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.

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