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Water reuse is almost certain to increase [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

Water reuse is almost certain to increase

1 Jan 2013 by Jim Fickett.

The US has largely run out of fresh sources for clean water, and will increasingly turn to reuse – where a wastewater stream becomes the input for irrigation, industrial use, or municipal water supply. Although unpredictable regulation is a major pitfall, this trend will likely provide good investment opportunities in appropriate equipment providers.

In 2012 the National Research Council published a very useful, book-length study entitled Water reuse. Their primary focus was, of course, US public policy. However they lay out basic facts and trends in a way that is also very helpful for investors. Here I'd like to hit just a few key highlights.

A spectrum of reuse

In a trivial sense all water is constantly reused – the water in your body now has almost certainly been through other animals sometime in the distant or recent past. In the water industry, reuse of water means more specifically that what comes out of a wastewater plant one day becomes irrigation water, industrial cooling water, or city tap water after a relatively short time. There is a spectrum in how directly the waste stream is connected to the new use stream. If a waste system is designed specifically to feed a new use, this is called “direct reuse”. In the space station, and in a few towns, sewage goes through many treatment steps and then directly back into the taps for drinking, washing, and cooking. More commonly, water reclaimed from sewage is used to water golf courses, cool power plants, recharge aquifers, or irrigate crops (irrigation is the most common use). Indirect, or de facto, reuse happens when no one planned the reuse, but the river or lake from which drinking water, industrial water, or farm water is taken is made up, to a significant extent, of wastewater. I gave the example in a previous post of Houston, where a lake which supplies municipal water is fed by a river wherein much of the flow is wastewater from Dallas / Fort Worth, a few days upstream.

There is a fascinating historical chapter in the NRC report, which outlines how, first, piped-in water became common in homes, then the resulting, greatly-increased stream of wastewater had to be channeled into new sewage systems, and then, as raw sewage in streams and lakes became more voluminous, the idea of treating both the input and output streams gradually took hold. I was interested to learn that, in the US, less than a hundred years ago large volumes of raw sewage were piped to farms for fertilizer. Globally, the use of raw sewage for farming, mostly in China and Mexico, still accounts for more than half of all direct reuse.

Scale, and growth trend

For direct reuse, the EPA said, in its 2004 Guidelines for Water Reuse, said,

An estimated 1.7 billion gallons (6.4 million m3) per day of wastewater is reused, and reclaimed water use on a volume basis is growing at an estimated 15 percent per year.

1.7 billion gallons per day is in the neighborhood of 0.5% of all freshwater use, so reuse remains rather small, though growing rapidly.

In the interior of the country, the potential for reuse is somewhat limited by legal requirements to maintain river flows. However, even considering just the coasts, there is potential for considerable growth in reuse:

Municipal wastewater reuse offers the potential to significantly increase the nation’s total available water resources. Approximately 12 billion gallons of municipal wastewater effluent is discharged each day to an ocean or estuary out of the 32 billion gallons per day discharged nationwide. Reusing these coastal discharges would directly augment available water resources (equivalent to 6 percent of the estimated total U.S. water use or 27 percent of public supply).

Cost is more than for available freshwater, but less than for desalination

Probably the main limitation on growth is cost.

Although each project’s costs are site specific, comparative cost analyses suggest that reuse projects tend to be more expensive than most water conservation options and less expensive than seawater desalination. The costs of reuse can be higher or lower than brackish water desalination, depending on concentrate disposal and distribution costs. Water reuse costs are typically much higher than those for existing water sources. …

Increasing use of reclaimed water in urban areas has resulted in the development of large dual-water systems in several communities …

Distribution system costs can be the most significant component of costs for nonpotable reuse systems.

Industry challenges

As both direct and de facto reuse increases, the range of water contaminants also rises. Besides the usual pathogens,

In the United States, the enteric protozoa Cryptosporidium and Giardia, the enteric bacteria Salmonella, Shigella, and toxigenic Escherichia coli O157:H7, and the enteric viruses enteroviruses and norovirus are the most frequently documented waterborne enteric pathogens (Craun et al., 2006).

we also now need to worry about all the chemicals one finds in every household. At the end of a chapter discussing at length hormones, industrial and household chemicals, and pharmecauticals, the short summary is:

The very nature of wastewater suggests that nearly any substance used or excreted by humans has the potential to be present at some concentration in the treated product.

Some of these challenges are quite new. It is only recently that the concentration of the hormones in birth control pills have reached a level in many public waterways that affects fish and perhaps humans. And borax, common in many household washing products, now reaches concentrations that can kill plants.

Investment perspective

The growth of direct reuse is very likely; the growth of de facto reuse is virtually certain. Regardless of the mix, both water supply treatment and sewage treatment are likely to monitor and attempt to control an increasing range of contaminants.

Although in the very long run one can count on detection and treatment for additional contaminants, it is very hard to predict exactly how this will evolve, because the regulatory apparatus is far behind the times, and obviously subject to great political uncertainty:

The National Pretreatment Program has led to significant reductions in the concentrations of toxic chemicals in wastewater and the environment. However, the list of 129 priority pollutants presently regulated by the National Pretreatment Program has not been updated since its development more than three decades ago, even though the nation’s inventory of manufactured chemicals has expanded considerably since that time, as has our understanding of their significance. …

As one might expect in any field evolving as dramatically as wastewater treatment and reuse, the regulatory, legal, economic, public understanding, and public policy aspects of water reuse are not well aligned.

Although a venture capitalist might want to try to guess what is the next big technology in monitoring and cleaning, a retail investor would probably be best served by finding a large company that supplies many water treatment plants with equipment, and which takes on itself the job of staying current with technology.

If regulation continues to lag, individuals might take things directly into their own hands. So it may be worth investigating the growth of retail products for purifying water at home.

Or perhaps one should keep it really simple. Warren Buffet recently bought a brick company to take advantage of the housing recovery. One thing we can count on as water is more intensively managed is more pipes.