Chance Lauderdale, PhD, PE, is an expert in the field of water treatment specializing in biofiltration who today leads engineering firm HDR’s global drinking water program. Dr. Lauderdale’s reference publications and novel biofilter enhancement and monitoring strategies are used by utilities throughout the United States. In this interview, Dr. Lauderdale tells Municipal Water Leader about HDR’s global drinking water program—one of the largest in the world—and the services it provides to help its clients mitigate problems like pharmaceutical contamination in water reuse projects and successfully communicate their achievements to their customers.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Chance Lauderdale: I’m originally from Florida. I grew up wandering our (and our neighbors’) properties on daily outdoor adventures, curious about the animals and environments I found. Like others in my generation, I was also influenced by Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, so it seemed natural to be drawn to a related field when I enrolled at the University of Florida. I chose a major in environmental engineering, without really knowing what I wanted to specialize in. All uncertainties vanished during my first course in water treatment. I knew I was home and that I needed more. I took the opportunity to dual enroll in a master’s degree program as I wrapped up my bachelor’s obligations.
My master’s research project focused on the potential for biological remediation of select contaminants commonly found in surface water supplies. The ultimate goal was to inform the potential development of a biology-based drinking water treatment approach. At the time, most water industry professionals considered biological treatment to be a wastewater-exclusive topic. However, biological filtration, or biofiltration, had quietly emerged as a practice for many water utilities. Biofiltration is an operational strategy in which a conventional drinking water filter is operated without a disinfectant residual, allowing the bacteria that naturally appear in the source water to grow on filter media and provide additional treatment. At the time, little was known about the bacterial communities present in drinking water biofilters or how they could be optimized.
My research sought to help open that black box and identify bacteria capable of degrading the problematic compounds produced by blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. Recently, we’ve seen news reports on how some cyanobacterial species can release toxins in our lakes and reservoirs. However, a much more common consequence of cyanobacteria bloom events is their effects on the aesthetics of our drinking water. These organisms can produce compounds, like 2‑methylisoborneol and geosmin, that can change the way our water smells and tastes. My research partnered me with a Florida drinking water utility seeking a cost-effective solution to manage this issue. In the end, we identified a naturally occurring bacteria in its drinking water reservoir that could sustainably remove these taste and odor compounds, with the ultimate aim of using these findings to develop a long-term treatment strategy.
After the study was complete, part of me did want to continue with my PhD. However, I was ready for a new adventure and chose to accept an entry-level engineering position with a firm in Orange County, California.
Municipal Water Leader: Are these taste and odor compounds harmful to humans?
Chance Lauderdale: These compounds can impart a musty, earthy odor to our drinking water, making it unpalatable. Aside from that, they are not directly regulated, nor do they present any known health risks. The biggest concern relates to potential negative effects on public perception and utility branding. We are extremely sensitive to these compounds and can smell and taste them at trace concentrations of around 10 parts per trillion (10 nanograms per liter). Conventional treatment is ineffective at removing these compounds to sufficiently low levels. For many years, the best available technology was activated carbon adsorption. Activated carbon, in either powdered or granular forms, is an effective yet expensive treatment process that in some applications generates large waste streams and greenhouse gas emissions.
The concept behind drinking water biological treatment is to leverage Mother Nature and the inherent efficiencies of our environmental systems. In many natural cycles, the byproducts of some organisms are consumed and degraded by others. Therefore, treatment technologies that foster the growth of microbial communities capable of degrading and removing contaminants are often more efficient and less expensive than traditional treatment technologies that require high energy and chemical inputs.
One of my first and most significant professional mentors, Jess Brown, had a similar passion for this topic. Though we worked in different states, Jess graciously brought me into his projects and initiatives. This arrangement lasted just over a year before I moved to join him in Sarasota, Florida. This allowed us to expand our collaboration and, over the next 5 years, to develop a drinking water biological treatment practice. Meanwhile, I’d never lost the desire to pursue a doctorate, and eventually the right opportunity presented itself. In 2007, the City of Arlington, Texas, decided to optimize its biofiltration process to further reduce the trace levels of pharmaceuticals that had previously been identified in its source waters. I secured funding from the Water Research Foundation to lead an investigation that simultaneously met an important client need and established the research plan for my PhD at the University of Florida. I cannot overstate the positive effects that this project has had on my career and the gratitude I have for all those who helped me along the way.
Municipal Water Leader: How did you come to be in your current position at HDR?
Chance Lauderdale: I relocated to Texas during the execution of the Water Research Foundation project and my PhD research. There, I was able to expand my previous firm’s biofiltration practice and develop an incredible network across the industry. Shortly before my 10th anniversary at the firm, a close friend reached out to me about a great opportunity to serve as HDR’s global water treatment business class director in Denver, Colorado. I took that leap in August 2013. My new role focused on managing the water treatment technical service line and required me to provide expertise to strategic projects, evaluate technical growth opportunities, look at quality control markers, and support our technical brand through conferences and publications.
About a year in, as I was finding my feet, HDR presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime: to lead the company’s drinking water program as the drinking water market sector director. This position presented a shift from technical service delivery toward guiding the growth of our program as a whole. The market sector director and their team are charged with ensuring that HDR maintains the capabilities required to meet the needs of our drinking water utility clients. This includes growing the depth and diversity of our services, developing staff, promoting quality, and fostering innovation. It’s important to underscore that while I work to support and champion these efforts, the success of the program is built on the close collaboration of hundreds of staff members.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about HDR’s global drinking water program and the activities and programs that fall under that umbrella?
Chance Lauderdale: It is one of the largest drinking water programs in the world and was ranked as one of the top 5 such programs in the last Engineering News Record compilation. HDR has operations or projects in every state in the United States, and we have approximately 225 offices worldwide. We are a full-service program that draws resources from across our company to provide the right expertise for our clients’ needs. While our company has divisions reflecting our core businesses, we work hard to prevent ourselves from operating in silos. Many of our water professionals regularly engage in work across industries, allowing them to provide support where they are needed most. Our work includes the planning, engineering, design, and construction management of pipelines, reservoirs, pump stations and treatment facilities. However, we also provide program management, rate studies, condition assessments, asset management, strategic communications and public outreach support, operations, research and development, and many other services.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the subject of pharmaceutical contamination of water, the dangers or problems it poses, and its relevance to water reuse.
Chance Lauderdale: Pharmaceuticals in drinking water has been an issue as long as there have been faucets and people who have been prescribed medications, but awareness among water professionals and the public was greatly elevated after the 2008 publication of an Associated Press story that drew on the source water characterization work of major drinking water utilities across the United States. The article stated that pharmaceuticals were present in water supplies just about everywhere, at least among the utilities whose studies they had reviewed. The secondary point, which received less attention, was that while these compounds are present, their concentration levels were extremely low—in the parts-per-trillion or even parts-per-quadrillion ranges. Nevertheless, that story left the public with lingering questions about something potentially harmful in their water supplies. The reality is that we know through practice that no major epidemiological consequence has been attached to these compounds at their commonly observed environmental concentrations.
A research group from Nevada led by Dr. Shane Snyder made significant contributions to the foundational work characterizing pharmaceuticals across the environment. Dr. Snyder appeared before the U.S. Congress several times to discuss the prevalence of these compounds and the potential risks they pose to the public. A consistent message across his testimonies was that while technology has evolved to detect things at ever-lower concentrations, just because we detect a contaminant doesn’t mean it’s harmful.
Based on this discussion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added a suite of these compounds to its Contaminant Candidate List 3, which includes compounds not subject to regulation that are known to occur in public water systems and that may require future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. A decade later, there is no active regulatory action being pursued on these compounds. Nevertheless, utilities across the country are working to minimize any potential risks associated with pharmaceuticals, because the issue does attract public attention.
Municipal Water Leader: Is the public’s concern about this issue disproportionate to its importance?
Chance Lauderdale: Information is always valuable, but I think we’ve learned about the importance of strategic communication with the public when it comes to issues like this. In the past, a utility that became aware of this sort of information often rushed to release it to the public without providing any context, which often led to uninformed reactions. Today, utilities are more likely to engage in public campaigns that include educating customers on the issue, sharing information about the actions the utility has taken to ensure continued drinking water safety, and providing recommendations on what customers can do themselves to be good stewards of their watersheds, such as medication disposal protocols.
Municipal Water Leader: How is HDR approaching this issue?
Chance Lauderdale: Many industry associations have invested heavily over the past few decades in helping inform the industry about pharmaceutical contaminants and helping set reasonable targets for removing these compounds from drinking water sources. HDR and our staff have led or participated in many of these studies, collaborating with others across the industry. In addition, we also partner with our individual clients to develop tailored strategies based on their system and customer needs. Much of our current work involves assessing what pharmaceuticals are present in a given water source and at what concentrations. The results of these assessments then inform subsequent mitigation actions if they are needed.
One important consideration for these survey studies relates to the constraints on analysis. Pharmaceuticals are most often measured directly; this may involve running analyses for hundreds of unique compounds. The cost is often prohibitive for large sample sets, and the suite of tested contaminants is never comprehensive, as thousands of unknown chemicals may be present. Today, this challenge is best addressed through the careful optimization of pharmaceutical monitoring plans. The key is to first understand what may be present to inform the right sampling matrix. Then, we want to target samples at the right location and the right time to measure the presence and behavior of those pharmaceuticals in a watershed or sewer shed.
Looking toward the future, the water industry has invested heavily to identify alternatives to the direct measurement of pharmaceuticals and other trace contaminants. The reliability with which bioassays and other surrogate testing methods can detect, characterize, and assess the risk for these compounds is continuously improving. Widespread application is likely a few years out, but those methods remain on the horizon and present a real opportunity to improve our overall analytical approach.
Municipal Water Leader: What technologies are most effective in detecting and mitigating pharmaceutical contamination?
Chance Lauderdale: The good news is that many available technologies can help manage drinking water pharmaceutical contamination. Treatment technologies that can mitigate pharmaceuticals as part of a water treatment process most often fall into one the following categories: membrane separation (e.g., nanofiltration, reverse osmosis), activated carbon adsorption, advanced oxidation (e.g., ozone, ultraviolet-peroxide), and biofiltration. Technology selection is often driven by treatment objectives, capital cost, operational cost, residuals management requirements, and available space.
Other strategies that can mitigate pharmaceutical occurrence in drinking water supplies include engineered natural systems, such as wetland mitigation or soil aquifer management. These systems can provide polishing treatment to wastewater effluent before it is blended with a freshwater supply. Hydraulic and water quality modelers are adept at characterizing the fate and transport of these compounds through the environment and can provide recommendations to improve natural remediation and removal.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some of your work with clients on this issue?
Chance Lauderdale: We’ve worked with utilities across the country to dig into the issue of pharmaceutical contamination. We’ve been a longtime partner of the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, a nonprofit wastewater management services corporation formed by Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, and Thurston Counties in the state of Washington. We work with them to evaluate their reclaimed water system, which they use for irrigation and nondrinking water purposes. To help them understand the fate and transport of pharmaceuticals that may have originated in their wastewater supply, HDR helped them identify monitoring points across their groundwater system. It was a great project that demonstrated that their wastewater processing systems were doing an excellent job in eliminating many of these compounds, mostly through biological degradation.
Another example is the design and program management work HDR performed through multiple phases of the West Basin Municipal Water District’s Edward C. Little Water Reclamation Facility, which is located in Los Angeles County, California. This facility receives highly treated wastewater and further purifies it through one of its multiple treatment trains, which are tailored to meet customer-specific water quality objectives. In addition, a portion of the finished water is injected into a groundwater aquifer to provide a seawater intrusion barrier and protect drinking water supplies. Membrane filtration and advanced oxidation are just two of the multiple treatment technologies employed at this facility to remove pharmaceuticals and other potential contaminants.
We have a similar project in the eastern United States involving a utility trying to simultaneously manage groundwater resiliency and nutrient management from its wastewater treatment effluent. One alternative under consideration is the use of highly purified wastewater for managed aquifer recharge. There are many watersheds in the United States today in which nutrient criteria are set so low that by the time effective treatment is completed, you’ve got some pretty high-quality water. With some additional treatment, you can potentially make beneficial use of it, and in some cases even use it to augment existing drinking water supplies. Strategies like these can provide multiple benefits across our hydrologic cycle. As such, these programs are often referred to as employing a one-water approach. Utilities seeking these holistic solutions understand that increasing the connectivity between their water systems carries inherent real and perceived risks. Managing trace organic compounds, like pharmaceuticals, will always be a priority, because it minimizes the unnecessary contamination of our water resources and helps maintain public safety and trust.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about HDR’s ongoing research on emerging technologies?
Chance Lauderdale: HDR has a formalized applied research group called the One Water Institute (OWI). OWI’s mission is to identify and validate holistic research solutions that maximize benefits across the water cycle. Pervasive water contaminants, such as pharmaceutical compounds, which are commonly found in wastewater, storm water, or drinking water, align well with OWI’s objectives. Further, OWI not only participates in grant-and client-funded research, it also sponsors a graduate scholarship within the American Water Works Association scholarship program each year.
One of our recent scholarship recipients that I’m really excited about is Haley White, who is a working toward her PhD at Georgia Tech. Haley’s innovative research looks at enhancing the material of reverse osmosis membranes so that they’re more selective for small, neutral molecules, like many pharmaceuticals.