Freddie Guerra is a client solutions manager for Xylem.
The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the disruption caused by recent extreme weather events, has placed a renewed focus on the resilience of water utilities in the face of unexpected threats. The events laid bare the vulnerabilities of our water systems and exposed weaknesses in the industry’s approach to water management. However, they also highlighted the need to fast-track the digital transformation of the water sector in order to build greater resilience.
With digital disruption now accelerating, it is imperative that utilities maintain this momentum and continue to explore new routes to do so.
One avenue is the preparation of risk and assessment strategies for drinking water systems, as required under the American Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA). Compliance standards like this can often be viewed narrowly and in isolation, rather than as complementary to ongoing resilience-building initiatives. The reality is that integrating digital solutions into the compliance process can yield transformational results for utilities, delivering greater on investment when it comes to AWIA risk and assessment planning.
Changing the Paradigm on Risk & Resilience Planning
As is stands, AWIA compliance requires each utility serving more than 3,300 people to conduct its risk and resilience assessment for drinking water systems every five years. While setting out a framework puts the onus on water providers to adequately prepare and plan for a wide range of threats, for many resource-strapped utilities, meeting AWIA compliance runs the risk of becoming a simple “check the box” exercise that leverages legacy processes and procedures for ineffective risk and resilience planning.
Most utilities have inadvertently built rigid solutions, processes, and procedures that are not future adaptive, and change happens slowly as a result. When completing AWIA assessments, many utilities adopt a status quo mentality, often simply modifying existing plans to meet requirements on time.
Currently, AWIA assessments promote the identification of system threats and the prioritization of those threats, with utilities required to outline how they are going to react to risk events. Assessments must include risks from malevolent acts such as cyberattacks and intentional contamination, as well as risks associated with natural hazards like droughts and extreme flooding. While compliance represents an opportunity for utilities to build preparedness for such events, the current approach can inadvertently promote a reactive response rather than proactive prevention.
Embedding Proactive Prevention in Risk Assessments
Digital tools that support situational intelligence and system optimization can empower utilities to predict when risks are going to happen, allowing them to set a new standard for enterprise visibility and take risk assessment planning and response to the next level.
For example, digital decision support tools unlock the power of data to drive substantially greater operational efficiency. Digital twins driven by real time sensors mirror physical systems and can provide unprecedented foresight and control, especially when coupled with algorithms and control logic that optimize operational choices. Sensors in sewer networks can detect problems in real-time, and artificial intelligence (AI) based solutions can predict network failure before it happens.
By providing utility managers with real-time and predictive insights on the performance and the potential of their existing assets, decision intelligence tools enable utilities to optimize levels of service while significantly reducing the costs associated with maintenance and network optimization strategies.
Take the City of Raleigh Public Utilities Department (Raleigh Water), for example, which maintains the water and wastewater infrastructure for 600,000 customers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and six surrounding communities. Raleigh’s drinking water distribution system originally dates to 1887 with the construction of the city’s first water treatment plant. Combining Xylem’s sensors and advanced risk analytics with Esri location intelligence software, Raleigh Water achieved a far more accurate, predictive, and targeted view of its potential trouble spots.
Xylem Asset Performance Optimization analyzed the utility’s entire network, combining historical pipeline break data with information from Raleigh Water using Esri ArcGIS Enterprise. The resulting assessment identified the top 1% of at-risk pipeline segments, scattered throughout the city, based on their probability of failure. The team then clustered groups of at-risk pipes to be prioritized for more targeted preventative maintenance. To date, Raleigh Water has planned six projects using the results of Xylem’s analyses. It estimates the work with Xylem has already saved the utility 75% of planning time while reducing risk to the network, decreasing response times, and lessening community impact of breaks that might occur.
A Pathway to True Operational Resiliency
Building operational resiliency is about understanding what is happening within the system, and getting the right information to the right person at the right time to support smarter decision making. During disaster events, utility personnel resources are heavily strained and it can be challenging to respond effectively and efficiently. A strategy plan intertwined with technology as laid out in AWIA allows utilities to make the correct decisions and carry out the appropriate actions during a utility’s response, to deliver the best outcomes.
We have already see the devastating impact taking a ‘business as usual approach’ to risk and assessment planning can have. For example, the water crisis in Texas earlier this year was ultimately caused by a lack of enterprise visibility, including the ability to spot risks before they occur, in addition to limitations on the ability for utility personnel to make proactive decisions to mitigate risk. While utilities had ERPs in place that satisfied AWIA compliance, engaging response strategies after the fact was too late.
With more than 20,000 people left without running water, the total cost of damage across Texas is expected to run into the billions as a result of the week-long crisis. However, utilities that had made investments in digital technologies were able to respond better to the crisis than those who had not. By implementing the right technology, utilities can accelerate their efforts and achieve greater enterprise visibility through situational intelligence tools.
Simply put, with a holistic approach, Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) can become a pathway to drive true operational resilience and shift the response paradigm from reactive to proactive. Compliance can be an impetus for change and a key driver of our industry’s digital transformation.