Guest Column | February 25, 2015

Climbing Higher For A Better View: Keys To Successful Water Management


By Cindy Wallis-Lage, President, Black & Veatch’s water business

Leadership training is an ongoing focus at Black & Veatch. Key objectives of this training are to help professionals work through potential career-related plateaus and to adapt to organizational shifts. It may be human nature to want to stay in a safe, comfortable place within an organization or industry, but leaders don’t really have that option.

Many utilities are moving to a traditional business mindset rather than continuing as largely compliance-driven entities. This is challenging leaders to apply asset management and smart infrastructure strategies, to become more programmatic in managing water, and to consider the big picture in addressing public needs. Given the range of challenges facing water utilities from aging infrastructure and inadequate revenue streams to maturing workforces and rising customer expectations, it’s increasingly necessary to do all of this.  

As an industry, we still tend to silo too many decisions. By failing to consider all interdependencies and moving forward with too little information, we can create future problems in the process of addressing immediate needs. An example of failing to consider all interdependencies is our tendency to focus primarily on the water needs of the urban environment, because our urban environment can’t survive without agricultural support. Failing to fully consider agricultural as well as urban and industrial needs creates an unstable foundation for future decisions.

It’s also essential to proactively consider interdependencies in the development and maintenance of infrastructure systems, rather than address specific waste or supply needs in silo-like fashion as they demand immediate attention. Phase 2 of Singapore’s multi-billion-dollar Deep Tunnel Sewerage System exemplifies a comprehensive, programmatic, and sustainable approach to water management. We’re working with AECOM in a joint venture on the design that will integrate collection systems, treatment, nutrient reduction, energy efficiency and production, and water reclamation in a single, 10-year program. The resulting system will convey wastewater to one of three treatment plants in a way that maximizes water resources.  PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, is also looking at co-locating the treatment plant with a mega incineration facility to reap potential benefits of the water-waste-energy nexus — all within a compact footprint.  

Once you recognize the interconnectedness and life-cycle nature of assets, how do you drive your overall system to know where to allocate resources most effectively? We often have plenty of data, but fall short in using it effectively. It’s not a matter of building more, which would cause redundancy, but of building in more flexibility and resiliency. We might have the technology, but we aren’t always aware of problems soon enough to fully protect human health or avert costly repairs rendered during a crisis. Resiliency means looking past what we see before us to the waves and ripples that follow. We need systems that can minimize that impact. And we need to holistically manage the pieces.

Identifying actionable plans that balance competing interests, such as water allocation, rate affordability, and necessary investment, requires an all-encompassing approach. For this reason, we continue to advocate the adoption of best-practice asset management. Asset management programs are also powerful ways to optimize capital spending. Risk-based planning and proactive prioritization of needs enable utilities to base investment decisions on actual asset condition and can help reduce overall capital spending requirements. Utilities that make investment choices based on proven asset management principles are climbing upward for a better view.    

Data-driven decision-making is also gaining momentum as utilities move toward a smart integrated-infrastructure paradigm. Advances in data analytics can provide significant cost benefits in terms of how a utility or a specific asset is managed. In fact, the 2015 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: Smart Utility report ( shows that nearly 60 percent of water utilities believe that an expanded use of data management and analytics would improve their ability to evaluate operational or maintenance options/scenarios to improve forward planning.

Utilities can use data to identify, detect, and repair problems before they become potentially catastrophic asset failures. In regions suffering from sustained and severe drought conditions, information can help enforce water rationing and monitor usage as well as quickly identify resource-wasting leaks. Customers with access to information regarding their water usage are empowered to change water-use behaviors. Smart analytics give us the integrated information needed to optimize water, wastewater, and other systems. Although there are still cost-related barriers to entry for smaller organizations, advances in cloud-based services and telecommunications networks are making it easier for small utilities to take advantage of smart analytics. 

The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in Kansas City, KS, exemplifies utilities’ growing use of technology to leverage data and make better decisions. BPU’s pilot study combines control system data with hourly meter data from its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to improve water loss. The first phase will yield daily water accounting, which, when combined with new district metering, will alert BPU sooner when — and in what part of the system — a leak is occurring. The second phase will use the hourly meter data to generate system demand projections in hourly increments for five days. This will enable operations to optimize the energy needed to deliver water to the system.

A pilot project in another U.S. city incorporates a combination of integrated data management and analytics to address real-time energy management in the city’s wastewater system. Automatically bringing together multiple data sets, such as SCADA, samples collected during operator rounds, and off-line laboratory analyses, into an easy-to-use scorecard will give operations staff more insight into current efficiency. This allows staff to spend time analyzing rather than collecting data.

Holistic management of systems, assets, and information isn’t an end-all solution. But adopting any or all of these approaches offers a favorable foothold for an industry faced with the need for a higher vantage point so the interconnectedness of challenges is easier to detect and far-reaching ripples are easier to predict. In any organization or industry, leaders are the people who climb off their plateaus for that view.