Gwinnett participation in national water research could lead to jobs

It makes perfect sense to Ron Seibenhener. With Gwinnett’s technologically advanced wastewater treatment center, its interest in innovation and access to Georgia Tech, the county has the pieces needed to become a new headquarters for water research.

And research, he said, could eventually led to jobs.

“Everyone is looking for something to separate you from your competition, to put you in a better position for having jobs,” said Seibenhener, the director of Gwinnett’s Department of Water Resources.

The county’s Department of Water Resources will soon begin two national research projects. Already, it has participated in more than a dozen in recent years. Seibenhener has said he would like to expand research and educational facilities at the signature F. Wayne Hill Water Treatment Plant. For years, the facility has been recognized as a top water treatment plant.

Local leaders think such opportunities could eventually lead to water company startups.

“The desire is there. The support is certainly there,” county commissioner John Heard said. “We would like to have something at the F. Wayne Hill plant that works as an incubator. … It’s an extension of the research we’re looking to do now.”

New jobs are not the impetus for the research projects, but they could be a benefit, said Seibenhener. Others in the business community have told him they see opportunities for economic development as a result of the research that is being done.

The water department will be involved in two studies. The first involves testing whether treated wastewater is clean enough to drink without putting it back into Lake Lanier and treating it again. Recycling the water is known as direct potable reuse, and could help in areas where there are droughts or population growth that strains the water supply.

“This could be a real game changer,” Seibenhener said. “Even if it doesn’t prove to be the solution, it could be the start of different paths to get to that solution. We want to make it safe, reliable and cheap.”

That research is part of a trend to look at water as one resource, instead of looking at drinking water and wastewater differently, said Georgia Tech professor Ching-Hua Huang, who is participating in the research on reusing water. Such a change could affect water policies and create potential solutions that could aid Georgia the next time there is a severe drought, or as more people move in.

The other project relates to optimizing the method Gwinnett currently uses to clean its water, known as ozonation and biological filtration. The process is new, Seibenhener said, and Gwinnett can save money if it learns more about the best ways to proceed.

Participating in such research will make Gwinnett a logical place for startups, said Heard. Already, he said, people come from around the world to see the county’s treatment facilities, especially the Hill plant.

It was advanced when it opened, Huang said, and the county has been forward-thinking about water needs.

“Each region has local water challenges,” she said. Gwinnett is “not only doing things at the local level. …They’re doing more.”

Cynthia Lane, director of engineering and technical services for the American Water Works Association, said centers of research and innovation called water clusters have begun to pop up around the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a list of 14 in the country, but none in the Southeast.

Because water issues differ in different geographies, “there’s always room for these,” Lane said.

In addition to the work local water utilities are participating in and research at schools like Georgia Tech, Georgia Power and the Electric Power Research Institute have opened a Water Research Center near Cartersville to test water use in generating electricity. Emory University created a WaterHub to help it recycle wastewater.

“Groups focus on one problem, and economic development groups see the potential to grow it further,” Lane said. “Some have seen companies sprout up. They create an attractive place for businesses to start up outside the traditional technology hubs.”

Gwinnett is in a position to take a leadership role when it comes to developing ways to use water more efficiently, said Gwinnett Chairman Charlotte Nash. While the strategy remains to be seen, Nash said a business incubator could be a consideration. Still, she said the research itself is the primary motivation for participating in the studies.

“I certainly think that’s possible,” she said of an incubator. “It would be a nice side benefit, if it goes in that direction. …We certainly have a great basis from which to start. I can’t imagine any other resource that’s going to be more critical.”

Not all, though, are so keen on how much business could be generated from such a setup.

Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia, said in an email that access to reused water “could be a crucial step toward alleviating our water supply issues” and help the state if the Water Wars with Alabama and Florida aren’t decided in Georgia’s favor. Jobs, he said, are secondary.

“The big benefit would be stretching out the available water supply for next time we have a drought,” he wrote. “So this is about water, not economics.”