Over the past few decades, the general public has become more conscious about water usage and conservation. According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, water use across the country has reached its lowest recorded level in 45 years, with a 9 percent reduction of water use since 2010, the lowest level since before 1970.

A tremendous benefit to the environment, this decrease in demand — also partly brought on by slower-than-projected population growth — has inadvertently diminished revenue in some communities for treatment plants. At the same time, these same entities have been deferring maintenance because of shifts in priorities and funding constraints.

With so many competing needs — from stormwater to wastewater to drinking water — prioritizing infrastructure investments has become increasingly challenging.  

But there’s a strong case to be made for an appropriate budget that allows for updates and improvements to the infrastructure that continues on-point delivery of clean water to residents who expect it, and who trust in that process. Deferred maintenance pushes the problem down the road, perpetuating the funding challenge. Residents don’t want their water rates to go up, but the reality is that there’s a gap in expectations when it comes to improvements. Water producers are delivering high-quality water with aging infrastructure while facing tighter regulations. And this is happening despite the fact that some budgets and capital improvements plans have fallen behind.     

Keeping the treatment process performing to optimal standards requires proactive planning, efficiency studies and process optimization — all of which can be done cost-effectively.

Begin With a Study

At a treatment plant, overcoming budget constraints to improve existing processes includes an evaluation and identification of plant-specific efficiencies and deficiencies. Conducting a study of the plant’s raw water conditions and existing treatment process is the first step. For example, surface water can be highly variable, and a cookie-cutter-designed treatment process sometimes leaves operators struggling to control finished water quality or achieve secondary standards like taste and odor reduction.

By performing a thorough study and evaluation of current treatment processes, an experienced consultant can deliver customized feedback and efficiency improvement suggestions tailored to the specific conditions at that plant. Often, rehabilitation is more cost-effective than building a new treatment plant, as these minor modifications negate the need for expensive capital improvements.

For proactive treatment plant owners who want to do more than simply meet today’s minimum requirements, in-depth studies can position an owner to successfully address future changes in regulations — at both the local and federal levels — as well as take advantage of technological advancements within the water industry. As more information and potential solutions are presented, plant operators are realizing the value in optimizing current processes, including identifying potential problems before it’s too late. Once the purpose of a customized study is understood — along with the benefits that come with it — a targeted effort can be put together to truly evaluate necessary treatment plant improvements.

Given this information, the budget required for these infrastructure improvements can be justified and more effectively managed moving forward.

A Search for Efficiencies in Fort Scott, Kansas

Plant operators in Fort Scott, Kansas, took matters into their own hands, wanting to identify opportunities to improve treatment processes and equip themselves with the ability to handle highly variable raw water quality from the Marmaton River. In doing so, they can better manage finished water stability and handle potential updates to regulations.

The city’s surface water treatment plant remains in compliance, despite experiencing variable conditions for raw and finished water. Existing issues include fluctuations in the distribution system disinfectant residual as well as occasional signs of corrosion and scale, which its current treatment processes can’t easily treat. After attending a training session hosted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) in fall 2018, the city’s water utility director reached out to discuss current challenges and find lasting solutions.

The initial evaluation of the plant’s current processes included a procedure known as jar testing, a lab-scale experiment that replicates a plant’s treatment process in order to evaluate how different chemicals, pH adjustments and other treatment modifications would perform. This specific testing model — which is much more cost-effective than building a pilot plant or attempting changes at a plant-scale level — focused specifically on raw water organic reduction to achieve an ideal chemical and pH combination for this particular plant’s treatment processes. A filter evaluation also was conducted to evaluate hydraulic and disinfectant residual fluctuation.

Preliminary results from the jar testing are expected soon, and follow up testing will be conducted to further develop concepts and potential opportunities for improvement.


When it comes to improving water treatment processes, many benefits can emerge from proactive planning and optimization. For a deeper look under the surface, learn when to consider a filter and process evaluation. 

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Jessica Borries specializes in the design of treatment plant processes and evaluations for water and wastewater projects. Her experience includes industrial and municipal water and wastewater treatment, including treatment plant and pump station condition assessments, filter evaluations, and water treatment process evaluations to identify opportunities to improve performance and evaluate compliance.