The City of Norman, Oklahoma, and engineering firm Garver recently secured a $700,000 grant through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program for a pilot inland indirect potable reuse (IPR) program. The pilot program aims to determine the viability of using reuse water to supply Lake Thunderbird, the primary source of drinking water for Norman, turning it into a drought-resistant source. In this interview, Garver Water Reuse Practice Leader Michael Watts, who coauthored the successful grant application, explains the motivations and aims of the pilot project and discusses how municipalities can best make use of Title XVI.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Michael Watts: I spent pretty much all of my twenties as a graduate researcher at a couple of universities studying water reuse technology, particularly ultraviolet disinfection and advanced oxidation processes that are used to polish water and remove microconstituents and contaminants of emerging concerns from reclaimed wastewater—things like pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants, and other anthropogenic organic contaminants that we find trace residuals of in municipal discharges. I spent about 10 years researching how to remove those constituents and create nearly pristine reclaimed water for potable applications. My first career stop was in higher education, teaching environmental engineering and leading an externally supported water research laboratory. In 2013, I met folks at Garver and learned that they were developing a team of technologists to focus on water reuse projects in the western states, where the scarcity of freshwater resources is a driver for alternative water supply projects. I’ve been at Garver for almost 7 years now, and I very much enjoy overcoming the technical challenges of municipal water reclamation and reuse.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about Garver as a company.
Michael Watts: In fall 2019, Garver celebrated 100 years of consulting engineering. The company provides a diverse array of services, including design, engineering, planning, architectural services, and environmental services. We have over 700 employees across 13 states and have grown into a nationally recognized design firm. We’re in the Engineering News-Record’s top 150, and over the last few years, our ranking has continued to rise. As a water services provider, 99 percent of our work is for municipal clients. We do work both inside the fence and outside the fence. We provide treatment works design for water, wastewater, and advanced water reuse; pipeline and pump station design; and design of storage facilities and conveyance structures for treated water.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the problem that the City of Norman, Oklahoma, is trying to solve with its pilot study at Lake Thunderbird?
Michael Watts: The project started about 8 years ago with the City of Norman. It initiated a water supply plan and began to take a proactive look at its long-term water supply, including the expected economic and population growth of the city. As your readers know, water drives economic growth in cities across the United States. If you don’t have access to ample water, it is difficult to attract industry and businesses and to make it economically feasible for folks to move their families to your community. For the City of Norman, the major obstacle to continuing its rapid expansion was water supply. The city determined that around 2024, it would be short of approximately 5 million gallons a day of freshwater. With this in mind, it needed to develop and expand its water reuse programs. The city currently has a partnership with the University of Oklahoma, which is based in Norman, to sell reuse effluent from its only water reclamation facility, the Norman Water Reclamation Facility. That project has been a success for many years now. However, the city realized that it needed to divert more of its potable supply off groundwater and surface water resources onto an expanded nonpotable reuse supply.
Looking further into the future, Norman identified that by about 2060, it would be short about 15 million gallons per day of available freshwater resources. The city developed a pretty aggressive phased expansion plan for a new potable reuse program. It didn’t really know what shape that would take, but it knew that more than likely it would be an application like an augmentation project, typically called an indirect potable reuse project, in which effluent is treated, purified, and discharged. In Norman’s case, it would be discharged in Lake Thunderbird and then pulled out using the city’s existing infrastructure and treated again by its water treatment plant—a blended environmental buffer approach to potable reuse. That was on the horizon as a possibility, but the State of Oklahoma did not yet have a codified permitting procedure for a project like that. In addition, the lake is a shared water resource. There are youth camps that use the lake every summer, and there are large fishing and bass tournaments that are supported by the lake, so it has become an ecotourism destination in central Oklahoma.
Garver got involved in 2013, working for the Central Oklahoma Conservancy District, which was set up to manage the lake when Reclamation created it in the 1960s with a dam off the Little River in central Oklahoma. The conservancy district was looking at the long-term viability of the lake as a water supply, knowing that the City of Norman had a water supply gap and wanting to be a part of the solution. The conservancy district itself is a board of representatives from each of the stakeholder organizations on the lake, all of them concerned and engaged citizens who volunteer their time to manage the lake and ensure that it provides for all the designated beneficial uses. When Garver got involved in 2013, the firm looked at the feasibility of augmentation projects on the lake, looking at effluent from different sources, including municipal reclaimed water. It became clear from study, evaluation, and design that an IPR project using Norman’s effluent would be of the most benefit for the long-term viability of the lake and the City of Norman’s long-term water supply goals. Several water quality models and conceptual designs have been completed over the years; simultaneously, the State of Oklahoma has codified rules on how to permit a water supply reservoir IPR-augmentation project. We are currently in step 2 of the process, which is developing a pilot program to demonstrate the quality of effluent to support an engineering report submission to the state.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the pilot study.
Michael Watts: It’s going to be partially funded by a grant from Reclamation under its Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program. We are in a design phase in which we’re going to put all the pieces together—all the treatment regimes from primary influent to the Northern Water Reclamation Facility to advanced purified effluent. It’s a pretty large project: It will involve over $2 million of construction and design over 2½ years. We will be looking at how we can convert influent to the plant into an effluent that will have long-term success as an augmentation water resource for Lake Thunderbird.
Municipal Water Leader: If you were to go ahead with the full-scale IPR project, what would it look like?
Michael Watts: That is still an open question, and it is one that we’re trying to answer with the pilot itself. We see several possibilities for effective, efficient, and safe IPR discharge into Lake Thunderbird, but we want to take our time to find the right answers and develop a data set that backs up a smart plan that can be expanded in the future. We want to start filling in the water supply gap that Norman will face by 2024, but with the much larger supply gap that is expected by 2060, we need an approach that is readily expandable and can be staged in multiple construction projects.
Municipal Water Leader: What factors do you expect to play into the question of whether the IPR project is feasible for Norman?
Michael Watts: There will be questions from groups like our citizen advisory council and our technical advisory committee that will drive some of the technical testing and data collection for this project. In general, feasibility is going to come down to ensuring that the water we produce can support all the lake’s beneficial uses, from fishing to swimming, boating, and water supply.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about those citizen advisory committees and any other public relations work that Norman and Garver have undertaken?
Michael Watts: The citizen advisory committees are the backbone of our public engagement. The City of Norman has been pretty progressive in developing them. The city recognizes that there are multiple parties that are interested in the future of the lake, all of whom want to have a seat at the table and to have the opportunity to ask questions about how the plan works, what the city’s plans are, and how they will affect the lake’s future. The committees include representatives of the City of Midwest City, representatives of the City of Dell City, folks from the City of Norman, and folks who work around the lake every day. Their understanding of the system will have a huge influence on the ultimate acceptance of the project in the community. The initiative has been a success to date.
Municipal Water Leader: Was this project inspired by any other inland IPR projects?
Michael Watts: We have learned quite a bit from other projects across the West that involved surface water augmentation with indirect water reuse, some successful and some not successful. We’ve watched them closely, and that has informed how we’re
moving forward with this project. However, it’s also true that each state is looking at surface water augmentation with IPR through a different lens. In Oklahoma, regulators have taken an active interest in making sure that they come up with a program and a permitting process that helps their communities, cities, and water suppliers to develop a reliable water future with reservoir augmentation.
Municipal Water Leader: What went into writing a successful grant application for the Title XVI program?
Michael Watts: Lots of patience! If I were going to provide some advice for other cities and engineers looking to take advantage of the Title XVI program, I would urge them to start the conversation now with their local and regional representatives of Reclamation. In our case, the Oklahoma City office and the Austin, Texas, office were instrumental in guiding us toward the data that we needed to start collecting almost a year and a half before we applied. Reclamation, like any funding agency, wants to invest in projects that are viable for the long term, and it wants to see that a project helps fulfill the long-term goals of water supply for the region.
I would also encourage folks to talk to Reclamation about getting access to past successful applications. It was helpful for us to see what worked and what didn't. These grant applications can be 100 pages long, so there’s plenty of room to make mistakes. There are details that you want to include that help Reclamation assess the potential success of the project. Seeing how others have avoided making mistakes in their applications can be helpful.