Awash with opportunities

A growing number of companies help others handle water risks

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

The risks facing businesses in managing water have created opportunities for a growing number of Virginia companies.

Since Marstel-Day began operations in Fredericksburg in 2002, the environmental consulting firm has opened offices in California, Texas, Colorado and Mississippi, from which more than 100 employees help corporate clients minimize the consequences of (and contributions to) climate change. 

In 2006, total revenue approached $3 million.  Last year, revenue topped $12 million, and by the arrival of spring 2013, the company had $16 million in new contracts.  “The opportunity is huge,” says Rebecca Rubin, founder, president and CEO.

The industrial water recycling business of Richmond-based Sustainable Water is only 3 years old, but already the business is thriving, says CEO Jonathan Lanciani.

Like Rubin, Lanciani offers clients the opportunity to minimize vulnerability to future water availability, although Sustainable Water’s focus is narrower in scope. “Why do we put drinking water in our toilets?” asks Lanciani.  “Our entire business model is predicated on the idea that potable water should be used for potable needs, and other water needs should come from a different source.”

Sustainable Water designs, installs and runs industrial-scale, closed-loop water systems that capture wastewater and reclaim it using a biological filtration process onsite.

The process generates savings in water and sewage costs; enough savings that Sustainable Water doesn’t charge for infrastructure.  A typical contract has it design and install a system, without charge, and then sell water and sewer service to the client at a guaranteed rate 10 percent below public water service for 20 years.

Not surprisingly, these innovations hold the greatest appeal in areas where limited supply is paired with increased cost.  The core of Sustainable Water’s client-base is population hubs — factories, airports, sports arenas — in Atlanta, Las Vegas, San Diego. 

“There’s a reason why states like Virginia have been slow to adopt this technology,” says Will Kirksey, senior vice president at a Worrell Water Technologies, Charlottesville-based firm that designs similar systems, branded Living Machines.  “Water’s been plentiful.  But as Virginia sees more scarcity, its rates are increasing, and with them, interest in alternative water supplies.” 

This spring the company’s breaking ground on at least one Virginia project: the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute headquarters in the renovated former Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville.  “It’s a growing field,” says Kirksey.  “We hired last year.  I’d be surprised if we didn’t hire this year, too.”

David Crawford started Rainwater Management Solutions in Salem in 1998.  In 2006, he opened a second office, in Charlottesville, but couldn’t keep pace. While the company still designs and manufactures rainwater harvesting systems, it no longer does installation.  “We sub out.”  Nor do they do much residential work, focusing mostly on large commercial projects.  The company just signed a contract with Philip Morris USA.

“More people are drawing groundwater, and the level drops,” Crawford explains.  “They have to drill deeper to get water, as the aquifers are depleted.  We get calls from people who have drilled three wells, each deeper, and each goes dry.  It costs about the same to put in a rainwater harvesting system as dig a new well.” 

Freelance writer Nicole Anderson Ellis is an unpaid director on Henrico County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Board.

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