Last year, InnoCentive worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the successful My Air, My Health Challenge, which sought a design for a small, low-cost sensor that integrates air quality measurements with related health data, such as heart rate and breathing. We’re pleased to be working with EPA again and its partner Cincinnati Innovates on a new Challenge, Real-Time Sensor to Monitor Sewer Overflows, which seeks ideas for a new generation of low-cost, low-maintenance sensors to monitor sewer overflows. We recently spoke with Julius Enriquez, a scientist at EPA, Melissa Gatterdam, the Superintendent of Watershed Operations Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District, and Chris Kaeff, the Regulatory Reporting and Wet Weather Coordinator for Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky.
Hello everyone – thank you for joining us. Could you start off by explaining to us the genesis of this Challenge?
There were two driving forces that brought about this Challenge. In early 2010, EPA took the lead for a program to catalyze public-private partnerships for commercializing water technology within the Cincinnati, Dayton, northern Kentucky, and southeast Indiana region, which together are known as a cluster. One of the goals of this program is to find innovative water technologies that can address regional water issues by engaging local stakeholders through collaborative research and development efforts. Additionally, federal entities have recently advocated the use of Challenges and prizes to develop new tools and approaches to advance open government, spur innovation, and address a variety of national priorities. To meet those goals, EPA and Cincinnati Innovates collaborated to develop a water Challenge that would promote innovation and economic stimulation while finding solutions to a pressing human health and environment issue: local Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO).
In the past, communities built sewer systems to collect both stormwater runoff and sanitary sewage in the same pipelines. During dry weather, these combined systems transport wastewater directly to the sewage treatment plant. In periods of rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. Combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, lakes, or estuaries. The federal government, through the Clean Water Act, called for the reduction and elimination of sewer overflows across the country.
By bringing together experts from both the Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) and Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky (SD1), we discovered that it would be beneficial to develop a low-cost sensor, preferably costing $100 or less, that requires minimal maintenance. Although there are currently sensors available on the market to detect a CSO, the cost is prohibitive for many utilities and has led to time-consuming manual checks that do not provide constant, real-time flow levels.
How widespread is this problem in urban areas, like greater Cincinnati, across the U.S.?
Combined sewer systems serve roughly 772 communities with about 40 million people. Most communities with combined systems are located in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. Although large cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta have CSOs, most communities with CSO problems have fewer than 10,000 people.
Localized flooding due to peak events has occurred in the past few years, despite major infrastructure improvements and successful integrated watershed planning efforts. Local sewer utilities in the greater Cincinnati area have been continually improving the sewer system to keep raw sewage out of waterways. Since the mid-1990s, one of the local sewer utilities has eliminated more than 40 overflow points and has invested $300 million in 71 wet weather projects.
It is also important to understand that CSOs contain not only stormwater, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris. This is a major water pollution concern. Raw sewage contains pathogens that threaten public health, leading to beach closures and public advisories against fishing and swimming.
The EPA is among a select few federal government agencies that is widely embracing – and achieving successful outcomes as result – crowdsourcing and prize competitions as a means to innovate and solve important problems. Was there anything in particular about this Challenge that lent itself to this open problem solving approach?
A lot of big companies are using crowdsourcing to address some of their research and development problems. With limited research funds, we believe that it is cost-effective to use these types of competitions to address problems like this one. Currently there are sensors out there that utilities in this region simply cannot use because they are cost-prohibitive. By reaching out to a broad pool of creative Solvers, we hope to find solutions that will lead to an affordable sensor. An innovative technology is vital if we are to turn water and wastewater infrastructure into “smart assets,” enabling the best and most cost-effective solutions to improve water quality and health.
What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see (or not see) in a winning solution?
We would like to see a sensor that would of course meet the requirements outlined in the Challenge Statement. We would also like to see a sensor that could catch the attention of venture capitalists for funding, and also intrigue the water utilities enough to say, “Hey, that’s a great sensor, and we want to develop and test it so we can use it as soon as possible.”
It’s great to see the multi-organization partnership brought to bear on this Challenge. But clearly, a successful solution will have implications for urban areas beyond Greater Cincinnati. Is there anything you can tell us about your plans for implementing or even sharing a successful solution with other municipalities and cities across the U.S., and indeed, the world?
As you know, EPA’s mission is to protect the environment and human health. EPA’s role is not just about creating and enforcing regulations and policies, but also to get the world to engage in solving our environmental problems by pushing for innovation and affordability in new technologies. This Challenge is not only for EPA’s benefit, as any new technology or solution generated from this Challenge would be shared with the world.
Winning ideas will be shared with vendors, venture capitalists, and others who are interested in bringing the results of this Challenge to market. We are hoping that our stakeholders would run with the ideas from this Challenge and develop a prototype. Therefore, it is critical to have a toolset that can be deployed widely and cheaply, which will give wastewater and storm water managers the ability to understand and react to these challenges in real time.
Thanks everyone for your time. Mr. Enriquez, as the Challenge Owner, do you have any final advice or guidance for our Solvers as they tackle this Challenge?
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. Not really my advice, but rather that of Thomas Edison. One note I will add is to imagine the possibilities, and not to be constrained by the limits of what is currently available.