The achievement of a future-proof drinking water provision requires making well-considered choices. Is it better to direct our efforts at protecting groundwater or at technology to treat the water? Should water utilities share as much of their data as possible with the customer, or should they be transparent in a more targeted manner? How should we deal with the growing quantities of data, and how can we make optimal use of it to achieve a safe and resilient water provision? And what is truly important to today’s drinking water customer? All these questions were tackled on 13 November in the presentations and panel discussions at the biennial research meeting of BTO, the collective research programme for the water utilities. And since knowledge only really acquires value when we do something with it in practice, the BTO Implementation Award was also presented on the occasion. The winner was the legally-accepted, rapid RT-PCR method to detect E. coli, in part because, according to the jury, ‘this opens the DNA toolbox for the drinking water sector’.
At the end of the biennial research meeting, jury chair, Ria Doedel (director, WML), presented the award to a team of six members from the drinking water sector. Liesbeth Vissers (Aqualab Zuid), Louise Vanysacker (De Watergroep), Aleksandra Knezev (HWL), Adrie Atsma (Vitens), Gerhard Wubbels (WLN) and Leo Heijnen (KWR) stood on the podium to receive the challenge trophy, together with a money prize for a team outing. They were given the award for their work on a new molecular-biological technique (RT-PCR), which is now applied in all Dutch drinking water laboratories and De Watergroep’s laboratory in Belgium. The method permits the laboratories to detect E. coli in drinking water in 4-6 hours, which is much faster than the standard, culture method, which takes 24 hours.
The RT-PCR method for E. coli detection was validated last year according to the prevailing ISO standards; the validation’s results were subsequently used to achieve regulatory approval for the method. Since 23 April 2018, the use of this faster method is legally accepted by the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT), even though there remain a few matters to be clarified. This legal approval is seen as the first step towards the acceptance of more molecular or alternative detection methods, for example, for faecal contamination. In the words of the jury: ‘This is a milestone in the history of the provision of drinking water. This opens the DNA toolbox for the drinking water sector. By applying RT-PCR, we can detect the presence of E. coli in drinking water much faster, so that the water utilities can minimise nuisance to customers and quickly dispel any concerns that might arise about contamination. In order to get the method validated and legally approved, all the drinking water labs, including De Watergroep’s, collaborated very constructively in coordination with RIVM. Thanks to these techniques we can expect to safeguard the microbial safety of our drinking water in the future in real time.’ The jury also praised the intensive collaboration between the specialists in the participating labs and the sector-wide implementation.
Three nominations rewarded
The faster detection of E. coli in drinking water with RT-PCR was one of the three nominees for the BTO Implementation Award. The other nominees were Decentralised Water Systems, of Diederik van Duuren (WML) and Henk-Jan van Alphen (KWR), and Manure Problems and Drinking Water Sources, of Mirja Baneke (Vewin) and Arnaut van Loon (KWR). The three implementation nominee projects are explained in the short video below. Because the jury had lots of praise for all three nominations and found that there was little that separated them, it also mentioned the names of the members of non-winning teams.
Together towards the next step
The presentation of this second BTO Implementation Award was the last official component of a successful BTO Research Meeting, titled ‘Together towards the next step’. The chairperson for the day, Annemarie van Wezel, and KWR’s CEO, Dragan Savic, welcomed a hundred representatives from water utilities, water laboratories, research organisations and regulators. Van Wezel guided the group through a varied programme, which focused on how the water utilities’ environment is changing and how they can, collectively and individually, prepare for the future, for the next step.
How will the water utilities of the future operate, and what knowledge and skills will they need? These questions were discussed in light of a number of current developments in two substantive sessions, which concluded with panel discussions.
Natural sources: keep them or make them clean?
Sixty percent of the drinking water in the Netherlands is made from groundwater. But the quality of this groundwater is constantly under pressure, both because of the millions of substances that humans produce and introduce into the environment, and because of our various activities in the subsurface. Should water utilities strive to keep their drinking water sources as clean as possible, for instance by pushing for regulations and environmental measures, or should they rather turn to the best technologies to remove all possible contaminants from the water? The answer must be: both. They should safeguard and protect the quality of the groundwater themselves, and not leave it up to government to ensure the good quality of groundwater. They shouldn’t be afraid to take the lead.
One good example of this is the way in which Vewin, with scientific support from KWR, carried out the lobbying effort that led to the protection of groundwater from nitrates from manure (one of the nominees for the BTO Implementation Award). They engaged in stakeholder management and entered coalitions with other stakeholders to protect the sources. In this context, mass-spectrometric methods to monitor water quality are a powerful weapon for the detection and identification of both known and unknown substances. Besides, the protection of the sources alone is no longer an option. Groundwater is not completely untainted any more. Water utilities must then make sure that they have the water treatment technology to remove any contaminants that are present. Membrane technology can play a powerful role here, also because it allows you to tackle a number of problems. And the use of nature-based solutions – (pre)treatment with bacteria in the wetlands or underground, for instance – can also contribute to the treatment.
Drinking water supply without interruptions. Satisfied customers?
Past research has produced a range of means of improving the distribution network, from failure registration and analysis to insight into the impact of the soil and of specific measures on the network performance. A future-proof distribution network requires the implementation of this knowledge, together with the assessment of the results of measures taken in the network. Only then will it be possible to develop the algorithms that can assist the water utilities in making the right choices in the continuous process of network replacement and improvement, at a responsible cost. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are a crucial element here. The amount of data in the drinking water sector will grow significantly – partly thanks to smart meters and sensors in the network – but so too will the challenges presented – for example, by aging, increased subsurface activities, climate change, urbanisation and the energy transition. A system approach is the only way of realising a safe and resilient water provision in the future.
It is important for water utilities to gain more insight into the perspectives of their customers. Social-scientific research distinguishes between different customer groups, with different information needs and different assessments of the reliability of the information channels. This is valuable information for water utilities who want to better inform their customers: customer contact should also be tailored. Moreover, it appears that customers do in fact want more information about their tap water, particularly about its contents, quality and treatment. In general, customers are quite satisfied with the quality of their drinking water and service provision, and – although to a lesser degree – with the price-quality ratio. A large majority consider their drinking water clear, odourless, healthy and good-tasting. Ninety percent of the customers think that their drinking water is very safe to safe, but they sometimes worry about the possible impact of industrial chemicals, pesticides or pharmaceutical residues. Satisfaction is lower when it comes to water softness, which is actually an important aspect of quality for customers. Disruptions play a much smaller part in the experience of quality than does water softness. This is also reflected in the willingness to pay: drinking water customers would rather pay a little more per cubic meter of water that is softer, or that is produced with 100% sustainable energy, than for fewer supply disruptions. The fact that water utilities hardly ever experience disruptions certainly plays a role here. Research into the impact of improvements with regard to water softness on the customer perspective will begin in the near future.
Data and transparency
Should water utilities make public as much as possible of the data they collect on their water and their water provision, to maximise their transparency to society and their customers? This raises lots of problems and snags. Tossing all data onto the web certainly does not automatically lead to well-informed customers; what is called for is a more targeted effort. Excessive transparency renders the drinking water provision vulnerable to threats to this essential service. There is good reason that cyber security is a subject of growing importance. Determining which data can be safely made public requires a case-by-case approach. It is of course true that it is important to share as much data as possible within the safe context of the collective research, because this contributes to the development of science which ultimately is to the benefit of all water utilities and customers.