Construction Dive

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Ian Dickinson believes that the water industry is growing and adapting in order to meet new challenges.

After more than three decades in the sector — most recently as executive vice president of infrastructure at Calgary, Canada-based Graham — Dickinson joined Broomfield, Colorado-headquartered Flatiron in January to lead its growth in the water and wastewater infrastructure sector.

The demand for these projects is based on the population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation and aging infrastructure, as well as higher safety standards. This comes after the EPA designated in April two types of polyfluoroalkyl compounds, also known as PFAS, or “forever chemical” substances, as hazardous.

“Many plants which were upgraded in order to meet tertiary standard over the past 20 years will now have to be upgraded in order to eliminate these forever chemicals and compounds, which we now know are a cause for public health concerns.”

Dickinson speaks with Construction Dive to discuss the drivers of the water infrastructure boom. He also shares tips on how to handle supply chain challenges.

This has been edited to be concise and clear.

CONSTRUCTION DIVE – Why are there so many water infrastructure projects in the pipeline?

IAN DICKINSON : I believe it is climate change. I also think it is population shifts, whether it be urbanization or migration inward. The public health data available today tells us things like PFAS pose a serious concern. There are also ever increasing standards that are meant to protect both people and the environment.

Water stressed areas can be found in the South, Southwest and even Texas. It’s more of a problem in Florida than you think. And even on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains there are some areas that are water stressed.

What type of water projects do you see most often?

Wastewater treatment accounts for $60 to $100 billion in revenue annually. Hundreds of communities need new infrastructures to deal with combined sewer overflows.

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Ian Dickinson

Flatiron Courtesy

We’re working on some interesting projects in California, where we take wastewater that has been treated to high standards and recharge aquifers and reservoirs. Then it is extracted to be used for drinking. These projects include large pumping stations and pipelines as well as tunnels, reservoirs, and new treatment facilities.

When the idea was first proposed, most people in Southern California thought it was a bad idea. They thought it should be avoided at any cost. But now, they accept that it is absolutely necessary.

Flood defense is another type of project. In Virginia Beach, we are currently working on a project to improve the city’s flooding defenses. This will help protect the city when there is a combination of high rain and high tide. We know that this type of project will continue to be done because many municipalities are facing similar problems.

What is the future of water and wastewater construction?

The standards that we adhere to for drinking water and wastewater effluent have changed dramatically in the 33 years that I’ve worked in this field. Back in 1983, when I began my career, the majority of larger treatment plants had primary and secondary treatments. However, there were still cities on the coast that did not have secondary or primary treatment. It’s now very common.

We’ve seen a significant increase in the complexity of our treatment technologies, especially for tertiary treatments. This includes things like membrane systems, oxidation systems, filtering systems, etc. On the drinking water front, it’s no different.

At the time I began my career, some large communities still lacked filtration. The project that I am most proud of was when I built Victoria’s wastewater treatment plant. This was an unusual situation, as Victoria was one of the cities without wastewater treatment until December 2020.

What are the most significant challenges that you face?

Supply chain issues have affected water projects in a significant way. Almost every project has transformers, large electrical switch gears, etc.

You can’t buy specialist process equipment from someone else because it is usually patented or trademarked. Often, you’re locked into a few vendors, maybe as little as one. It also drives the critical path of projects.

Ordering the key electrical and process equipment at the start of the project will ensure that we receive them in time for the completion of the job. Due to longer lead times, we’ve seen projects that would have normally taken two or even three years now take three or more.

How can contractors build these types of projects successfully?

We can leverage our relationships because of the amount of work we do. You have to be proactive more than anything. We may be able cut a bit of time, but the best way to mitigate this is to order these items at the start of the project.

We often do this with a design-build contract or construction manager-at-risk model. A collaborative contract model has proven to be a great way to reduce this risk.