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Water Quality Improvements to Flow from the Water Technology Innovation Cluster

EPA convenes a unique collaboration to spur new clean drinking water technologies, green infrastructure, and job creation.

A glass of water

“Well-conceived, effectively implemented environmental protection is good for economic growth.” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made that statement a little over a year ago during remarks she made at the National Press club highlighting how developing innovative environmental technologies is a critical driver of our nation’s economic success. On January 18, 2011, Jackson joined U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Karen Mills to announce a plan to put those words into action through the formation of the Water Technology Innovation Cluster (WTIC).

The new cluster will bring innovative technologies that improve water quality to market and create jobs. “Innovation is the ‘sweet spot’ where our economic and environmental interests meet,” Administrator Jackson said during her opening remarks.
WTIC includes venture capitalists, commercial developers, technology firms, water utilities, economic development forums, academia, and local government in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southeastern Indiana.

Administrator Jackson added that “by bringing together public utilities, research partners, and innovative businesses, the Water Technology Innovation Cluster will be instrumental in strengthening health protections for millions of Americans and promoting investments in cutting-edge technology.”

A regional technology cluster is a geographic concentration of firms and supporting institutions that are committed to building a vibrant, technology-driven economy with a particular focus area. This region was selected because it contains many key ingredients for a successful cluster,  including EPA’s internationally recognized water research laboratory, and many proactive water utilities such as  the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW), a  utility “at the forefront of treatment,” according to EPA’s Dr. Anthony Zimmer. Dr. Zimmer is the co-lead of the WTIC project along with EPA’s Dr. Michael Gonzalez.

As an example, Cincinnati’s GCWW is collaborating with EPA to explore the effects of distribution on water quality. Water may test “safe” when leaving a water treatment plant, but what happens to its quality when it flows through miles and miles of old pipe before it arrives at a home or business? With GCWW, EPA has established one of the first real-time monitoring systems throughout a water system. Cincinnati was the first test site and the technology now has been extended to three other cities. Approximately $12 million has been expended on the effort so far. 

The WTIC’s initial focus will be on drinking water, with $5 million in EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants dedicated to clean drinking water and the formation of the National Center for Innovative Drinking Water Treatment Technology. The cluster also will support the development of green infrastructure projects, including two currently underway in the Cincinnati area:  rain gardens at Shepherd Creek (see “Science Matters” article Can Rain Barrels and Gardens Keep Sewage in the Sewers), and a collaboration with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District to redirect stormwater to create a new above-ground stream in the Lick Run Watershed. Ideas for additional green infrastructure projects are under consideration.

Many small businesses in the regional  area are engaged in water science and technology development, and $1.5 million will be available to these companies through grants from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop innovative technologies with water applications. EPA’s SBIR program provides incentive funding to small businesses to translate their inventive ideas into commercial products that address environmental problems.

EPA Cincinnati’s Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with General Electric (GE) and its partners is a prime example of the Agency’s work with a large firm to field numerous drinking water technologies. “This effort combines GE’s proprietary technology in sensor-based data collection, communication, storage, and processing with EPA’s water models and patented event detection techniques,” Gonzalez says.

EPA and GE are trying to figure out how to utilize the sensor technology and the algorithms that go with it, and how to handle the influx of data and interpret them to determine whether a potentially hazardous event has occurred. They also are looking at how to use the sensors for energy savings. GE has developed and continues to improve a number of water technologies, and because 40 percent of the global population does not have access to clean running water or sanitation, there is a global need for water technology innovation. 

EPA’s role in the WTIC is as a facilitator supporting the movement of technologies from bench to market. The Agency “is not the force behind forming the cluster, but is there to bring the groups together to catalyze its formation,” Gonzalez explains. EPA adds another dimension to the collaboration as a governmental policy organization. “What EPA brings to the table in addition to our expertise in water technology, sustainability, and innovation, is the policy component,” Gonzalez says. Zimmer agrees, adding that policies must not be too prescriptive because innovative technologies provide solutions that had previously been unachievable.

The WTIC is one tool supporting the Agency’s mission, and in particular its Drinking Water Strategy, but EPA will work with other firms or entities, beyond those in the cluster, that would like to partner with the Agency for environmental solutions. “We are a Federal agency, so we are looking at the cluster as one facet of a myriad of ways of getting technology out there,” Zimmer explains.

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