Every step along the process of sourcing, collecting, treating, storing and distributing water to a customer’s home has to be upgraded to cater to the changes we are seeing with water production/distribution. With the rise in populations, urban growth, and climate change action has to be taken soon. The EPA suggests that, over the next 20 years, $472.6Bn is needed to maintain and improve the drinking water infrastructure in the US. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a lot of money. A lot of money that no one knows where it will come from. To ensure that this money, which will have to come from private and public coffers, is well spent there will be a need to utilize data to make smart decisions in developing and implementing comprehensive planning efforts.
Based on the results of the Sensus/Zpryme survey of 87 water utility decision makers/executives (image below), there is growing interest in deploying technology — smart meters, sensors, real-time control systems, big data analytics/AI -to upgrade both the distribution system and the operations of the water utility.
Greater visibility, as obtained through these new technology systems, will bring a level of resource and enterprise management that the industry has not seen up until now. A level of resource management that the industry needs to weather the storms of increasing regulation, increasing customer demands/expectations, rate stagnation, and workforce attrition that the utility has very few other options on how to address. Especially in an atmosphere where the utility believes customers do not want to see rate increases (chart below).
Low capital investments in enterprise management technologies are the most near-term solution that prepares the industry for relevance in the long term. By low capital assets, we mean consumer edge products and tools that put some of the work in the hand of the consumer to help the utility manage the distribution system. On the low capital asset side for the utility itself we mean software. Software systems that map operational insights to investment requirements and, consequently, map those to changing the perceptions of the customer base to the absolutely necessary rate increases. Gone are the days when the utility could rely on just data from their SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems without the full visibility into how the operational data impacts the bottom line.
The industry, while it has done everything within its capability to ensure safe potable water comes out of customer taps, has not done enough to inform the customer that the real solutions start with a willingness to accept that we are all paying too little for water right now. Until customers see that an additional $11/year to our bills will not only enable more people to get safe water to drink but it will enable the utility to run its operations effectively using the most effective technological tools. It’s a future state that we need to work towards to ensure a resilient water system. It’s a future water utility that we need to start working towards today. It’s a future water utility that recognizes that it needs to be honest with the people it serves to be the best utility for the people it serves.