Today’s water resource managers are faced with a whirlwind of both external and internal pressures. For example, external pressures come from customers who are becoming more aware of water resource issues such as drought (west coast), flooding (Houston), and quality (Toledo). Likewise, conservation from fixture replacement and behavior change has resulted in reduced revenue, just as aging infrastructure is becoming a critical budget issue. As a result of these pressures, potable, waste and storm water utilities are poised for transformation.
As such, the leading utilities are reimagining their role in society. A few examples are
- MWRD in Chicago, which is reclaiming and selling its phosphate
- MWRA in Massachusetts, which is optimizing biogas use
- Orange County, which is reclaiming its wastewater for reuse
- Wichita Falls, TX, which is plumbing reclaimed wastewater to the potable water treatment facility
The leaders are out there, but most are operating with a silo, and examples are well summarized in these three documents (WEF, AWWA, White House). However, I anticipate a trend that takes us beyond innovation by silo, and towards a consolidation of water governance. Here is why:
- There are over 53,000 water utilities in the USA (compare to 2 in France, < 30 in the UK), of which more than half serve a population of under 500 people. These utilities are finding it ever more difficult to meet the regulatory and financial requirements.
- Watershed planning has shifted from the realm of environmental advocates using anecdotal data to utility led coalitions with an interest in transparent and complete data. These watershed coalitions are beginning to inform policy, investments, and promote collaborations that improve operations amongst utilities.
- The desire for more accurate usage and billing data, as well as reducing meter reading costs, is driving water utilities to build advanced meter infrastructure (AMI), which is the foundation of the internet of things (IoT). This AMI communication and big data analytics network is a precursor for environmental data collection through the use of low cost environmental sensors, such as pressure transducers, flows, water table elevations, salinity and others.
- Predictive weather data is improving, and is now a component in many storm water management scenarios, informing the flow into and out of reservoirs, mobilizing workforce and populations to reduce the risk of flood damages.
As the above industry trends merge through technology, there lies an opportunity to assemble an unprecedented understanding of watershed performance. It is the watershed coalitions who will be in position to assemble this knowledge and drive public and professional opinion to integrate urban planning with storm and waste water utilities. As cooperation and planning matures, it will become self-evident that consolidation will unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of inefficiencies, contract negotiations, and know-how, while improving water reliability.
To capitalize on this opportunity, we need to prepare utility leaders and create a governance structure that consolidates the jurisdictions of Water, Wastewater and storm water under a Watershed Ombudsman, with an office that funds, manages, and operates projects based on the holistic watershed planning, supported by data and analytics.
The Southern Ontario Water Consortium is a prime example of multiple utilities collaborating on investment and operations to improve the management of water resources within their shared watershed. These leaders have collaborated to follow a path of data driven watershed management…leading to new levels of cooperation across utilities and stakeholders.
Water utilities have reached a turning point. We must reimagine and redefine the water utility role within society. We must provide a new vision, while urging current and future leaders to make this vision a reality. I believe the inevitable movement towards water data collection, integration, and analytics combined with the heightened public awareness of water resource constraints will drive governance structures to consolidate the management of our watersheds. The benefits are evident and can be shown in a business case analysis. New management options such as shifting to real time pricing based on quantity, or actions to reduce flood risk, or increase water harvest or the advance warning of toxicity risks will become expected services. The water industry has a remarkable, inspiring history of innovation; it is time to follow the leaders who are blazing a new trail that benefits from smarter investments, healthier ecosystems and better service for customers.
If you are attending AWWA ACE16, visit West Monroe Partners at Booth #578 to learn more about water resource issues and to further discuss the future of water utilities. If you have any questions, contact Peter Mulvaney.