Cost-Effective, Sustainable Solutions to Wastewater Challenges


As population growth, changing climate, and water contamination intersect, water and wastewater utilities will be relied on to devise innovative solutions to meet residential, industrial, and agricultural water demand without compromising quality. Especially in arid states, the convergence of shrinking water resources and tightening drinking water standards underscores these utilities’ critical role in ensuring water supply integrity.

Techniques such as aquifer recharge, various recycled water applications, and constructed wetlands show promise paving the way for a future where water resources are managed in harmony with conservation and ecosystems. By embracing these approaches, wastewater utilities can effectively promote environmental stewardship while managing operations costs.

Cost-Effective Strategies for Maintaining Water Quality

Wastewater treatment plants play a crucial role in maintaining water quality for their communities. Nature-based solutions offer a promising pathway to address water quality challenges while promoting sustainability. Many wastewater treatment processes mimic natural cycles to remove nutrients, and expanding on this practice can enhance water purification.

For instance, wetlands constructed downstream from effluent discharge locations can act as buffers, allowing residual nutrients to support vegetation as treated wastewater is reintroduced into the water cycle. This approach also helps counter the loss of natural wetland ecosystems, which serve an essential role in maintaining water quality and capturing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Repurposing wastewater effluent to nourish new wetlands can help restore these ecosystems, mitigating the impact of climate change.  

These solutions not only restore habitats and improve utility sustainability but also offer cost-effective methods to maintain compliance with regulations. Moreover, they create opportunities for utilities to develop recreational spaces that foster awareness and education within communities, further enhancing their value.

George-Shannon Memorial Wetlands

In North Texas, Tarrant Regional Water District teamed with Texas Parks and Wildlife in 2013 to build a 2,200-acre wetland, called the George Shannon Memorial Wetlands. The wildlife area consists of wetland cells and sedimentation ponds that filter 95 million gallons of treated wastewater effluent daily from the Trinity River. The process removes an average of 95% of sediment and 50% - 80% of nitrogen and phosphorus levels to reduce drinking water treatment costs.  

The constructed wetlands have quickly become a habitat for over 240 bird species and are used for duck hunting, school tours, and environmental research. TRWD saves between $0.92 – 3.09 per 1000 gallons by sourcing water from the wetland instead of a traditional reservoir and is now working on another wetland project to bolster water supplies and further establish recreational ecosystems in its service area.

Public Benefit and Community Engagement

Nature-based solutions in wastewater management extend beyond environmental sustainability. They offer profound benefits to public well-being and community engagement. These strategies contribute to:

  • Improved Water Quality  
  • Ecosystem Restoration  
  • Recreational Opportunities
  • Climate Resilience

As TRWD discovered, constructed wetlands enhance water quality, abating the rising costs of water treatment that lead to higher customer rates. Lower chemical and energy costs associated with water treatment also lend to smaller carbon footprints, which can build public relations with an increasingly climate-aware public.

These same constructed wetlands can restore ecosystems negatively affected by development, industry, and agricultural practices. Public works projects like the George Shannon Memorial Wetlands can transform public land into community assets, offering recreational spaces and educational opportunities. Bringing water and wastewater treatment into the everyday lives of ratepayers demystifies its function and operations, creating a stronger connection between this often-silent utility service and the people who depend on it.

Conserving Limited Water Resources Through Reuse

Adopting nature-based solutions positions communities to lead in climate resilience, particularly in regions susceptible to climate change impacts. Recycling high-quality wastewater effluent for irrigating community parks, landscaping, or drinking water sources bolsters water resources adversely affected by climate change.

For example, when reuse practices include removal of emerging contaminants like PFAS, the resulting wastewater effluent is of such a high quality that it can be reused for a wide variety of applications, including aquifer recharge. This practice requires high-quality wastewater effluent to be reintroduced into groundwater directly from treatment facilities. By storing wastewater effluent in local aquifers, wastewater plants can play a role in combatting land subsidence (sinking land), the encroachment of coastlines, and saltwater intrusion of groundwater to protect water resources and local ecosystems.  

By promoting sustainable water management practices, these initiatives address immediate water treatment needs and can foster a sense of community ownership and stewardship over local natural resources. With proactive efforts to fund these natural solutions, wastewater utilities can bring these projects to life.

Covering the Compounding Costs of Sustainable Solutions

Within this effort to maintain water quality, wastewater treatment plants also face a growing challenge with the passive receipt of contaminants like PFAS. Although not the source of the contamination, utilities unintentionally concentrate and discharge these substances through standard treatment processes, drawing federal scrutiny. Now designated hazardous by the EPA under CERCLA and RCRA, plants face greater risk of liability when it comes to PFAS contaminated wastewater discharges. Subsequently, the greater need to eliminate PFAS compounds financial strain on utilities already grappling with escalating energy costs.

PFAS removal is challenging and expensive. Placing responsibility on utilities and their ratepayers' stresses communities and punishes those who did not create the mess. As seen with other contaminants and with the recent PFAS settlements for water systems, utilities can successfully take big-name polluters to court to hold them accountable and cover some of the costs of treating the contamination, shifting the financial burden of compliance away from themselves and their ratepayers. This strategy can help fund necessary infrastructure improvements, including the nature-based treatment solutions discussed here, and emphasizes the principle of accountability, ensuring that those responsible for pollution contribute to the solution.  

Additionally, accessing funding sources like State Revolving Funds and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), coupled with litigation against polluters, has the potential to alleviate financial burdens while advancing sustainability.

Nature-based alternatives, such as constructing treatment wetlands, recharging aquifers, and recycling water, emerge as cost-effective options, especially when thinking about the future. These methods not only ensure the availability of clean water but also restore ecosystems and enhance communities. The costs of implementing these solutions do not need to hold utilities back. With support, there are ways to leverage funding towards these projects.

Future Outlook and Advancing Sustainability

In the wake of water contamination and a global push to decarbonize water treatment, sustainable wastewater management strategies are increasingly vital. Nature-based innovations and more mechanical solutions in this field are making sustainability more attainable for wastewater treatment plants to adopt environmentally friendly treatment practices.

By harnessing litigation as a cost recovery strategy to fund these advancements, wastewater utilities can have the same opportunities as water treatment facilities to fund and implement cost-effective solutions that support their local environment and communities. This proactive approach addresses current challenges and positions utilities for long-term success in the treatment of emerging contaminants.  

SL Environmental Law Group has successfully helped utilities and municipalities recover water treatment costs from polluters for over 20 years. From 1,2,3-TCP, to MTBE, to perchlorate, to PFAS, SL Environmental has worked diligently with water providers and wastewater utilities to help them understand their options, navigate the legal process and deadlines to bring favorable outcomes.

To learn more about how your wastewater facility can fund nature-based infrastructure, download our Wastewater Cost Recovery Guide today.