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New Jersey leads with wastewater to drinking water

Monday, January 30, 2006
By Anne B. Jolis
ajolis@sjnewsco.com

LOGAN TWP. -- Forget turning water into wine. Here, the municipal utilities authority is on the verge of turning wastewater into drinkable water to replenish South Jersey's aquifers.

It will be the first community in the northeast to do so.

According to MUA Executive Director Gary Whalen, the MUA will produce some 750,000 gallons of "pristine, pure" water daily -- water that will exceed current water quality regulations. Whalen added that the average household uses about 220 gallons a day, which means the water produced here could potentially serve an additional 340 homes daily in South Jersey.

"The state sets restrictions in South Jersey for how much water can be withdrawn from the local aquifers," said Whalen. "Right now, the local water companies cannot withdraw any more water from the aquifers."

The water purified here will be used to replenish the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy aquifer system, which means the state would allow water companies such as Aqua New Jersey and Penns Grove to draw more water from the aquifer. The companies would pay the MUA to use the water.

"We're not sure how much we'll be charging yet," said Whalen. "I'll have a better idea of that in about six months. We're just looking to break even, though."

The project was made possible through a $4.1 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Following New Jersey's record-breaking drought in 2002, the state initiated a call for water reuse.

Representatives from the DEP did not return calls for comment.

The grant was a two-thirds matching grant, with the MUA putting up the other $2 million needed for the project. Whalen said this money came from the MUA's Future Growth Fund.

Whalen said that if everything goes as planned, the facility will be up and running within the next 18 months.

"We've done the pilot testing and we're waiting to see some of the results from that," said Whalen. "We also have some groundwater testing to do, then we'll meet with the state and go over these findings. If they approve, we'll go ahead with the design and construction, which should take about a year."

The project will be overseen by the engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy Inc. of Philadelphia.

According to Chris Cleveland, a technology leader and project manager at the firm, converting wastewater to drinkable water is a multi-step process.

"First, the wastewater treatment plant that's already there is undergoing an upgrade," said Cleveland. "It will use a a membrane bio-reactor -- it has a series of flat sheet membranes which allow water to pass through while rejecting particles and organics."

At this point, the filtered water would meet the state's reuse regulations, Cleveland explained, but the plant will treat it further. While some of it will continue to be emptied into the Delaware River, the rest will go through two advanced treatment steps to prepare it for the aquifer.

"Those will be in a separate facility," said Cleveland. "The first step is called reverse-osmosis, which also involves a membrane filter. While the membrane bio-reactor takes all the particulates out of the water, the reverse osmosis will take out almost all the dissolved contaminants. It's a membrane with pores so small that only water molecules can pass through."

The second step, Cleveland said, is a "fail-safe" step called ultra-violet -- or UV -- oxidation.

"If we get the appropriate UV dose, and combine that with hydrogen peroxide, it will destroy any micro-pollutants left in the water," said Whalen. This is the step, he explained, that actually elevates the quality of the water to a higher standard of purity than exists in drinking water today.

"There are emerging contaminants that are just being studied now," said Cleveland. "The contaminants are things like pharmaceuticals, personal care products like cologne or lotions, pesticides, caffeine, a number of industrial chemicals -- these contaminants are found at trace levels in our nation's waterways. Many of them can have an impact on our endocrine system."

Cleveland said that eliminating these contaminants from water puts the MUA at the "cutting edge" of water purification.

"We not only want to meet all current drinking water regulations," said Cleveland. "We also want to look ahead to what potential, future regulations there may be, and make sure we're protecting public health."

Cleveland said the facility would include a pipeline and an injection well field. Project managers are now testing for an exact location.

"When the treated water is injected into the aquifer it will travel for several years," said Cleveland. He said injecting the extra-clean water into the aquifer will help to improve all the water there, as it will dilute the naturally high iron concentrations and help stop saltwater intrusion.