Water Sustainability: What You Need to Know

Water providers are increasingly focused on sustainability and integrated planning to help solve the years’ long conflicts between aging infrastructure and a safe, resilient water supply.

Case in point: Black & Veatch's 2017 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report analyzes how political leadership and collaboration can overcome concerns about costs and customer demand. It explores how a more comprehensive view of sustainability is helping water utilities gain ground on these challenges.

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.

Sustainability has different meanings to different segments of the industry. Pursuing sustainable water supplies can serve residents for decades to come.

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

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 the industry 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.

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.

Integrated planning tends to be 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 two 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.

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.

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