The Future of Water: Technology Innovations in the Water Sector

By Cynthia Baughman, Water Utilities Technology Director, City of Garland

Water is a necessity for sustaining human life. Water is vital for our food supply, our health and cleanliness, and our environment. Imagine not having clean water to wash your hands during the pandemic. I would venture to guess that “providing safe, clean drinking water” is at the heart of the mission statement for every water supplier. Yet some people don’t give water a second thought. They turn on the tap, water comes out. They flush the toilet, and the water goes down. To this day, however, there are 2 million people in the United States without access to clean drinking water.

So, what does technology have to do with water? Well, just about everything.

“When the well is dry, we learn the value of water.” – Ben Franklin

Innovation in the Water Industry

As the Water Utilities Technology Director for a municipal government, driving innovation and managing cultural change around new technologies is at the heart of what I do. Building a robust strategic technology plan that looks at innovations to continue delivering cost-effective services and drive data-supported decisions is a must. Our industry is facing several challenges, including aging infrastructure, an aging workforce, public understanding of water services, cybersecurity, and changing regulatory requirements. We must meet these challenges while still delivering water to our customers and looking for better methods to clean wastewater or reduce water loss. Technology and innovation will drive how we meet the water demands and challenges of the future.

To illustrate some of the technology innovations in the water sector that our utility employs, let me focus on three of the four areas that the American Water Works Association’s Water 2050 technology report says will help solve the water problems of the next 30 years: Accelerating Innovation, Transforming Water Services through Next-Gen Technology, and Achieving a Cyber Secure Future.

Fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness by providing role-specific training for our industrial workforce helps secure our industrial control systems.

Accelerating Innovation

Cultivating a workforce that embraces technology helps the adoption of new initiatives go smoother and even creates excitement to get involved when we have a new project. As much as the right tool is needed to repair leaking pipes, having the right technology tools to find the leak is equally essential.

Not all leaks are evident from above ground. Our leak detection program uses three tools: we use remote observation satellite surveys to help better detect non-surfacing leaks, and then we provide field staff with acoustical listeners to better pinpoint those leaks. Finally, to assist in high-traffic areas, data loggers listen overnight for leak noise, using machine learning to correlate the sounds, analyze the data, and provide actionable alerts. This approach cuts down the time spent finding and fixing problems, ultimately reducing water loss.

Our staff has developed their own innovations by using 3D printing to make parts to repair assets. We are leveraging our Asset Management System and Geographic Information System (GIS) to meet regulatory compliance with the EPA’s Revised Lead and Copper Rule. We are exploring the use of drones for overcoming challenges and capturing inspection data on our assets that are difficult to reach, such as elevated water storage tanks and outfalls and sewer lines running along creeks. Continuing to innovate will be necessary to meet future regulatory guidelines for our water and wastewater systems, as well as to help us optimize those systems and operations.   

Transforming Water Services through Technology

Water and sewer pipes in the ground are designed to last 50-100 years, depending on the material and conditions. As the “silver tsunami” continues, the loss of institutional knowledge of those pipes goes with them. Gone are the days of using that knowledge to plan capital projects. We now turn to machine learning, geospatial and big data, and asset analytics to help us predict and prioritize when pipes should be replaced. This method allows for a variety of data to be considered: asset repair and maintenance history; pipe material and age; GIS heat maps from our satellite and CCTV surveys; and the CDC’s Social and Vulnerability Index (SVI) to include areas of town with higher risk. The result is that intelligent data is replacing the “gut feel” of the past to deliver fact-based recommendations of where to spend capital improvement dollars best. 

On the horizon for us is moving from drive-by meter readings for our water and electrical services, to an Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI). This will transform the way we can deliver services to our citizens. Having a system with a variety of IoT sensors throughout will give us true business intelligence. It will allow for remote connects and disconnects that previously required a truck roll; give us real-time insights into system performance; put timely information into the hands of the customers for looking at their real-time usage; and help to better detect fraud and leaks. These capabilities and information become especially useful during peak demand times or severe weather, allowing for better response and alerts to the customers.

Cyber Secure Future

Fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness by providing role-specific training for our industrial workforce helps secure our industrial control systems. While avoiding tomorrow’s headlines is a good incentive, protecting the integrity and stability of our water and wastewater operational systems is the key focus. We work hand in hand with our City’s Information Technology Department to design multi-barrier systems with the best in breed security solutions, to protect both our informational and operational assets.

What Does the Future Hold?

As water rate increases often outpace inflation, we need to continue to evolve the technologies in our sector, embrace innovation to increase efficiencies, and provide solutions for our customers to manage and monitor their usage. Investing in tools such as real-time monitoring, big data analytics, and AI/machine learning will give us insights into our system that would be difficult to achieve without the technology. In addition, we need to continue to attract people to the industry who are interested in delivering and protecting life’s most critical resource and understanding what the world of water really involves.