Sunday, October 28, 2012

55,000+ water agencies in the US, and....??

United States is approximately 3,718,691 square miles in size, and has a population of 314,661,000 (mid 2012 estimate). To manage this, we have 55,000+ water agencies. I am not including wastewater agencies here. In several places, we have combined water and wastewater agencies, but in many places it is not so.

In San Diego county,  we have 4,525.52 square miles and a population of 3,095,313 (2010 census). To manage this, we have 24 water agencies and the San Diego Water Authority to oversee the region.

(In comparison, there are only a few dozen power utilities in the US, and only one that operates in San Diego.)

Let's do the simple math:
A typical US water agency manages about 67.6 square miles, and 5,721 people.
A typical water agency in San Diego manages about 188.5 square miles, and 128,971 people.

Yes, the simple math does not really do justice to the numbers. There are many agencies covering large swaths of land and support very small population, and vice-versa. But the underlying question is do these water agencies currently operate at their best efficiency point and giving the best value to their customers?
We are talking about efficient resource distribution, limited water loss, optimization of labor, connect with customers so that they understand and appreciate the impact of water usage patterns. And we all know that the answer is No. All these agencies get an A or B for effort, but about a D or lower for results.

So, what are the Solutions?

Everyone will jump up and down and say Innovation! (It's an over used buzz word these days.) Yes, innovation is the answer, but it comes in different forms. Just finding new treatment technologies is not enough. Unfortunately, water agencies currently define innovation = better water treatment methods. Innovation has to touch every aspect of the Water Industry, inside out. As a first step, there are four sectors where these agencies need to focus on:

Energy - Apart from working on energy efficiency projects (i.e. change the light bulbs, buy efficiency motors,etc.), the agencies need to focus on operating the systems with dynamic real-time optimization. More details on the concept can be found here. The result of this will not only be energy savings but also additional revenue that can then be applied back towards system improvements.

Technology - Adopt a SMART Operations and Maintenance concept. This will include model based control, real-time forecasting, advanced sensing and monitoring, dynamic data visualization, analysis and decisions. The water agencies have a Big Data problem, all we need is to adopt the technology tools and solutions from other disciplines and adapt them to our operations.

Economics - Change the pricing models to match supply and demand and reflect the 'real' value of water based on it's source and use. Move from the era of water development to the era of water allocation, test out the strategies and implement them. Move away from capital financing needs (historically met by Federal and State grants) to financial instruments from private sector as low-risk-low-return investment options.

Communication - Engage with public using communication channels beyond bill-stuffers and calendars with kid's drawings. Develop relationships with community organizations without explicitly trying the 'educate' the public. Lose the word "Outreach" from all your vocabulary. Be a partner.

For more details.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

World Development and Change, the Pillars and Slabs

I am a civil engineer and much of my basic training was in structural engineering before I shifted to environmental engineering for my Masters. So I often tend to go back on analogies from my civil/ structural engineering training. Here is one of those analogies.

I believe that as we evolve as a civilization, our knowledge of the world around us gets more pronounced. Ancient humans were able to appreciate the world around us, their theories rested on empirical observations, and many things that they predicted based of these observations are pretty set on the mark. Science and Technology is relatively new and has found the 'reason' behind many a phenomenon over the last 3000 years. We are slated for even more fascinating times ahead.

This evolution of science and technology, I believe, has happened just like we build buildings. We lay a foundation, and then erect pillars, followed by a slab, then again pillars, followed by slabs, and so forth. For a structure to be stable, you cannot just go on building pillars, for without slabs, there will be no integrity and no use of the structure either. Slabs connect the pillars, transfer forces from one pillar to the other and ultimately to the foundation. Slabs are fundamental to the building as the pillars, they also enable people to make a home on them and live.

In the development of science and technology, the pillars are the discipline specific R&D that leads to great breakthroughs in those disciplines. For example, in the years leading to the Renaissance, there was development going on in physics, biology, engineering, astronomy, music, painting  and many such fields. When the Renaissance period came, a slab was built. The beauty of that period was that the foremost scientists and artists of the period started mingling with each other and sharing their ideas and approaches. That era afforded the opportunity and encouraged the cross pollination. As a result, there were many breakthroughs that can be directly attributed to the fact that the physicists sat along side the painters and discussed solutions together.

I think that we are at the threshold of another such era. We have made tremendous progress in individual fields, especially biology, IT, energy, etc. Now, it is time to share the discoveries across disciplines and cross pollinate again. The opening of the world due to the social networks make this even more easy to do. We need to build a slab that joins all the various disciplines and share the ideas and insights. This will yield a Renaissance of modern times. I sincerely believe this. And for this reason I work very diligently in the innovation space and consult with start-up companies. It does not matter if they are designing a new touchless mobile app for autistic kids to help them read books or if there is a group designing ground penetrating sensing devices to look for oil. It does not have to be linked to the Water industry, all I want is to learn about the edge ideas. This gets me thinking of novel applications in other fields, it opens up my mind to think differently and devise new ways to integrate technologies across disciplines. In that process I can identify for my start-up clients new markets, new possibilities, and have them be the defining and often disruptive technology in those markets. I enjoy this process a lot!

Watch this space, in the next few weeks I will be showcasing my fascinating discoveries at the WBT Showcase I am attending this week.