The Next Frontier: Digitization of US Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

When we think about how to design, build, and operate the next generation of more resilient United States’ water infrastructure, one of the key opportunities, that will differentiate a modern infrastructure buildout as compared to the version built 100 years ago, is adoption of new digital capabilities that have already been adopted in many other industries – from telecom to energy. These digital monitoring and operational capabilities, known referred to as digital water, represent one of the greatest opportunities for US utilities to modernize their operations in the last one hundred years – providing the greatest ‘bang for the utility’s buck’.

While many water and wastewater utilities collect large volumes of data on their procedures, only 20% of these utilities believe they are able to use it effectively. But what data is being collected and why can’t it be used? Everyday water quality and quantity parameters are a stable of good utility operations, but over the past several years new digital monitoring solutions – from digital twinning to real time water quality – have emerged as new, untapped opportunities for operational improvements. And yet, as firms like Innovyze and Hach begin to build out improved digital monitoring ‘inside the fence’, a critical piece of the puzzle remains overlooked. In addition to improving digital capabilities within plants, utilities need to begin implementing digital monitoring solutions downstream, where their water is being consumed, and upstream, where water is sourced.

As water utilities begin to experience, and implement, more decentralized water systems, there is inevitability a need to begin to implement for digital solutions to monitor water after it has left the plant. At the individual residence level, homeowners now have the capability to monitor their water usage and routinely check systems for leaks behind the meter. A case study of installed systems by South East Water in Australia found leaks in greater than 10% of homes with some homes leaking as much as 51% of its daily used water. Another key technology that remains the holy grail of downstream water monitoring yet is not widely available today, is one that allows homeowners to quickly and easily test their water quality. As we think about the next ten years, there is clear evidence that a greater number of residential customers will have these technologies at their fingertips; the trick will be for utilities not to view this forced transparency as a threat, but an opportunity. Similar to decentralized systems across commercial and industrial properties, widespread monitoring at the residential level will provide utilities with unprecedented level of insight into variables such as demand, non-revenue water, and even prevalence of disinfection byproducts (DBPs). Rather than fighting the proliferation of this data amongst consumers, utilities should in fact be actively funding these monitoring systems and constantly improving utility systems based on this new information.

On the other end of the water industry value chain lies another digital water opportunity, upstream of water treatment plants and municipal supplies. New York City, as many throughout the industry know, has one of the most advanced monitoring and management programs for the Catskill-Delaware watershed, allowing the New York Department of Environmental Protection to maintain a filtration waiver on its water supply for up to 90% of flows to the taps of New York City residents. Water quality in New York’s upstream reservoirs, streams, and rivers (also known as the WOH Watershed) is tested millions of times per year (and growing) by both human and in-stream monitoring. This information collected upstream provides New York with the information to influence the behavior of nearby farmers and homeowners to protect downstream water quality – buying out homes in danger of flooding and planting trees along the edges of farms to soak up excess nutrients from agricultural operations prior to floating downstream. While many of the 42,000 water utilities across the country rightfully claim that New York’s infrastructure investment budget is larger than their own, it is equally true that mitigation is cheaper than emergency response. New York’s upstream investment in monitoring and best management practices has offset 10x greater cost in building a new filtration plant and ongoing O&M work. Utilities across the country would be wise to learn not only from New York’s example, but on upstream monitoring in general, that will allow them to integrate this additional information into a proactive water purification system that can predict and optimize water treatment based on water flowing from upstream. Spending to upgrade digital water monitoring systems upstream will reap huge benefits both for utility cost savings as well as customer water quality satisfaction.

It is undeniable that utilities over the next many years will need to begin monitoring water quality outside of their plants, in order to both inform decisions at the plant level as well as make more informed decisions about future infrastructure upgrades. Sylmar is working to support utilities, companies, and homeowners as we digitize their water systems.

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