The regulators have lost control of the revolution

Published August 24th, 2017

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Are the regulators still in charge of regulation? I ask this question after looking at some of the work that is going into our new GWI Global Regulations Package. It will comprise a regulations database hosted on WaterData and a GWI Market Insight commentary on the related growth opportunities. This last part got me thinking: regulations drive growth in the water business, but rarely directly. They have to be enforced, but more than that they have to be enforceable. This is where there has been a real revolution over the past few years. Technology has dramatically extended the reach of regulation simply by making everything more visible.

Ten years ago, it was virtually impossible to get real-time information on water quality across the water cycle in any real depth. Most tests required samples to be sent to the labs for weeks at a time, detecting trace contaminants was difficult and pinpointing responsibility for health incidents and pollution incidents often impossible. All this is changing remarkably quickly. For example, if the Flint, Michigan crisis had happened a couple of years earlier we would never have been able to make the connection between the decision to change that city’s water raw water source with an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the local hospital that killed 12 people. It was only as a result of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s use of next generation sequencing on the DNA of microbial populations taken from the sputum of patients and the hospital’s water supply which made the connection possible.

This sudden visibility of everything that regulators are concerned with is almost overwhelming the regulatory process. In some areas, the regulation is being left far behind. For example, the most widely required test for biological oxygen demand (BOD) still involves a five-day lab procedure aimed at mimicking the journey of wastewater down the Thames river towards the sea. Online monitoring might give a quicker and better insight into BOD, but from a regulator’s perspective it is irrelevant.

In some areas, the greater visibility that new technology brings is giving regulations a bite which they never previously had. Many of the limits for micropollutants were set at a time when it was not possible to measure the presence of particular ions and molecules at the parts per billion or parts per trillion level with any degree of certainty or accuracy. At the time the attitude was that regulatory limits should be set as a function of how unpleasant a contaminant was rather than whether it was possible to detect it at such low limits. Now as it becomes increasingly possible to do this at low cost, many utilities and industrial water users are discovering they have to solve problems which they never knew they had. Furthermore, as the public becomes aware of these trace contaminants in their water, people are putting pressure on regulators to do more about them (GWI columnist Wes Strickland addresses the irrational pursuit of a 2ppb limit for hexachromate in the magazine this month).

Regulation has not always been lagging behind technology however. There has been a trend over the past decade or so for regulators to target specific outcomes rather than specific outputs. This attitude is encapsulated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for water which set targets for improving the “proportion of water bodies within a country with good ambient water quality compared to all water bodies in the countries”. Similarly, the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which came into force in 2015, aims to achieve “good water quality” across the continent’s water bodies. Australia too has moved to a similar outcome focused approach to water regulation. This regulatory trend might be dismissed as idealistic unless it is backed up by widespread continuous monitoring of water bodies and the ability to track down those responsible for any failures to meet the required standards.

Overall it means that technology is increasingly defining regulation, whether regulators like it or not. In fact, if regulators do not move with the technology they will find themselves cut out of the loop altogether with concerned citizens and environmental groups using technology to police public health and environmental quality themselves.

Utilities and industrial water users are having to develop strategies to respond to this. Some will be pro-active figuring that they can manage their risks better if they have complete visibility. Others may prefer to remain in the dark, but for them peace of mind will become an increasingly scarce commodity.

GWI’s Global Regulations Package: water quality, environmental protection and reuse report is available at an early-bird pre-publication discount price of £2,375/$3,695 until 30 September. Contact Giorgio Cadiz on for further details.