By Philip McFarlane, market leader – Water and Waste Water, WSP.
Like most infrastructure, water systems are taken for granted by users, many of whom don’t give them a second thought until things go wrong.
But if 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s that things can and do go wrong, and the impacts can be at levels never seen before. As we emerge from the pandemic we have an opportunity to take a new approach to manage our water infrastructure, transforming the way we deliver and manage water services.
Adopting a new mindset will help us deliver resilient services that can withstand impacts of a changing climate, legislative changes, fluctuating demand and continue to meet user expectations.
So, where do we start making the change?
One of the biggest issues is lack of visibility at what’s happening in our systems which, in many cases, isn’t significantly different than when the Romans built the first systems. We still put our focus on getting water into pipes at one end and having it come out somewhere else, without a lot of knowledge about what’s happening while water is flowing.
However, there are an increasing number of technologies that we can turn to including monitoring sensors and software, which enable far more active management. Operators are given an accurate understanding of what is happening in the network and can make adjustments to improve performance in real-time.
Because there’s an early warning for issues, they are resolved quickly which provides value in reduced energy consumption and less negative impact on users.
We’ve seen this used well in Adelaide, where South Australia Water installed a grid of more than 300 sensors that monitor flow, pressure, water quality and acoustic leak protection. This approach has several benefits.
First, pipe breaks are reduced and the life of pipe assets is extended by identifying and eliminating the source of pressure fluctuations, such as repairing faulty valves. Monitoring pressure fluctuations can also provide early warning of when pipes have broken, enabling repairs to be undertaken quickly and the risk of contamination reduced.
This visibility into the network has resulted in reduced water loss and water service interruptions. SA Water reports that several leaks in hydrants, stop valves and pipes have also been found and fixed, some of which may have led to large water loss and unnecessary costs.
The advent of cheaper and more precise system sensors and monitors will allow even more focused operation, and even prediction of events to help ensure the necessary supply resilience and cost optimisation.
Another tool we can use is well-constructed and calibrated hydraulic and hydrological models. These can clearly demonstrate the consequences of fluctuating and increased water demands, pipe flows and pressures in water and wastewater systems; the impact of climate on the distribution and quality of water resources, above and below land surfaces, and on infrastructure by forecasting water pressures and flows, deficiencies and risk, and lay bare the effectiveness of proposed solutions.
Both hydraulic and hydrological analyses create opportunities for improved operational performance and cost savings.
We’re this innovation being used by the local government. South West Water (SWW), a provider of water and sewerage services in Cornwall and Devon, UK, engaged WSP to build a water distribution network model for the Pynes distribution zone serving Exeter and parts of the surrounding area, to simulate flows and pressures throughout the zone and calibrated it against field test data.
We subsequently converted to a web-enabled dynamic model with output visualization that could show conditions in the network on a minute-to-minute basis and identify anomalies that indicated incidents requiring operational response interventions.
We used the model to confirm the required network changes enabling the outage of a service reservoir, allowing SWW operation teams to have increased confidence that there would be no detriment to customers.
Another area ripe for improvement is in using data to inform evidence-based decision making around investment in infrastructure.
Already we’re seeing data shared more widely across organisations to provide a better picture of how assets perform, which is being used to improve productivity. However, to do this properly requires common data standards.
The NZ Metadata Standards developed by LINZ have gone some way to helping this, but more work is required to make the standards simpler and more widely adopted. Meanwhile, the University of Canterbury Quake Centre is helping to move the conversation from data standards to how best to use data for making better infrastructure decisions and improving productivity.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes we need to address is our workforce because it’s not just our infrastructure that’s ageing. Because many of us stay in the industry for a long time, there is a need to engage and train younger workers to come through and fill the gaps made by an ageing workforce.
As seen by the trends above, the water professional of the future will need to use data analysis skills to interrogate data and use statistical approaches to identify trends and test different intervention approaches.
The water industry in New Zealand has undergone a massive change in demand, impacts and community and cultural expectations. Further change is imminent with a new water regulator and new legislation covering drinking water and wastewater discharges.
On top of this, we have additional challenges of affordability, community expectations, cultural views, climate change, carbon reduction, sustainability, ageing water infrastructure and potential new Regional Water Entities.
Clearly, our future professionals and decision-makers will have to be agile, innovative and have access to a diverse range of disciplines, thought processes, skill sets and decision-making aids.
This is a challenging and exciting time to be part of shaping the future of our water industry. Accelerating investment in water infrastructure offers an ideal opportunity to kickstart our economy after the pandemic shutdown.