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  • Writer's pictureBobbi Harris

City Leaders + Industry Education = Intelligent Solutions for Water Infrastructure

Ask any mayor in the United States about water and wastewater infrastructure and you will hear a multitude of war stories ranging from lack of funding and challenging federal regulations to supply quality and sustainability, but you will also hear a common theme – they need and, frankly, expect water and wastewater utilities in their cities to have the solution.

Not just the same old solutions, but they must have an understanding of intelligent solutions and education about the latest automation tools and data analytics packages available to the industry. Mayors are looking to water and wastewater leaders to help them understand the possibilities. The test for many water utilities comes as the workforce with industry knowledge retires and the new generation of high-tech workers don’t have the vast utility experience. Utility leaders must protect the generational knowledge while implementing the latest technologies and find better ways to communicate with municipal leaders.

Water Grows Business

A city’s water source, storage, treatment and delivery systems must be accurately evaluated to assure new businesses that the infrastructure is available to support their needs. Water utilities need processes, automation and data to assure city leaders that future growth maintained. Large commercial and industrial water customers also need assurance from the city and the utility that the infrastructure can not only meet today’s needs but will be adequate for future expansion. Prioritizing capital improvements, modelling hydraulic distribution systems, determining capacity and estimating and ranking needs and deficiencies are key pieces of the long-range plans.

“In preparation for continued growth, we sought a municipal water solution to promote cost- and energy-efficiency,” said Mayor Copeland from Olathe, Kansas in a recent article for the US Mayor Water Council Newsletter. “This new technology allows us to better serve our water customers, while managing our water distribution systems with greater efficiency.” By working closely with the Public Works department, utilizing automation and maintaining the highest standards in critical areas like water quality and asset management, Olathe has built a solid foundation for future business and residential growth.

Wastewater Woes

Municipal utilities across the country are facing the difficulties associated with compliance related to combined sewer (CSO) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSO) resulting in multi-million-dollar consent decrees from aging infrastructure. Combined sewers collect sanitary flows and stormwater runoff in a single pipe system. Serious water pollution problems can arise due to overflows caused by large variations in flow between dry and wet weather. While older cities operating combined sewers work to improve their systems, new analytics and automation tools can help plan and stage alternatives which minimize costs and overflow volumes.

The push for green infrastructure and low-impact development highlights a city’s work with the natural landscape to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible. The idea is to preserve and recreate natural topographical features, minimizing impervious areas to create functional and appealing site drainage that treat stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product. The problem becomes how best to direct investment in low-impact development in order to gain the biggest benefit and avoid or offset capital expenditure in the conveyance system.

Automation and Analytics

To make decisions across daily operations through to long term master plans, requires the latest in automation and data analytics. Utility managers can take advantage of more robust asset management programs now available to assist with the decisions associated with location, sizing, rehab and replacement prioritization, and most critically, stretching available dollars to make the overall program more affordable.

Today water utility IT departments can utilize infrastructure planning software to analyze hundreds of planning options across multiple asset types, determining the best plan to reduce capital, operating and energy costs. Beyond old SCADA systems, new automation tools exist that enable water and wastewater utilities to avoid billions of dollars in costs while ensuring optimal performance of the systems. Water efficiency analytics allow city workers to predict leaks and optimize pressure in distribution networks to reduce burst, conserve water, save money, prevent service disruptions and improve quality of service. By utilizing analytics and optimization software in the long-range planning process, cities can take much of the guesswork out of the design.

Education and Digital Utility

Infrastructure affordability is an issue in every city. The upgrades needed are significant in water and wastewater– but also in roads, bridges, libraries, police stations, fire stations, etc. Mayors and other city leaders take great care in making sustainable infrastructure decisions and they need help understanding all options necessary to ensure that every penny of taxpayers' dollars is spent efficiently and effectively. Education about ways to defer or reduce infrastructure spending, while planning for appropriate investments and developing effective long range plans using existing utility capacities. Water utilities can educate mayors about technology that provides the city with defensible solution options to showcase financial stewardship and ensure sustainability for future growth.

City leaders and utilities should work together to support training programs, internships and mentoring programs that help new operators enter the water and wastewater industries. There are many university and community college programs across the country dedicated to creating green curriculums focusing on not only water and wastewater but also renewable energy. By working with the EPA and American Water Works Association (AWWA), there are grants available for creation of water and wastewater educational programs and certifications offering a comprehensive list of career technical competencies that the students are evaluated on for every discipline taught in the water and wastewater sector. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated more than $3 billion towards workforce programs such as these.

  • Utility and city sponsors found these programs to have many benefits, including:

  • Creation of highly-qualified and highly-trained technical and professional staff

  • Development of leadership and supervisory skills in new and current staff

  • Effective way to build a pool of new recruits

  • Promotion of succession planning and knowledge transfer

  • Exposing new audiences to water sector careers

This is a great incubator for the next generation of utility leaders who are also first generation “Digital Natives” – children who were born into and raised in the digital world. These future leaders will reshape our economy, our politics, our culture and even our utilities. Now is the time for greater focus on workforce development, generational knowledge transfer and opening the doors for the next generation of water leaders.

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