Fostering a 21st Century Water System

By Lauren Boyd

Lauren Boyd is Water Resources Associate at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation. She studied Public Policy at UC Berkeley and graduated in Spring 2015. You can find her on Twitter @greenSVLG.

The state’s water supply and our current drought are the most important environmental issues to a majority of Californians according to a new PPIC study. In order to address this critical issue, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group explored whether the innovative technologies developed in Silicon Valley and that are currently used can help address this issue. An expert panel at the 2016 Energy and Sustainability Summit used this question, as well as a bill before the state legislature this year, as the basis for a discussion around the topic du jour in the CA water sector: How can we foster a 21st century water system?

The panel “Bringing Water into the 21st Century: Managing Water with Open Data” brought together four experts in the water industry:

  • Tim Anderson, Government Affairs Manager for Sonoma County Water Agency
  • Dominique Gómez, Operations Manager for WaterSmart Software
  • Logan Pitts, Field Representative for the Office of Assemblymember Dodd
  • Jeff Neemann, Director of Water Technology for Black & Veatch

Gordon Feller, the Co-Founder and Convenor of Meeting of the Minds, and an expert in smart cities, moderated the panel. The various panelists had expertise in different parts of the water sector, and were able to provide the perspective of both water managers and users. It was essential to provide these perspectives in order to understand how the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and associated smart meters, telecommunication systems, and data platforms could help shape the state water system.

Indeed, the bill that the panelists used as a starting point, The Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755) introduced by Assemblymember Dodd (D-Napa) in early February, would introduce a 21st century technology that would have shaped the water system for both managers and users. The bill would create a “statewide integrated water data platform;” using existing local, state, and federal data (e.g. the State Water Resources Control Board’s data on water rights, water diversions, and water quality) and integrating it onto one open platform. There are several potential key benefits:

  • Identifying the current gaps in water datasets;
  • Identifying the different standards used to collect water data;
  • Integrating water data that is currently dispersed amongst different agencies; and
  • Improving accessibility to water data by both managers and users.

The open platform would allow both water managers and users to make decisions based on better information about the state water system – a necessity as the state faces scarce water resources due to drought and climate change.

But the platform and its benefits would have to revolve around one key factor: the transition from their current outdated technology to a 21st century water system. And if there was one thing that the panelists could agree on, it was that such a transition would not be easy.

The panelists identified that much of the water sector not only relies on 20th century infrastructure, but it lacks two key resources necessary for the transition to a 21st century infrastructure:

  • Human Capital, and
  • Financial Capital.

For example, water agencies and their employees are extremely busy providing safe and reliable water throughout their service areas, and can often lack the capacity to implement new technologies. Moreover, civil engineering is different from electrical engineering, and creating platforms requires a different set of skills than those that are needed to create aqueducts; hiring the human capital needed to manage 21st century technology requires immense amounts of fiscal capital.

And ultimately, much of the state water system lacks financial capital. Local, state and federal governments are constrained in their ability to fund water infrastructure improvements. Specifically, the low price of water and Proposition 218, a measure that impedes the ability of local agencies to charge water rates that account for the full cost of providing water, place fiscal constraints on local agencies. These constraints ensure that local agencies are unable to make the investments in human capital or technologies that that may help them improve their water management. In fact, AB 1755’s recent difficulties in the state legislature exemplify this financial issue – there have been concerns over the bill’s financial impact on a sector that lacks the resources to manage a data platform.

Compounding this problem is what the panelists emphasized as the fragmented nature of the state water system. The over 400 water systems, as well as the numerous federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over these water systems and the state’s complex water rights system, pose two main problems to the creation of a 21st century water system:

  • Water data cannot be integrated because agencies collect data in silos; and
  • Water data cannot be integrated because some agencies lack more resources than others to make the transition to 21st century technology.

While water utilities can use data and transition to 21st century technology at their own pace, this fragmented nature makes it difficult to create the integrated statewide water system that AB 1755 sought to create, and it makes it more difficult for both customers and suppliers to make the informed management decisions needed to improve “water supply and drought.”

Despite the fragmented water system and its disjointed transition to 21st century technology, much of the panelists’ discussion centered on that transition’s benefits for both water managers and users. For water managers, IoT can help them manage their expansive, and occasionally complex, supply infrastructure. For example, some discussion underscored how real-time data can help managers make more-informed decisions about releases from reservoirs in the event of extreme storms, as well as help them detect water leaks. The technology and improved information could prevent help prevent flooding and increase public safety and monetary savings for both water managers and users.

In addition to the potential cost-savings through water leak detection, 21st century technology can provide water users better access to information about their water use. The panelists emphasized that customer engagement and data analytic software can be linked to reduced demand by water users. By providing easily-understood information to water users that they can benchmark against households or companies of similar size, 21st century technology can directly engage customers and produce beneficial responses in their consumption habits.

These benefits can now be felt in select areas around the state as water utilities transition to 21st century technologies, but the panelists emphasized that the public expectation of open data may catalyze the process. As technology allows individuals to access real-time information at their fingertips, those individuals will demand the same type of information for all aspects of their daily life, including their water consumption. The panelists acknowledged water managers’ concerns that the data can be a “regulatory gotcha” used against them, but they also noted that the data can help increase public and regulatory acceptance of new water technologies. For example, the panelists referenced that open data can improve acceptance of Direct Potable Reuse, which will be another technological asset for water managers and users as they try to solve the issue of “water supply and drought.”

When asked to give one solution that could enable a transition to 21st century technology, the panelists gave a variety of answers. Indeed, the transition to a 21st century water system that addresses the issue of “water supply and drought” will require a variety of solutions. Yet, there was a consensus that AB 1755 could ease the transition by integrating available datasets and providing that information to water managers and users, as well as identifying those areas in the state that may need help overcoming the barriers to 21st century technology. AB 1755 has had its difficulties in the state legislature; however, the state can expect the water sector, and perhaps even the Silicon Valley companies that created those 21st century technologies and the demand for open data, to continue to engage around this issue. Water scarcity affects us all.

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