Water is the incredible common thread that connects our communities via food, power, manufacturing, environment and ultimately our health.
In a vast majority of the United States, we are fortunate to be able to access water easily for our home and business needs. Reliable access to potable water is so integrated into our lives that the quality and availability are taken for granted and the complexity of our water infrastructure is rarely considered until a community experiences a water crisis. But, across the nation, we have reached a point where much of our most critical infrastructure is old, frail and unable to keep up with changing water needs. One could argue that the industry has done such a good job of hiding the water infrastructure and delivering service to customers that people seldom see or think about how water impacts their community and their quality of life—until pressed to spend on updating infrastructure.
Water’s cost tends to be misunderstood. Right now, the “price” consumers pay for water is much less than that for other “essential” items we feel we must have, such as cellphones and computers. Sure, we use these devices, and when they are misplaced or broken, we feel lost without them. But ultimately, we can function without the conveniences they bring us. The same is not true for our most basic need—water.
The challenge is that as an industry we haven’t effectively communicated the need for investment to our partners in government and the public at large. Because we take water for granted (the taps flow and the toilets flush) our conversation has centered on the wrong priorities. We need to focus on the value of reliable water infrastructure as it relates to quality of life, economic prosperity and community growth. An investment in water infrastructure drives our ability to deliver more efficient, more reliable service by harnessing technology to help communities prepare for more extreme operating conditions, driven in part by climate change and evolving population demographics. Instead, much energy has gone to avoiding rate increases and efforts to simply do more with less. This is an approach, however, that leads to a lack of necessary investment and unwanted consequences of poor performance, community inconvenience and potentially adverse impacts to human health or the environment.
With the impact of climate change affecting more of our population, from dense coastal communities to booming, historically water scarce regions, it is becoming harder to overcome such stresses and strains. We need to examine what we expect from our water infrastructure as many of our systems weren’t designed for the range of operation that they are now forced to handle.
Texas highlights the push-pull many communities feel: For several years, many parts of the state experienced significant drought conditions, and its effects were damaging to communities. Cities that lost their water supply essentially shut down. People who had once enjoyed a good quality of life walked away from their homes. Industries, once at the core of the community in terms of jobs, economic growth and community benefit, shifted locations or closed their doors. A year later, some of these same communities experienced significant flooding and needed to manage massive amounts of water. These two events, though at opposite ends of the spectrum, tested Texas’ system resilience and offer a glimpse of the challenges facing thousands of service providers.
So how can we work to educate the public and advance the cause of water infrastructure?
Holistic and collaborative solutions are key to maximizing the benefits of every drop of water. Different utilities often have competing objectives for their water management systems. We need to prioritize systems of collaboration to integrate planning more effectively. Northern Kentucky’s Sanitation District One has instituted a collaborative effort to manage their water system on a watershed basis versus siloed decisions which has driven investments in green infrastructure to enhance the system’s resilience. Los Angeles, faced with growing scarcity concerns like much of the Southwest, has developed its One Water L.A. program. Today, the water and wastewater utilities are working together in a partnership to maximize water reuse, groundwater recharge and stormwater management. These are just a few examples of how expanding the conversation around holistic water planning can improve public support for investment.
Embracing technology will also play a key role in demonstrating the effectiveness of water infrastructure investments. I believe an increased confidence in quality will ultimately drive opportunities for potable reuse – pipe-to-pipe solutions where treated, high quality, used water equal to a potable water supply directly feeds to customers from an advanced treatment facility water supply. Windhoek, Namibia, was the first to implement this type of system out of necessity; Texas was very close to potable reuse during their extreme drought, and now California is working to get legislation in place to allow it.
As more communities consider reuse, monitoring the quality of water is a key concern. Fortunately, technology is providing greater instrumentation and analytics solutions to detect anomalies and help utilities proactively manage operations. Sensors provide data in real time which allows for more nimble responses and rapid decision making. The combination of real time data and high-level analytics provides increased predictability of quality which in turn leads to greater confidence in water quality for the consumer.
Data is also key in analyzing the quality and performance of water system assets. It can provide greater insight on when an asset will need maintenance, providing greater cost control and less system disruption. Leaks, a major source of lost revenue and inefficiency, can be detected more rapidly. Metering systems can become more effective, providing instantaneous understanding of the system from the source to the household level, saving significant amounts of water and lowering unit costs.
New technologies, or improvements to decades old practices, are also allowing for increased optimization of energy. Energy is one of the largest operating costs for water and wastewater utilities due to the significant amount of pumping required to move water in the collection and distribution systems as well as through the plant. In addition to pumping, wastewater facilities require significant energy for treatment. Fortunately, the organic waste that comes into a wastewater treatment plant has a tremendous energy content. When that energy can be captured and reused in the plant in the form of gas, it can offset its impact on the power grid, lowering operating costs. The gas generated from the organic waste can potentially fuel onsite engines that provide power to the plant, which allows the facility to achieve—or at least move closer to—net-zero energy impact.
When discussing water infrastructure, the challenges faced by the people of Flint, Michigan, remain top of mind within the industry. Flint has forced more communities to actively examine their water pipelines and take a more aggressive approach to pipe replacement and remediation because of the high levels of concerns regarding water quality. When overlooked, or taken for granted, neglect of any part of our water infrastructure can result in widespread devastation, much of which is avoidable given the advances our industry has made.
I am confident that as we shift the conversation to the importance of investing in water infrastructure for what it brings communities, we can elevate its value in the eyes of key stakeholders. Water is priceless because there is no substitute— and water infrastructure has a price that we must pay in order to provide the certainty and reliability in both water quality and quantity that our communities require. We must make the investment now to meet the challenges of today’s aging infrastructure and provide the resilience required to meet the needs of future generations.
Cindy Wallis-Lage is President, Water Business of Black & Veatch.
This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018 edition.