Flatiron water lead sees growth ahead


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As a variety of forces put pressure on water infrastructure, Ian Dickinson sees the industry growing and adapting to meet these 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.

Demand for these types of projects hinges on population growth and urbanization, environmental degradation, aging infrastructure and higher safety standards, after the EPA in April designated two types of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — as hazardous. 

“Many plants which were upgraded in order to meet tertiary standards over the last 20 years are now going to have to be upgraded again in order to remove these forever chemicals and other compounds which we know are now a cause of public health concerns,” Dickinson said. 

Here, Dickinson talks with Construction Dive about what’s driving the water infrastructure boom, how the industry is evolving and tips to manage supply chain challenges.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CONSTRUCTION DIVE: Why is there such a boom in water infrastructure projects right now? 

IAN DICKINSON: I think it’s climate change, I think it’s population shift, either when there’s urbanization or inward migration. Public health data that’s available today now tells us that things like PFAS are a concern, and there are just ever-increasing standards which are designed to protect people and the environment.

The water stressed areas are typically in the South and the Southwest, really from California and across to Texas. In Florida, it’s a bigger problem than you might think, and even on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, there are areas that are very water stressed because not a lot of moisture gets across the mountain.

What types of water projects are you commonly seeing?

Wastewater treatment is a $60 billion to $100 billion a year market, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of communities across North America that need to build new infrastructure to address their combined sewer overflows. 

Headshot of Ian Dickinson.

Ian Dickinson

Courtesy of Flatiron

 

There are some very interesting projects happening in California that we’re involved in to take wastewater treated to very high standards and use it to recharge aquifers or reservoirs, and then it’s extracted for drinking. These types of projects involve big pumping stations, pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs and new treatment plants.

I think when the idea of taking wastewater and treating it to a very high standard and then reusing it for drinking water was first floated, people thought it was a terrible idea and they thought that was something to be avoided at all cost, but now most places in Southern California are completely accepting that it’s absolutely unavoidable. 

Another type of project is flood defense. We have a project right now in Virginia Beach to enhance the city’s flood defenses, which will protect the city in those instances where they have high rainfall at the same time as a high tide. It’s a type of project that we know there will be a lot more of because a lot of municipalities are in similar situations.

How is the water and wastewater construction industry evolving?

One of the things that has really changed in the time I’ve been doing this has been the standard that we work to in terms of the drinking water standard, the wastewater effluent discharge standards. When I started my career 33 years ago, most larger treatment plants would have primary and secondary treatment, although there were still some cities in coastal locations that didn’t have secondary treatment or even primary treatment. Now it’s very common.

The complexity of the treatment technology that we’re installing, particularly for tertiary treatment, has increased significantly for things like ozone systems, oxidation, membrane systems, filter systems and so on. The same is true on the drinking water side. 

When I started my career, there were still some fairly large communities that didn’t have filtration. One project I’m proudest of is when I built the wastewater treatment plant in Victoria, British Columbia. That was a really unusual situation because that was actually one of these cities that had no wastewater treatment until December 2020.



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