This World Water Day, Don’t Take Clean Water for Granted

For those of us in the Midwest, water feels like something that will always be there, as constant a fixture in life as the air we breathe. Although it seems that water is ubiquitous, freshwater comprises only 2.5 percent of the world’s supply. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Furthermore, only one percent of freshwater is available for human use. The rest is trapped in glaciers and snowfields

This tiny percentage is found in our lakes, rivers, and aquifers. As the population continues to increase and weather becomes more unpredictable, the amount of available fresh water has decreased. In Illinois, the supply of water is unlikely to completely disappear in the near future. However, the Illinois State Water Survey has projected that as urban areas continue to grow, water supplies will be unable to keep up with the boost in population. Cost is another factor. Extracting fresh water from surface and subsurface sources is no easy feat, and it will increasingly become more costly as demand rises.  

Another issue is contaminants in water supplies.  Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are of particular concern These compounds are increasingly found in groundwater and surface water. They negatively impact the water quality and can also severely impact aquatic species.  For example, steroid hormones are highly potent endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which, even at levels as low as nanograms per liter (10-9 g/L or ppt), can adversely affect the reproductive biology of aquatic species. These aquatic species aren’t the only ones  to be the only ones impacted. Plant roots could absorb the PPCPS in water and may accumulate in the edible portions of the plant.

In 2018, the Illinois legislature requested that the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) conduct a scientific literature review of chemicals identified in wastewater treatment plant effluents that are recognized as contaminants of emerging concern. It also requests that PRI compile a listing of the specific actions recommended by various state and federal agencies to address the environmental or public health concerns associated with the chemicals.PRI will provide its impartial report to the General Assembly by June 30, 2020. Because of its long history of pollution prevention expertise, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute, is taking the lead on this effort. ISTC researchers have studied a variety of inorganic and organic environmental contaminants as well as developed methods for waste and pollution prevention. Read more about the literature review here..

Water scarcity is also an issue, both within Illinois and throughout the world. ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) works with Illinois companies to benchmark how much water they currently use and help them find ways to reduce it. In addition, the Institutional Water Program assists facilities equipped with institutional water systems including cooling towers, chillers, and boilers. IWP advises these facilities to help them reduce their chemical, energy, water, and maintenance costs.

Finally, ISTC’s research program has developed a new technology to filter salt and contaminants from water. The system, dubbed Aquapod, appears most applicable to small- or medium-sized desalination units and for thermally sensitive operations such as food and pharmaceutical processing small- or medium-sized desalination units and for thermally sensitive operations such as food and pharmaceutical processing. The technology is also being tested in coal-fired power plants.

March 22nd is World Water Day. By continuing research into the occurrence, fate, and transport of emerging contaminants, as well as developing new methods for filtering water for reuse and helping companies to reduce their water use, ISTC ensures a future of clean water for all.