every day,” he says of building a network. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to make sure you delegate; tap the best talents of those around you to help solve problems. It’s not about getting the fame for yourself; it’s about trying to get the problem solved for the people you serve.”
As a leader, Mr. Sullivan is committed to encouraging BWSC staff to reach their potential.
“Several people have become national leaders because we urge them to take courses and develop their strengths. Managers need to identify people’s talent – even if it causes them to leave the company.”
Water for the future.
Water and wastewater organizations create a tight-knit group of people working toward a common goal: preserving the water supply for future generations.
(Read about Mr. Sullivan’s advice on keeping pipeline systems in good condition to protect the environment and ensure clean water for the future.)
Issues in the United States include major population growth and legislation that affect big cities. “The good news is that the big cities generally find the funds to take care of the problems,” Mr. Sullivan says. “But mid-size and smaller cities are at risk for crisis because they don’t have the population and rate base.”
Lack of capital and asset management caused major public water supply issues in Flint, Michigan, he says. In February 2016, Mr. Sullivan was tapped by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to help Flint city officials identify the problem and offer potential solutions. He traveled to the city to share reports on Boston’s infrastructure and operating procedures.
According to Mr. Sullivan, “the decision to use an untested water supply, combined with a water treatment problem in a plant with inexperienced operators, led to tainted drinking water distribution to Flint residents. It was a series of administrative and management failures.”
(Learn more about Mr. Sullivan’s experience with the Flint water crisis.)
Many cities in the United States have followed Boston’s lead on remote metering; water usage data is sent to BWSC staff to review and flag issues, and is available online for customers to monitor usage.
Internationally, Mr. Sullivan also works with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to address population growth, climate change, and deterioration of urban infrastructure systems. “How will we take care of two million people moving from an area because it’s dried up or flooded? How do we prepare to bring them to other places in the world so there is adequate water and sewer sanitation for them?”
Another problem, he adds, is sea level rise, which could potentially inundate sewers if coastal streets are flooded by intense rainfall. “Our country’s infrastructure is not built to deal with this. Instead of saying ’Get a bigger pipe’ we need to find ways to hold water upland by developing natural ponds and marshes.”
Mr. Sullivan considers these “big problems with more than one answer” as the thrilling part of his job – even after 44 years in the business. And that circles back to his network.
“Technical answers are out there and you can always find them” he says. “But you can find them much quicker by being able to call people, explain the situation, and start working together to find solutions.”