I attended the American Water Works Association's ACE last week, the annual convention for potable water professionals and their vendors. It reminded me that, of all public infrastructure sectors, water utilities are the farthest along the big data-Internet of Things-automation-artificial intelligence adoption spectrum, but that all the technology in the world can’t solve certain issues. You work in a profession that is as much a public relations as engineering challenge.
Let me explain.
Water utilities were the first to look around and adapt technologies used in other industries, beginning with supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) – process-control technology that got its start in manufacturing. After deploying one-way communication (AMR), they switched to two-way (AMI) when it became available. They’re using the latest imaging, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and monitoring tools to zero in on leaks and minimize non-revenue water (although the national average has been and remains 10%), even identify broken meters. All the high-tech talk makes it easy to overlook the elephant in the room, which doesn’t have an easy or sexy fix.
After Flint, Michigan, residents and regulators are screaming about lead service lines (LSLs) and they expect utilities to make it right. But once the length from the main to the curb stop is addressed, safety is the homeowner’s responsibility. I predict water utilities will join wastewater utilities in offering homeowners discounts on lateral-replacement and -lining programs. These are massive, multiyear initiatives whose public education component dwarfs the physical aspects involved. Even then, not all property owners will want or be able to participate. How will utilities handle customers who can’t afford a zero-interest loan to line or replace their portion? Water rates have more than doubled every year since 2008. How will utilities fund plant and pump station improvements and address lead laterals without pricing their product out of reach?
One thing I do know: Public works professionals are master problem-solvers. Community water system managers and operators will find a way.