Monitors can detect levels of chemicals and organic compounds at lower levels than ever before, but whether utilities should treat the water to remove the substances is a difficult question, said speakers and attendees at the American Water Works Association’s annual meeting.

A hot topic at the drinking water group's meeting, held in Washington, D.C., June  12-16, was the ability to detect pharmaceuticals, personal-care products and other “endocrine disruptors” in drinking water, sometimes in very minute amounts.

Dan McCarthy, president and CEO of Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch’s global water business, said  technologies exist to treat substances in water, including  advanced oxidation, ozone and membrane technologies.

McCarthy said, “The question is, with that investment, what kind of benefit are you going to get for the [human] population.” 

There is also debate over who should bear the responsibility for treating and removing chemicals and other substances in the water--drinking water utilities or wastewater utilities. Ultimately, those questions might have to be sorted out and resolved by the Environmental Protection Agency, McCarthy said.

Tommy Holmes, AWWA’s legislative director, said that the EPA currently is addressing regulating substances like chromium-6 and perchlorate on a contaminant-by-contaminant basis. He said wholesale reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act is unlikely in the near term, “unless we get a drought of biblical proportions,” in which case “we’d see a re-evaluation of water policy on a comprehensive basis.”

What is more likely, he said, is for Congress to “nibble at the edges of reauthorization” through smaller bills to address individual contaminants, like perchlorate.

Another hot topic at the meeting was the issue of sustainability, and how to cope with growing populations competing for ever-smaller water supplies. Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and author of Unquenchable (2009, Island Press) , said, “We are using water in an utterly unsustainable fashion…We have the tools available. What we really need is the moral courage and the will to act."

He said the communities increasingly will need to rely on water re-use and desalination to be able to provide enough water to meet the communities’ needs.

Another solution, he said, is water re-allocation, where entities that no longer need water—or as much water—for certain purposes due to improvements in technology or processes (such as agricultural improvements) sell their water rights to entities that do. “This market is taking off,” Glennon said, “and freeing up water for new municipal, industrial uses.”

AWWA members also heard from the association’s new president, Jerry Stevens, general manager of the West Des Moines (Iowa) Water Works, who outlined his goals for the year. Among them: launching new “communities of interest” for members to network online and share information with peers in the water industry; and promoting alliances with other associations, both nationally and internationally. “We want to continue to advance these alliances for the betterment of the world-wide community,” he said.