Will Kirksey Will Kirksey, SVP of Worrell Water Technologies, is passionate about finding practical, ecological solutions to the increasingly urgent water issues in the U.S. I spoke with him at The New Green Economy Conference in Washington, D.C., just before he facilitated a session targeted at forming policy recommendations on sustainable water reuse. Worrell Water’s water reuse system, the Living Machine, was picked as one of the ‘coolest green products’ at Greenbuild, 2009. Will recently authored the white paper, Sustainable Water Infrastructure for the 21st Century.

by, Jessalyn Dingwell, The Green Economy Post

JD: What is your background in water and water reuse?

WK: I’ve been involved in environmental work for my entire career. I started off, interestingly enough, as a transportation engineer. When I moved to Florida after graduating from college, I found that water is the big environmental issue there, especially for transportation. You are always crossing a waterway and you have to worry about everything from water flow to species migration.  When I was with the Civil Engineering Research Foundation {now part of the American Society of Engineers}  working on evaluating sustainable technologies, water, especially wastewater and drinking water, became the most pressing issues for my work.

JD: What do you believe to be the biggest or most pressing issue for the US in terms of water?

WK: I think that it’s the long-term supply issues and the imbalances we have between the growing areas and the water supplies in those areas. And the way that water is not appreciated – it’s used once and flushed down the drain so the polluted water goes directly to the centralized plant and then into the waterways. We need to think about reusing that water locally and being efficient in its use and conserving its supply.

JD: As consumers we hear a lot about the aging infrastructure as far as roads and bridges and the energy grid – why don’t we hear as much about water infrastructure?

WK: That is somewhat puzzling to me as well, but I think it’s partly because water has always been there for us. Especially in urban areas, we’ve really taken it for granted unless there is some disruption, which is very rare in this country. One example was when Atlanta had a drought a few years back and it seemed to take people by surprise. The areas in the West where water gets to be a problem in terms of scarcity are coming to terms with water issues. There is much more awareness of water and how we use it in those areas.

JD: What is a water grid and how does it compare to an energy grid?

WK: There are some similarities for sure, but the key difference in dealing with water is that it is really expensive in energy terms to move it long distances. This fact makes a really good argument for decentralized systems and for reusing water locally rather than moving it into central plants and then trying to move it back.

The other thing that I think we can do with water that is a little different than electricity, which I discuss in my paper I wrote at the Sustainable Silicon Valley, is moving from smart grids to smart ecosystems. Thinking of setting up water infrastructure such that it really supports and enhances natural ecosystems. What we’ve done in the past is used technology to just offset ecosystems. We take the water out of natural ecosystems and run it through the human economy and then just dump it back into nature. We need to start building infrastructure that will enhance natural processes.  Then, we can more effectively integrate them with the human economy. I think that’s where we can really make a difference in water as opposed to electricity.

JD: How critical is it that we have a decentralized water system in the US?

WK: I envision it as an evolutionary process.  It doesn’t make sense to just forget the infrastructure we have because in lots of places, it’s still good, it’s working well, and it’s producing really good water. In the areas where water systems are failing and need to be rebuilt, or expanded such as in fast growing areas like Silicon Valley or in developing countries, that’s where we need to think about decentralizing first.  So, for the foreseeable future we’re gong to be integrating the centralized and the decentralized.

JD: Why is it so important to reuse or recycle water? Why not just use water once and send it back into the natural ecosystems?

WK: There are significant advantages both in terms of reusing water onsite and also advantages in terms of putting clean, unpolluted water back into nature. It certainly depends on where you are in the country or the world, but in dry climates you can really put a big dollar value on these systems if you are able to reuse water onsite. If you can use water four or five times, or more, you are not only reducing your water bill, but in some cases, you are actually restricted in how much you can draw from a system. So there are really direct benefits of reusing the same water onsite in that regard.

In terms of the downstream applications, there are huge advantages to treating water to avoid very serious pollution issues. Here’s an example. We have a situation where there is an old, old sewer system that the developer has access to, but the maintenance is so bad on it that the city is losing about 40% of the untreated wastewater to leaks that go directly into the ground. For this reason, the city is encouraging the developer to do an onsite treatment to reduce the amount of wastewater that goes into the city’s system. Our system takes the water from the primary septic tank and treats the water to a level where it’s safe to go into the ground.

JD: Worrell Water’s water recycling product, the Living Machine, purifies water through a process similar to that of a natural wetland, is that accurate?

WK: Yes, that’s a good comparison, especially to a tidal wetland. What we’ve done is taken the ecosystem processes that go on in a tidal wetland and captured that into a containment that can be built and operated onsite in the area where the wastewater is produced; whether it is at a campus, housing development or resort. Of course the difference is that we aren’t dealing with salt water – we’re treating blackwater sewage.

Specifically, we’re naturally alternating aerobic and anaerobic conditions. So the Living Machine uses oxygen and ecosystems that naturally treat wastewater. It accelerates the process by introducing more oxygen, and by alternating those conditions, it allows a more diverse community of microorganisms to work on the waste.  Driving all this is information technology controlling the hydraulics and pumping systems that turbo-charge the natural process. We remotely monitor and operate these systems over the Internet.

JD: What makes the Living Machine unique as compared to other commercial reuse systems?

WK: The Living Machine takes a very low-energy approach to the system as compared to the. mechanical systems.  These mechanical systems such as activated sludge and membrane systems, have a very small footprint but very high energy costs and maintenance costs. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have the natural constructed wetlands that have few mechanical parts or controls at all, making them very low energy, but requiring a lot of space.

The Living Machine is in the middle. We’ve developed a high rate process that uses a lot less energy than the mechanical systems and also has a lot smaller footprint than the ecological system. It fits very well in a number of places where the ecological systems won’t fit, but it’s far more ecological than the mechanical treatment systems.

JD: Is the Living Machine incorporated into any LEED projects?

WK: Yes. In fact, it’s a very common question when someone us calls up to ask right off the bat, “is this eligible for LEED credits?” A great example is a project at the Portland, Oregon airport where the new office building is expecting to be certified LEED Gold. They have a Living Machine right in the lobby. It’s indoors and right across from the reception desk, demonstrating that you can do onsite wastewater treatment with a system that is aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t have odors, and can work inside with close human contact.

JD: That’s one of the surprising things about the Living Machine. When you start taking about recycling wastewater, I think people start to get nervous, believing  it’s going to be smelly or an eyesore. Appearance must be a selling point for the Living Machine?

WK: It really is. And it just surprises people when they see it because it’s not the concept of a wastewater treatment plant that most people have. Even other wetland systems many times have a methane odor because they use an anaerobic system, creating conditions that are not very pleasant to be around sometimes.  The efficient tidal process in our system and the use of packed gravel in the containment ensures no odor or visible wastewater.

JD: Can you describe a favorite project?

WK: We have a Living Machine at the Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina.  In addition to integrating the system into their educational curriculum, they saved about 4.5 million dollars by putting in one of our systems rather than hooking up to the sewer system. They were in a situation where they were building a new school on a location seven miles from the sewer line. Building a seven-mile sewer pipe would have been prohibitively expensive. Now, they are running two whole schools on this system as the main wastewater treatment and there’s no sewer back up to that. Schools are great to work with and we’re hoping to announce another school in the next few weeks.

JD: From a water policy perspective, what do you believe the U.S. should be focusing on?

WK: I would be looking at water as part of the basis of an ecosystem approach to rebuilding the economy. Energy and water are so closely related, when you look at those two together, and start planning them together, and thinking about them together, it really gives you a lot of leverage in design of good infrastructure, design of local economies and creation of jobs. I would look at water as it ripples out into the bigger picture – water is extremely important in and of itself – but it is also the basis of the economy and of human ecosystems.

© 2010, Jessalyn Dingwell. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Jessalyn Dingwell (13 Articles)

Jessalyn Dingwell is an attorney and Green Building aficionado living in Washington, DC. A daring high school science fair project involving solar energy, an incredible amount of copper tubing, and a precarious rooftop fueled her lifelong curiosity and passion for renewable energy sources and building energy-efficiency. Jessalyn serves on several committees at the Women's Council on Energy and the Environment and frequently contributes to the Council's Water Committee programming. Prior to law school, she spent several years at the Corporate Executive Board providing marketing best practices to Fortune 500 companies in the US, then managing the European team based in London. Feel free to contact her at: jessalyn@greeneconomypost.com.

  • Matt

    Good for the environment, saves money, and even makes for a nice water feature for the front lobby? Sounds like a no brainer.

  • Jing

    Great! I like this discussion! I am a master student in water resourses. Right now I am taking one calss named decentralised water treatment! It is in the same area! thank you for your infomation my professor!

    I want to know more about Living Machine. Is it popular and plausiable to use in a decentralised system? And what about the cost? Does it need to buy in the market?
    Thank you !!!