By Robert W. Antablin Dec 09, 2019

This past October, 2,000 people who had trained for and signed up to do an Ironman were told that the swimming portion of the event was cancelled for a reason they had not heard of before: toxic algae. This left many wondering what toxic algae is and how could its presence in the Ohio River have such an impact on an Ironman event?

Over the past 50 years, agricultural runoff from the increased use of fertilizers, storm water runoff from increasingly concrete cities, and wastewater effluent from municipal and industrial plants has led to a concentration of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in downstream water bodies. In excess, these nutrients lead to a heavy growth of plant life or what is known as toxic algae blooms, which are harmful to both humans and animals.

Recent studies and wastewater-related incidents underscore the problem of nutrient pollution:

      • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nutrient pollution is “one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.” 53% of rivers, 71% of lake acres, 79% of estuary square miles and 98% of great lakes shoreline miles are impaired.
      • In Iowa, high nitrate levels have been observed in 30% of the state’s municipal water systems, directly affecting the quality of the drinking water for 260 communities.
      • In 2014, 400,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio lost their public access to drinking water for three days due to algal toxins in the city’s water system.
      • In 2016, algal blooms occurred from Alabama to Florida, closing down beaches and affecting local communities, including a state of emergency declaration in four coastal counties in Florida.
      • In the Midwest, the cumulative effects of nutrient pollution have resulted in downstream dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA estimates that these dead zones cost the U.S. seafood and tourism industries a combined $82 million per year. This past summer’s dead zone was roughly the size of Massachusetts.

To solve this growing water crisis, there are thousands of wastewater treatment facilities (WWTFs) scattered across the country, playing an essential role in removing pollution from water before it reaches waterways and the ocean, and our drinking glasses. Unfortunately, resources for these WWTFs are also scattered across the country, resulting in only a minority of WWTFs being able to effectively monitor and treat harmful nutrient outflow, an obvious problem when considering that WWTFs contribute about 24% of the phosphorous and 13% of the nitrogen in the Great Lakes and the Large River Basins. These are typically the most controllable sources of nutrients, but we need better technology, more funding and broader-based implementation to tackle the problem.

That’s why we recently made an investment with XPV Water Partners in a platform focused on the wastewater management space. We are aiming to build an end-to-end provider of nutrient management solutions. With our foundational acquisitions of Environmental Operating Solutions, Inc. (“EOSi”) and Nexom, Inc. – two providers of nutrient management solutions for WWTFs – and with more acquisitions to come, we believe we will be able to bring to market a scaled solution offering a portfolio of products and services to enable WWTFs to better monitor for and remove harmful nutrients.

How we will track and measure our impact

The investment is part of our impact investing strategy that invests in business models that contribute measurable progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By reducing pollution and improving water quality, this newly created platform will deliver measurable progress toward achieving SDG #6, related to Clean Water and Sanitation. Specifically, we believe that this platform is directly aligned with Target 6.3, which calls for “improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”

We plan to track the impact of our investments by measuring our progress against: (1) the volume of wastewater safely treated and (2) the number of tons of nutrients removed from WWTFs. By doing so, we see an opportunity to meaningfully contribute solutions to this challenge and, ultimately, optimize how modern societies approach wastewater treatment so that we can improve water quality.