The importance of water in the United States should not be underestimated. Under the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, billions of dollars will be invested in modernizing municipal drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems. This act will create a ripple effect in the area of industrial water management. In response, the private sector will need to address its water infrastructure.

The potential risk of water scarcity requires diligence in managing water usage and wastewater discharge. Billions of gallons of water and wastewater are used and produced each day at industrial sites around the world. Industrial operators in all categories who use large amounts of water — such as power generators, petroleum refineries, petrochemical companies, pulp and paper producers, and food and consumer product manufacturers — need to examine alternative water sources, including recycling their own wastewater.

Water plays an important role in industrial plant design when it comes to maintaining environmental compliance and improving sustainability. While managing water and wastewater assets, there is much to consider, including four key factors that can affect industrial operations in far-reaching ways. These factors are regulatory compliance, aging infrastructure, economic growth, and sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Regulatory Compliance

Various regulatory agencies at the state and federal level, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have promulgated laws and regulations on water intake, wastewater discharge, pollutant controls and hazardous substance disposal. The regulations are constantly evolving, and as they continue to become more stringent, it is imperative to stay proactive. There are a variety of contaminants that pose a threat to the nation’s water supply, including 1,4-dioxin and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium and nitrogen compounds. Addressing toxic chemicals, heavy metals and organic compounds in the effluent is a major industrial wastewater challenge.

To stay compliant and fully operational, industrial facility operators must be willing to invest the resources required to modernize wastewater infrastructure and meet current and future discharge restrictions.

Aging Infrastructure

Many industrial facilities in the U.S. are more than 50 years old. As a result, industrial site operators often find themselves fixing equipment and/or utilities in disrepair and deterioration. Aging infrastructure should be retrofitted or upgraded to make the most of advanced technology and innovations. For example, just 30 years ago, membrane bioreactors — which combine biological treatment (e.g., activated sludge) with filtration to remove solids — were few and far between, but are now more commonly used as wastewater facilities are modernized. Other wastewater treatment technologies have advanced as well, including adsorption, ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation. These technologies are often now implemented to remove refractory contaminants in industrial wastewater treatment.

For industrial users to remain competitive, staying in step with new and innovative wastewater treatment technologies is critical.

Economic Growth

Water is used by industrial facilities for washing, processing, cooling, steam generating and product mixing. As the economy bounces back post the COVID-19 pandemic, product demand increases and manufacturing expands, industrial site operators will add additional production lines to boost product volume. As a result, more water will be used on the front end and more wastewater effluent on the back end will require treatment prior to discharge.

Industrial expansion must be managed in a sustainable way. Walking the fine line of production expansion while considering regulations and more eco-friendly processes is a constant challenge.

Sustainability and Environmental Stewardship

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are increasingly accepted by socially conscious investors as standards for making investment decisions about industrial companies. For example, carbon-neutral initiatives have driven interest in renewable diesel for the energy sector. Similarly, wastewater recycling is often included in many companies’ ESG strategies. ESG criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. When companies think of sustainability, some common goals come to mind: reducing water usage; minimizing pollution and emissions discharge; recycling municipal wastewater for industry use; and shrinking energy and carbon footprints. The adoption of water reuse and recycling is vital for each of these measures.

Future industrial production growth cannot mimic growth of the past. Companies must realistically meld ESG criteria with operations to maintain market competitiveness.

Reducing the use of water and other natural resources can save on production costs, making environmentally friendly products an appealing approach for water and energy-intensive industries.

Planning the Way Ahead

All these factors should entice industrial executives to pay more attention to water and wastewater utilities while managing operations, capital investment and corporate financial well-being. Because keeping a facility online directly impacts profitability, water and wastewater systems can play an outsized role in the success of industrial operations. Whether adding a new production line or retrofitting existing ones, water utilities should be involved in industrial plant planning to help provide maximum operational benefit.

The operators of industrial facilities often find themselves struggling to navigate key factors affecting their operations. To do so successfully, they can call on a full-service design-build partner that is not only knowledgeable about environmental, water and wastewater issues, but also experienced in designing and building industrial production facilities for the future.


These four factors each impact water management in nuanced ways. Choosing the right partner and solution is a vital step when navigating water challenges and how they affect the bottom line.

Explore Our Capabilities

Ben Zhang is a client services manager at Burns & McDonnell. He leads industrial water and wastewater projects, focusing on delivering sustainable, cost-effective solutions for clients. From design and permitting to construction and operations management, he helps companies across all industries solve a variety of unique water and wastewater project challenges.