Water is not as simple as it sounds. Turn on the faucet for a drink of water or a shower and there it is, practically free, as much as you want.
The problem is, we take it for granted. Stop to think for a second about what would happen if the water didn’t come out. And not just what would happen to your shower plans, but what would happen to businesses and public health. And would you wonder if the problem was anything more than just some road work causing a short delay in your service?
For Dennis Doll, chairman, president, and CEO of Middlesex Water Co. in Bridgewater, aqua is an issue as complex, as powerful, and as precarious as the vast underground (and underwater) network of pipes and power stations that comprise the infrastructure of the country’s water supply.
One breakdown anywhere down there could lead to catastrophic results that would not just rob us of our bath times, but would also bring certain businesses and industries to a screeching halt and endanger public health. “We’re in the public health business, first and foremost,” Doll says of his company and his industry. “If we can’t provide clean water, people get sick, it’s as simple as that.”
Doll will be part of a panel titled “The Link Between Water Infrastructure and a Healthy Business Climate” on Friday, August 3, at 11:15 a.m. at NJ American Water, 701 Randolph Road in Somerset. The panel is co-sponsored by the Somerset County Business Partnership and will follow presentations beginning at 9 a.m. from Robert Hanna, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Commission, and Michele Siekerka, assistant commissioner for water resource management at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The panel discussion will include Ann Brady, managing director of PlanSmart NJ, and Phil Beacham, president, New Jersey Alliance for Action. The forum will address issues including the relationship between water and energy costs; the expense associated with wasting water; methods by which businesses can conserve water; and the safety of the New Jersey water supply. Cost: $50. Visit http://events.scbp.org or call 908-0218-4300.
Doll, a native of New Jersey, has been chairman of the board of Middlesex Water since 2010 and has been its CEO and president since 2006. He joined Middlesex Water in 2004 as an executive vice president after spending nearly 20 years at Elizabethtown Water Company. He joined Elizabethtown Water in 1985 in the finance department, after an early stint with the accounting firm Deloitte in New York City. Doll earned his bachelor’s in accounting and economics from Upsala College.
Middlesex Water Co. was founded 115 years ago, and according to Doll, some of the company’s original pipes, installed to meet New Jersey’s growing industrial and manufacturing needs around the turn of the 20th century, are still in the ground, supplying water. This, he says, is typical of New Jersey’s water infrastructure.
The problem is that, like anything else, pipes wear out as they get old, and for a variety of reasons — the material with which the pipe is made, soil conditions, the age of the pipe, etc. And as population and demand increase, more stress is put on a system that has evolved in many layers. Newer systems meet older ones, geographical layouts change, needs and usage change. It is a lot more complicated than people think, Doll says.
Hotspots. As the entire nation’s water infrastructure ages, federal officials have begun to put a price tag on fixing things before they get out of hand. And that price tag is around $1 trillion over the next 20 or 30 years.
Federal officials have recognized that given the interconnectedness of the more than 50,000 water companies and water systems in the United States, plus the age of many of the pipes in the ground, systemic failure in one place could foreshadow a much graver situation.
Hotspots for leaks and main breaks, however, are not usually regional or widespread issues, says Doll. “It’s often not a whole town,” he says. “It’s small portions of a town, or maybe small portions of many towns.”
Or, it could be underwater. Middlesex Water Co. has, for example, an 80-year-old pipe that runs underwater, 60 feet beneath the Raritan River, under the bridge connecting Perth Amboy and South Amboy. A leak recently occurred in that pipe that, at first, went unnoticed, because the water level inside the pipe did not drop quickly.
Fixing this leak ended up being a $4.5 million job that involved divers and a laser-guided drill, but in the end, Middlesex Water drilled a mile-long hole so that the pipe would no longer sit on the river’s floor.
Repairs like these are more common across the water industry than anyone might think. In fact, one of Doll’s industry colleagues from Chicago “loses more water a day because of leaks than we do in six months,” he says.
But such repairs are at least better than having to fix a failure in a 72-inch transmission main at a water production plant. If one of those breaks down, he says, “we literally can’t produce water. That’s the kind of asset you pay very close attention to.”
Cost. There is no cost figure that Doll is aware of that states the annual financial damages that water main breaks and system failures bring down upon businesses. But what he does know is that the economic development of whole regions depends on the production and transmission of clean water.
There are obvious ill effects for businesses such as car washes that would, simply, go out of business if the well went dry. But all businesses use water, even if it’s just for flushing toilets and washing hands.
Other businesses depend on water, but people do not realize it — dentists, for example (“Can you imagine sitting in the dentist’s chair and there not being any water?”), and manufacturing facilities that use water for cooling and cleaning.
And then there is the issue of power. Doll cites the growing interest in the “water-energy nexus,” which is the symbiosis that water production and energy production share. In short, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce potable water, and it takes a tremendous amount of water to produce energy. So if there is a large enough water supply breakdown, a major power failure is a strong possibility.
Green water. Doll sees a lot of hope in public/private partnerships over the next 40 to 50 years, particularly in the area of environmentally conscious water production.
For one thing, Doll says, there is a growing acceptance of the “one water” concept, which posits that there is no difference between wastewater and clean water in terms of the overall supply of water. The trick is to process wastewater and, in effect, recycle it in new and more environmentally aware ways.
Middlesex Water’s flagship project in this area is the village of Ridgewood’s wastewater treatment plant. Here Middlesex Water has installed an anaerobic digestion facility, solar arrays, and a biogas power system that treats wastewater in a completely self-sufficient plant.
The project is a 20-year public-private partnership that also includes the use of ultraviolet light for wastewater disinfection. The anaerobic digester uses naturally produced methane gas to power turbines that provide energy to the plant, in conjunction with rooftop solar arrays.
Spreading the word. Perhaps as much as the potential dangers lurking in the nation’s water infrastructure is the fact that people do not know what water production is all about, Doll says. Because water is cheap and abundant, no one pays attention to it.
Doll, however, wants to make sure people know the value of the precious and fragile resource they have at their fingertips. After all, apart from oxygen, there is no more valuable resource on the planet than water.
Doll says Middlesex Water is targeting the people who will most need to pay closer attention to what is happening now — the children. His company sponsors “Project Wet,” in which industry experts teach school teachers how to educate their students about the importance of water. This, he adds, is typical of most companies in the water industry.
“We all share the same values,” he says of his competitors (who also happen to be friends, in many cases). “This is an extremely important issue. We all ask ‘How do we do more to educate the customer?’”