With a little ingenuity and a lot of experience managing stormwater in our rainy environment, recent innovative projects are putting South Sound on the map as a leader in clean-water technology.

As the population grows, the need worldwide for methods to minimize pollution will grow too. Environmental regulations are becoming more stringent and businesses are hunting for solutions that clean stormwater effectively and efficiently.

The Port of Tacoma has launched several pilot projects, including a biofiltration system at the port’s log yard to reduce pollutants such as zinc, copper and chemical oxygen demand (COD). While zinc and copper are essential to aquatic life, in high concentrations they can disrupt biological processes and can be even be lethal. High COD levels can also disrupt things like cell functioning and also result in death because they decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen organisms require.

“Traditionally, stormwater rules focus on ‘not flooding the neighbor,’ so we have a lot of underground infrastructure, like pipes, to move stormwater,” says Port of Tacoma’s Environmental Project Manager Anita Fichthorn. “But for water quality, we need to think how we move the stormwater and find ways to retrofit existing infrastructure to do a better job of removing pollutants.”

The port worked with renowned national low-impact development expert Larry Coffman and Kennedy/Jenks Consultants to design a system that uses a mix of 65 percent gravelly sand and 35 percent compost, with special plants selected to further filter out pollutants.

The results have been impressive — the levels of zinc and copper declined immediately after the biofiltration system was installed in 2013. The COD levels, which started at 3,000 mg/L, have been meeting a target level of under 120 mg/L for eight consecutive quarters, and recently hit a new milestone of 23 mg/L (compared to the target of 120 mg/L).

Building off this success, the port launched a new pilot at a terminal that handles heavy equipment to use the same concept underground. If successful, a stormwater system retrofit using this technology could save port tenants and customers millions of dollars, Fichthorn says.

“There’s nothing on the market like this, so we worked on design for a long time, using materials from home-improvement stores,” she says.

The underground system will be installed over the summer, and by the end of the year, the port expects to have a fine-tuned design that other industrial facilities can adapt.

“Sometimes it’s hard for operating facilities to think outside of what they’re currently doing every day,” Fichthorn says. “It helps to have solutions that have been tested and having people try different things to make sure they’re viable.”

Answering Demand for Clean-Water Technology

It’s those types of innovative projects that help put South Sound on the map as a leader in clean-water technology. Bruce Kendall, president of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, says the clean-water industry is fractured — there’s no “Boeing of clean water tech.”

“There are thousands of small players, and many of those players who have the expertise in the clean-water sector are in South Sound,” he says.

A group of public and private entities partnered in 2012 to create the Urban Clean Water Technology Innovation Partnership Zone when they recognized the potential for South Sound to become a leader in the sector. The Urban Clean Water Technology IPZ, one of 18 Innovation Partnership Zones designated by the Washington State Department of Commerce, is a collaboration of several educational and research institutions, government leaders and local businesses.

Joel Baker, PhD, lead researcher for the IPZ, says this collaboration provides a framework for advancing the sector in the South Sound, and helps bridge the gap between research and private industry. The South Sound has many advantages — including its national reputation, track record for contaminated water cleanup, a culture of trying new water technologies and a state-of-the-art “laboratory” in the form of the Center for Urban Waters (CUW), where businesses can test their technologies.

“A barrier to a lot of these companies that are trying to develop technologies for clean water is access to sophisticated analytics equipment to test whether their devices are working properly. We offer that,” says Baker, who is the CUW’s science director and a professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

Another barrier is getting into the market with untested ideas.

“One of our advantages is that we have both the Port of Tacoma and the City of Tacoma as very aggressive and entrepreneurial in trying new technologies,” Baker says.

Building off National Reputation

Tacoma became nationally recognized for its historic efforts several years ago to clean up more than a hundred years of contamination at the Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways. The goal was achieved through a unique scientific approach and policy coordination — and Baker says that was just the beginning of the region’s growing prominence in the clean-water sector.

The city, which led the effort, is recognized nationally and internationally for its stormwater-cleaning innovation. That not only puts South Sound on the stage but also helps attract new businesses, Kendall says.

“When it comes to water, we are the gold standard in the United States, and as other states adopt stricter environmental standards, private contractors from those states come here to learn and form partnerships,” he says.

And the potential is not limited to the U.S. market. Around the world, numerous coastal cities are trying to balance industrial growth with the need to protect the water resources.

“Globally, many cities that went through rapid industrial growth have severe water problems,” Baker says. “The market for water technology is huge.”

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