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One Region’s Bold, SWIFT Response to the Water Scarcity Challenge

Did you know that the average American uses 64,240-gallons of water per year?

Around the world, 1.8 billion people still don’t have access to safe water to drink, and while it’s indispensable to our livelihood, the average American using that large amount of water annually likely doesn’t think twice about the brainpower and resources it takes to treat and deliver reliable and safe water. That’s why the National Drinking Water Week celebration is such an important educational tool, not just in the United States but around the globe.

This year’s theme, Protect the Source, encourages everyone to learn about their local drinking water sources, so together we can protect and preserve them. At Jacobs, whether it’s designing an advanced water treatment facility, implementing an innovative potable water reuse program or operating a brackish or seawater desalination plant, we’re not just treating water, we’re giving communities, industries and regions the resource they need to flourish and expand.

We constantly push for more innovative and cost-effective solutions to give more people access to safe and abundant water supplies – especially as populations are growing around the world, regulations are changing, infrastructure is aging and there’s a greater need for increased security.

We’re excited about what we do, the projects we deliver and how these projects are positively impacting communities around the world – like SWIFT, the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow program we’re delivering alongside HRSD (Hampton Roads Sanitation District).

Hampton Roads’ environmental vulnerability

The coastal region of Virginia is home to the first successful English settlement, miles of oceanfront white sand Atlantic beaches and 1.7 million people. It’s also one of the U.S.’s regions most at-risk of devastating climate variability effects such as storm surge flooding and sea level rise.

In fact, according to the Old Dominion University Center for Sea Level Rise, the Hampton Roads area is the second-most vulnerable area in the country to rising seas behind New Orleans – and of the more than 400,000 homes in Virginia at risk for surge damage, Georgetown Climate Center identifies most of them residing in the Hampton Roads region.

The Potomac Aquifer – the region’s primary source of groundwater – is a limited natural resource, meaning it lacks the sufficient ability to recharge naturally. As water is used, the aquifer’s pressure decreases and this reduced pressure has led to land subsidence, or sinking of land, further compounding the region’s susceptibility to rising seas and risk of saltwater contamination.

Because Virginians have been using more water than can be naturally replaced in the aquifer throughout the last century (it would take tens of thousands of years for the aquifer to return to its natural state if eastern Virginia were to stop using it today), action needed to be taken to protect the source.

A forward-looking solution

Every day, residents and businesses in the region send around 150-million-gallons of wastewater to HRSD, a regional wastewater treatment agency providing service to 18 counties and cities in Southeastern Virginia. This wastewater is then treated to levels clean enough to safely return to area waterways, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Knowing that their water was too valuable to waste, HRSD began exploring how they could do more for their community and the greater environment; questioning if there was a better way to reuse treated water than just sending it back toward rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. That’s how the SWIFT program came to be.

In 2013, HRSD turned to CH2M (now Jacobs), to begin evaluating concepts for a groundbreaking potable reuse project. Born out of an existing general engineering services contract, our involvement on SWIFT has turned into years of follow-on work, helping to establish a six-phase program aiming to protect the region’s environment, enhance the sustainability of the region’s long-term groundwater supply and help address environmental pressures such as Chesapeake Bay restoration, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.

SWIFT action

The SWIFT program began in 2013 with an initial feasibility assessment to identify potential treatment processes to meet drinking water quality standards. We evaluated wastewater treatment plant effluent quality and presented three viable advanced treatment concepts and costs to HRSD. Each of these treatment options provided a multi-barrier approach to both pathogens and organics, which is critical to advanced treatment and the production of safe drinking water.

We also conducted groundwater modeling scenarios to verify the expected benefits of injecting the recharge water into the Potomac Aquifer, which ultimately allowed HRSD to move forward with selecting two of the treatment processes for pilot testing.

HRSD elected to perform side-by-side testing of the Granular Activated Carbon (GAC)-based and Reverse Osmosis (RO)-based treatment options to confirm their ability to produce water that exceeds drinking water standards, and to compare performance. Pilot testing took place on the RO-based pilot from June 2016 to December 2016, while the GAC-based pilot was operational from July 2016 to October 2017, providing adequate time for apples-to-apples comparison of the different treatment processes treating the same source water. Both pilots took place at HRSD’s York River Treatment Plant, one of HRSD’s seven candidate treatment plants for advanced water treatment and subsequent groundwater injection.

During this phase, we also assisted with the drilling, development and analysis of two test wells to verify the aquifer hydraulics and water quality and conducted a series of geochemical compatibility analyses to ensure successful injection.

Rather than moving immediately to full-scale implementation, HRSD elected to proceed with a state-of-the-art 1 MGD demonstration facility using GAC-based treatment located at another one of HRSD’s eligible SWIFT candidates, the Nansemond Treatment Plant. The GAC-based treatment process was selected for the Research Center based on its pilot performance, preferential cost, avoidance of brine treatment and discharge challenges and projected compatibility with the native groundwater.

HRSD will then inject the SWIFT Water into the aquifer and monitor results at the site for one year to inform design criteria for the full-scale facilities. We’re working with HRSD on the required regulatory steps for the future full-scale facilities that will reach over 100-million-gallons per day by 2030.

Recharging coastal Virginia

Our hydraulic modeling suggests that injecting SWIFT Water back into the aquifer may reduce the effects of sea level rise dramatically and positively improve the Potomac Aquifer – which spans across the eastern United States from Georgia to New Jersey. This increased coastal pressure would also lessen the risk of salt water intrusion.

The thorough and proven steps of SWIFT’s GAC-based treatment processes ensure that the water is reliable, safe and protective of the region’s precious groundwater source. Replenishing the Potomac Aquifer with HRSD’s SWIFT Water can help slow or even reverse the sinking of land due to withdrawals from the source.

The United States Geological Survey estimated that groundwater withdrawals are responsible for more than half of the land subsidence in eastern Virginia, and land subsidence is estimated to contribute to more than half of the net effect of sea level rise in Hampton Roads. Reducing, or even better, stopping this land sinking would add years of stability for a region whose economy relies on a strong tourist draw, and would protect thousands of acres of wetlands from being completely washed out. A reliable groundwater source also ensures that businesses in the region have the water they need to thrive, further strengthening regional economy.

Following full-scale implementation of the SWIFT program, HRSD expects to only need to discharge treated water through existing permitted outfalls into local rivers occasionally during significant storms at the facilities where SWIFT is implemented. At those facilities, SWIFT will successfully eliminate more than 90 percent of HRSD’s discharge, reducing nutrients entering the receiving streams, and in turn the Chesapeake Bay.

To the future

According to the American Water Works Association, upgrading existing water systems and meeting the drinking water infrastructure needs of our U.S. population (that’s expected to hit 441 million by 2050) will require at least $1 trillion in investment.

Threats to drinking water sources, such as aquifers, polluted water bodies and insufficient storage can be just as devastating as leaky pipes or outdated treatment plants – and with no new water on Earth, we can’t afford to use water once and dispose of it. That’s why we’re so passionate about driving sustainable reuse technologies and changing the conversation around recycled water by showcasing efforts like SWIFT that garner greater returns on investment during National Drinking Water Week, and throughout the year, as more water utilities look to plan, design and implement their future water infrastructure.

Programs like SWIFT challenge cities and regions to take a fresh look at how they’re using water, ask how they can better protect the source of their sustained livelihood and adopt a more holistic approach to water management. As the No. 1 Design Firm as ranked by Engineering-News Record, there’s no firm more capable than Jacobs to design innovative, integrated solutions that not only address the global water challenge, but balance these social, economic and environmental priorities. Connect with us at

Peter Nicol currently serves as Global Director of Water at Jacobs and was formerly CH2M’s Global Water Business Group President where he had full profit and loss responsibility for the $1.4 billion global water business, including leading more than 5,000 water professionals, in 175 offices, in more than 50 countries worldwide. Under Peter’s leadership, CH2M solidified its brand as the global market leader in water and wastewater design work, and he continues to lead Jacobs’ industry-leading water efforts. Peter joined CH2M in 1980 after receiving his bachelor of applied science degree in Geological Engineering and Applied Earth Sciences from the University of Toronto. 

SWIFT team toasts to cleaner waters and a resilient water future



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