Report says data analytics will be key to addressing water industry challenges posed by aging infrastructure

Customer education, infrastructure modernization and the use of data analytics will be key tools to overcoming the water industry’s perennial challenges posed by aging infrastructure. A combination of investment and new business process approaches will also be critical to closing the gap between costs and consumer expectation, according to the 2017 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report from engineering consulting firm Black & Veatch.

The report, released on 6 June, also addresses the increasing focus on sustainability, as well as the equally diverse strategies used by industry leaders to achieve it.

Cindy Wallis-Lage, President of Black & Veatch’s water business, commented: “Sustainability has different meanings to different segments of the industry. We pursue sustainable water supplies that can serve residents for decades to come. We look for ways to become more economically sustainable by balancing system and user needs with available capital. At the same time, we pursue a kind of social sustainability by engaging consumers as full partners in the pursuit of a supply that’s safe and resilient against weather events and long-term climate change.”

Maintaining or expanding asset life was named the most significant sustainability issue for water utilities. Survey respondents, however, are showing significant interest in uniting data from once-siloed systems to increase operational efficiencies and inform smarter asset management.

Mike Orth, Executive Managing Director for the Americas in Black & Veatch’s water business, said: “Data analytics provide new levels of system intelligence that can address many of the problems hampering sustainable water supplies. Smart meters and new software-based management tools enable us to turn all that data into understandable, useful insights that can address everything from water safety, asset performance and leak detection, to integrated planning and energy efficiency.”

The report finds that financial challenges associated with sustainable systems have shifted, with fewer providers selecting finance-driven topics as their top issues on the path to sustainability. This may reflect growing confidence in funding from two important channels: the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) and greater confidence that government leaders and customers may be more prepared to accept rate increases as a means to pay for critical improvements.

“Sustainable and resilient systems will depend on industry leaders who can both collaborate and innovate as the water sector attempts to modernize its assets, optimize existing resources and convince customers that upgrades are important,” Wallis-Lage said. The report also examines other issues key to the industry, such as physical security and cybersecurity, trends in enterprise asset management and financing strategies.

Ralph Eberts, Executive Managing Director for Black & Veatch management consulting, added: “Proactive, two-way engagement can help convey water’s true value to the community.This deliberate focus on the customer experience can change cost and water quality perceptions and help secure the rate increases needed to upgrade aging infrastructure.”

Other key findings include:
– Nearly half of survey respondents (47 percent) indicated that key stakeholders and the public understand the need for proposed rate increases, but still want water providers to “do more with less.”
– Despite increased public scrutiny, when asked about lead and copper corrosion, 55 percent of water utilities indicated it has not been an issue in their distribution systems.
– The report survey found that integrated planning trends higher among larger communities; the larger the population, the greater the rate of adoption. Of the respondents who already use the approach, 49 percent are from communities of 2 million people or more, and the acceptance rate drops as the community shrinks in size.
– More than 30 percent of utilities have indicated plans to implement advanced operational technologies such as advanced metering infrastructure and enterprise asset management.
– Nearly 40 percent of respondents said data analytics figured into their processes but not operationally; another 20 percent said data analytics weren’t part of their current processes but figured into strategic planning.