Flint, Michigan has become a lightning rod for attention to the financial needs of water infrastructure in the United States. But the financial issue cannot be separated from the needs of proper utility management. The potable water industry was built with a very conservative approach to operations with the protection of public health, and a philosophy of water quality first and foremost. But financial pressure to control rates while dealing with increasing costs and huge capital demands is pushing management in many communities to accept more risk. Operating closer to regulatory limits can reduce operating costs and reduce immediate capital needs, but it comes at the price of slimmer margin for error.
As pressure to deliver better quality water, to more people, through aging infrastructure increases, leveraging technology and sound management practices becomes more important. Allowing local water providers to make water quality their first priority is critical. That said, it is important to keep in mind tens of thousands of Public Water Supply (PWS)’s do a great job of providing quality water every hour of every day. Misguided management in Flint highlights the danger of losing sight of their primary responsibility – public health. It should also serve as a reminder that our public and private water companies have done an amazing job quietly delivering safe, clean, potable water every hour, every day since passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
So how can utilities use technology to drive efficiency and protect water quality? There are many ways to achieve this from AMI to real time hydraulic modeling, asset management, and outage management. Using the data and accessibility to it that can be achieved from AMI can provide utilities with excellent data to find anomalies to normal usage that could indicate leaks or water theft. Using the AMI network to retrieve pressure data from locations well beyond those available from SCADA. In addition to near real time usage data can feed a real time hydraulic model. The model can identify changes to the system that may indicate pending failures, tampering, or supply shortages. Add water quality monitoring to the network and early detection of quality issues can allow the utility to quickly react and adjust to avoid potential health issues. Field WQ monitoring also allows the utilities to make smart decisions on treatment needs at the plant, reducing chemical costs but in a safe and well controlled and monitored manner.
Buried infrastructure is a trillion dollar issue in the industry and will continue to put pressure on utilities to increase funding for replacement. Using a dynamic asset management system with GIS can provide a very rigorous tool for prioritizing main replacement, allowing long term capital planning to most efficiently use available funding.
Investing in the tools to build a smart water system and then bringing the data together to make informed decisions will allow utilities to hold costs down, make well timed investments, protect water quality & water supply, and provide superior customer service. In other words, doing what water utilities have been successfully doing for many years, but using new tools to do it.