It’s Time to Move Beyond Water Conservation to Managing Water Risk

Experts predict global demand for water will outpace our water supply by 2030. Meanwhile, countless US communities struggle with hazardous water conditions and our water mains leak more than two trillion gallons of clean, treated drinking water every year. Now is the time to move beyond programs merely spurring consumer water conservation. The public and private sector must collaborate to empower utilities, cities, farmers,businesses and schools to start actively monitoring and managing water risk.

In the United States, drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes and those pipes are now nearing the end of their life spans, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. While America’s water systems earn near-failing grades thanks to an estimated 240,000 water line breaks each year nationwide, severely outdated water lines are not the only broken element of our water infrastructure. Smart water grid management that addresses both distribution and safety is not just a nice-to-have; it is a must-have over the next decade.

Concerns about safe drinking water are rising thanks to highly publicized contaminations and continued damage during natural disasters like hurricanes/flooding thanks to lackluster, ineffective infrastructure maintenance. National standards enforcement is minimal, andseverely outdated infrastructures continue to put safety at risk. So what do you need to know?

1. We simply don’t know enough about the water we drink. What is really in the water we use every day and how is it getting to our businesses, schools and homes? People should be able to trust that the water coming out of their faucets is reliable, safe drinking water. But as Lawrence County in Alabama, Flint and Detroit in Michigan, and countless other US communities have proven, unsafe water is not just a third-world concern and water that runs clear can still be toxic.

2. Different standards are needed for different classifications of water, but all water should be monitored. Whether it is groundwater, produced water, processed water or river water, all water should be tested on a continuous basis for water quality so necessary, real-time actions can be taken. The presence of hazardous toxins, contaminants and pollutants should be immediately identified to ensure water safety across any water source. For instance, school drinking water may need to meet different requirements than reused water for golf-course irrigation or well water/groundwater used for irrigation to grow the food we eat.

While there are not any actively enforced national standards for monitoring lead levels in school drinking water, more communities are testing their schools water and finding out that their outdated infrastructures are filling children with unhealthy levels of lead. In addition, water quality and food safety go hand in hand, given farming’s rising reliance on groundwater. Active monitoring and measuring of pollutants should be a top agriculture concern.

3. We can’t rely on incomplete, fragmented testing and monitoringTesting for minimal parameters like Ph and turbidity is not nearly enough, and sending samples away to a lab is not efficient. Static, lab-reliant processes are expensive and take up precious time, whether for industrial or commercial process controls. While some innovative utilities are now exploring technologies for real-time leak detection,most still do not actively monitor, measure and manage all water risks. Without an effective way to predict and prevent leaks or rapidly flag a quality concern, utilities waste water and miss safety issues.

4. Blindly dumping chemicals or guesstimating is not an effective way to “clean” water or optimize process control. The industry’s heavy reliance on chlorine to treat water misses the mark. By taking a more data-driven approach and knowing what is actually in the water at any given time, the proper remediation measures can be put into place… and that does not always mean adding more chemicals to the mix.

Moving Forward

America’s water problem can no longer be ignored, and our infrastructure needs a massive overhaul. Even with the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, throwing a bit more money into the mix is only a partial answer. The EPA anticipates it will cost upwards of $743 billion to tackle the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs in this country, yet the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates fixing our water infrastructure issues will cost closer to $1 trillion.

Smart grids deliver more efficient distribution and management. From electric utilities’ adoption of smart power grids, to the emergence of smart transportation grids in certain parts of the country, our society is getting smarter. However, while smart cities are being envisioned and built around the world, something as essential as water has not yet been given the same importance and priority. Ramping up water grid investment, technology adoption and the pace of implementation will help us understand water composition, storage, reuse, distribution, leaks, etc., in real-time. We need a smart water grid system to efficiently manage safe water availability.

Industry experts are trying to influence how we completely rethink the management, protection and treatment of our water supply, as well as the grid that connects us. Unfortunately, the pace at which these efforts are being implemented infuriatingly slow. In addition, getting cross-functional minds to work together in a cohesive manner with structured inter-disciplinary collaboration has proven to be a massive challenge.  

As states, cities and districts all struggle to figure out the best next step, the real question is, “Why don’t we know what is in our water?” How can such an advanced, health-focused society not know what is in the water – in our schools, in our farms and in our factories, in our homes? Knowing what is in our water is at the epicenter of the call for smart cities and smart infrastructure – and it all starts with water data. An interactive, intelligent water grid powered by a network of smart sensors can provide the data needed to deliver warnings and predictions in real-time.

A smart water grid would detect leaks proactively, helping utilities manage predictive maintenance, remotely control water-source monitoring and remotely shut off the water as needed. If utilities can detect where specific infrastructure repairs need to occur versus overhauling the entire infrastructure, it will save a significant amount of tax dollars.

The smart water grid of the future must also continuously and accurately detect heavy metals like lead, copper, nitrates and arsenic, as well as parameters like chlorine, dissolved oxygen, silica, etc. Adding organics and biologicals will complete the needed water data picture. A smart grid that can analyze quality parameters in real-time will act as an advanced warning system. It would help maintain the health of our water supply system from treatment to delivery. To sustain integrity, a smart water grid should actively flag the best remediation action based on advanced analytics—from treatment system maintenance and filtration unit replacement, to forecasting expected behavior with seasonal anomalies and pre-existing conditions like superfund sites, mining sites, landfills, and more.

A safe, smart water grid means the ability to predict and prevent the next Flint. Now is the time to break down barriers and bring smart technologies into every water pipe and grid to ensure the clean, sustainable global water system starts in the United States. Every water-intensive sector must take action and ensure mission-critical water data takes priority.

By Meena Sankaran, CEO of KETOS and clean water expert

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