Oil and water: heavy industry’s reliance on water

Workers wash up at Proviso rail yards in Melrose Park, circa 1943. Credit Jack Delano.

A century ago, the Chicago region was known for its plethora of food-processing plants, steam-powered rail lines, and massive steel mills. What did all of these industries have in common?  An insatiable demand for water.  Today, instead of traditionally water-intensive industries, we tend to think of Chicagoland as the home for many corporate headquarters, from Boeing to McDonalds, as well as a magnet for tourism.

However, these shifts do not mean that water is any less important to the region’s economic competitiveness.  Take, for example, the manufacturing of some of Chicago and Milwaukee’s best-known exports – beers from breweries like Miller Coors and Goose Island – which continue to rely on purified water from Lake Michigan. Less directly, water plays a role in the region’s attractiveness to highly-skilled workers: proximity to the Great Lakes offers many recreational activities and a general quality of life enhancement.

For anyone tempted to take for granted the advantages of abundant, drinkable water, look no further than those places, including here in the U.S., where that resource does not exist, such as the hundreds of thousands of people in central California whose water supplies have been contaminated with agricultural chemicals.  Taking away basic access to potable water inflicts a heavy burden of added costs and health risks for residents.  Together, these factors make a water-scarce region a far less appealing place to live.

Furthermore, the reliable electricity service we have all come to expect – a prerequisite for doing business in any industry, from manufacturing to hospitality – relies on a steady supply of water to cool nuclear, coal and gas power plants.  As seen during the drought of 2012, water shortages can force plants to run at less than full capacity and create conflict between electric utilities and other large water users.

Thus, intelligent water supply planning is really just another form of planning for continued prosperity.  Engineering-consulting firm CH2M HILL offers more support for this outlook in their 2012 report, “The Changing Value of Water to the U.S. Economy: Implications from Five Industrial Sectors.” The common theme among the firms profiled in the report is the need to improve water-efficiency in the face of potential future scarcity.

For example, chip giant Intel has improved the efficiency of its process for creating ultrapure solvents used in the manufacture of semiconductors, reducing the water needed by over 30 percent. In the case of Dow Chemical Company, conservation means not only reducing consumption but also reusing outputs previously treated as waste. The company’s facility in Freeport, Texas reuses 1.3 billion gallons of treated wastewater annually. Large-scale green infrastructure projects, like constructing a reservoir and wetland in Texas, reduce run-off from facility sites and create a source of water to draw on in times of shortage without further straining municipal, potable supplies.

In general, mineral mining is quite water-intensive, as nearly every step of extraction and processing requires water for cooling machinery, suppressing dust, and other purposes.  But most of that water need not be of drinking water quality, as Kennecott Utah Copper, a multi-billion dollar firm, has recognized by adopting a “water hierarchy approach” and recycling 60 percent of water on-site.

Although the Great Lakes region is not known for its mineral resources, the Illinois Basin, stretching across Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, is experiencing a resurgence in coal production. Mines in the region draw their water mostly from shallow aquifers and river systems, which are increasingly strained due to drought conditions. Implementing water-saving strategies like those in Utah can help protect aquifers and ensure adequate flows for downstream water consumers.

Reusing treated effluent, as the electric utility Southern Company is doing in Mississippi, for non-potable uses like cooling power plants is another resource utilization strategy that could provide significant benefits in the Chicago region.  During peak summer electricity demand, diversions for thermal power plant cooling are one of the single biggest uses of water.  Finding ways to turn waste products, like effluent, into useful resources will prove crucial in managing the water-energy nexus.

In Chicago, making the most of precious water resources remains a key to long-term prosperity. These examples from firms across the country offer some suggestions of how to couple water supply planning with innovative technology to achieve significant results that are mindful of water resources needs, while still allowing for economic growth.

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