Two countries in one – the disparate state of water services in the US

The US smart water metering market tells a tale of two nations, writes Philip Gordon.

One metropolitan, water-rich, and in the process of modernising infrastructure to maximise water savings in line with best practices and advanced metering technologies; and then we’re faced with a juxtaposition – rural communities in West Virginia that even now, at the end of the second decade of a technology-driven millennium, still haven’t got sewerage in place, or running water.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 4-2019. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

Lead content from ageing lead piping infrastructure high enough to cease Chicago’s smart water metering rollout, and lead poisoning affecting Flint, a city on the banks of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world.

Speakers at the 12th Annual Global Water Alliance Conference in Pennsylvania highlighted the realities of the US water industry.

“The kinds of conditions that people are living with are very similar,” said Zoe Roller senior programme manager at the US Water Alliance, “like people having to collect water in buckets and take them home because they don’t have running water, or having wastewater going directly into their backyard because they’re not connected to a system.” Approximately 1.6 million Americans don’t have running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment, with the US Water Alliance finding that in Lowndes County, Alabama, only 20% of the population is connected to a below-ground sewer system, leaving the remaining 80% to live with raw sewage overflowing into their gardens, or backing up into their homes.

Water insecurity predominates many rural communities, but it disproportionately affects communities of colour.

“Particularly African-Americans and Native Americans in this country are more likely to experience challenges with access to water,” Roller said.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, had a similar comment, noting: “There’s a disproportionate set of factors that are going on for communities of colour, low-income communities, and indigenous populations,” he said. “Whether it is their meaningful involvement in the process or what they’re being exposed to.” Roller cautioned that the United States is, however, at risk of falling behind in terms of basic water access

“We’re really at risk of backsliding,” she said. “There has been a decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. And that’s especially hard for smaller rural systems, where they may not have the tax base to expand their systems.”

Yet a look at more urban, metropolitan areas tells a very different story Whereas rural areas have yet to access basic water utility services, utilities that have benefitted from infrastructure upgrades and modernisation thanks to state or national budgets are looking beyond metering – at how best to manage their new, modern water networks: the solutions that will realise cut labour costs, save time, and boost efficiency and ultimately profitability.

According to market research company IHS Markit, data shows that 35% of head-end software endpoints are involved in a typical managed services contract; water’s growth rate hasn’t outdone electricity metering, yet advanced water measurement infrastructure data typically has fewer applications than electricity, focussing on utility benefits such as remote disconnection, leak detection, and network management.

North America is expected to hold a major share of the global market for smart water meters between 2018 and 2026, according to research agency EuroPlat, primarily attributable to the strong presence of well-established players in the US.

The US Government is investing heavily in deploying innovative smart water meters in place of older water meters across the country.

Black & Veatch, in the 2019 Strategic Directions: Water Report noted that: 1. Smarter infrastructure, with data science at its core, will play a crucial role in overcoming varied threats to water supply

  1. A new culture of data science (precise reads of consumption rates, customer engagement, improved leak detection and climate change planning) can extend our water supply to drive sustainability and resilience
  2. Embracing digital water will better inform the asset management and planning programmes necessary to overcome continued funding challenges 4. Data science “has woven itself into the central fabric of our water economy” 5. More than 90% of respondents rely heavily on meter and billing data, customer information, SCADA systems and operations data to manage operations
  3. However, 5% of respondents have implemented a robust, fully-integrated approach to data management
  4. 60% say their data efforts are getting stronger but are not fully integrated due to collection siloes
  5. 86% of respondents see resilience as a critical priority, but of that number, only half have developed an approach to address the issue, while 36% have yet to make formal plans for achieving it 9. While two-thirds of respondents see energy management as very or extremely important, just less than half have an energy master plan in place 10. Catastrophic infrastructure failure tops the list of resilience concerns, followed by natural or manmade disaster, drought, climate change, cyberattack and terrorist attack.

Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of Black & Veatch’s water business, said: “The Internet of Water – through next-generation collection devices and predictive analytics – has ushered in the ability to funnel disparate data into a single, meaningful snapshot of the entire water ecosystem.

The future of water utility management

Smart water management has the potential to save approximately $15 billion a year, according to one study.

Smart water management (SWM) includes “intelligent” equipment, integrated with a smart network and digital solution, which incorporates insight and control of ageing infrastructure, water leak detection, satellite mapping, smart meters, sensors and other devices to effectively manage water resources, and the technology has proved itself in developed communities.

Water management solutions company Banyan, based in Austin, Texas, reported savings for utility clients of approximately 3 billion gallons of water since beginning operations. The company’s solution, Banyan Water Central, automates reporting and leak detection analysis to provide corporations with critical data needed to make decisions and mitigate risk.

“Data-driven water technology must become the industry standard to combat rising water rates and the growing global water crisis,” said Gillan Taddune, CEO of Banyan Water.

“Banyan provides unprecedented visibility into a property’s water usage, an invaluable asset for facility management practices. IoT-enabled water technology not only creates a more sustainable built environment but greatly reduces operating expenses for portfolio managers.”

That’s astounding, especially in light of climate change and declining fresh water reserves, but the challenge of saving water, for 16% of the US population is a problem of convenience, not a necessity.

Cross-economic concerns

A 2019 survey by FM3 Research and New Bridge Strategy surveyed 1,000 US voters across 47 states regarding their confidence in the US’ current water infrastructure. The results showed declining confidence, in line with previous years, with respondents placing the importance of rebuilding the country’s water infrastructure above pressing issues such as defence budgeting and the replacement of Obamacare.

Carcinogenic connectivity

It’s well-known that smart water meters emit short radio waves to transmit meter data, but there is a consumer-driven concern about the negative impact that these radiations can have on human health, according to speakers at the Annual Global Water Alliance conference. However, a 2018 study by the UK government’s Public Health England organisation found that although smart water meters emit RF radiations, these radiations are lower than those emitted by smartphones and thus are unlikely to cause cancer. This points to a lack of public education regarding the perceived risk of smart metering that needs to be addressed.

The big question

Whilst it may be heartening to many to see the US smart water market evolving, keeping pace with leading developed countries, the gaping discrepancy between those with the ability to manage their water resources, and those without access to even basic sewerage leads to one glaring question: Will technology solve the US’s water resource disparities, or will it grow the divide between the haves and the have-nots? SEI