You expect the water you drink to be clean. But do you know what goes into maintaining high-quality drinking water? There are endless federal, state, and local rules and requirements to safeguard water quality. These regulations are often complex and inhibit a water utility’s ability to innovate.
On top of that, water utilities are dealing with a shortage of water supply, changing climate challenges, and a lack of funding. Water utilities need access to clean data and analytics to transform the water supply chain and overcome increasing obstacles. Listen to this podcast to learn about the obstacles utilities are facing, what decisions they are making, and how they are improving their water supply management systems.
Our guest this episode is Dr. Alison Adams, Chief Technology Officer for the environmental and water resource consulting firm INTERA. She was first introduced to the company when she was working as the CTO of Tampa Bay Water, one of the largest water utilities in Florida. INTERA helped assist Tampa Bay Water in making strategic operational decisions regarding several water supply management initiatives. After retiring from Tampa Bay Water, Dr. Adams joined INTERA as a principal water resources engineer. She was promoted to CTO in May 2021.
Dr. Adams answers our questions about:
- (3:11) Water supply management challenges and trends
- (5:20) How to overcome aging infrastructure
- (9:19) Where digital transformation starts
- (15:03) The importance of data analytics
- (17:56) The tools and technology that can help
- (24:32) Governmental rules and regulations standing in the way
- (31:16) Resiliency versus sustainability
- (33:11) The future of the water utility industry
To learn more about the ongoing changes among water utility companies, read IoT Adoption Takes a Culture Shift. For the latest innovations from INTERA, follow them on Twitter at @INTERA_Inc and on LinkedIn at INTERA.
Kenton Williston: Welcome to the IoT Chat, where we explore the trends that matter for consultants, systems integrators, and end users. I’m Kenton Williston, the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech. Every episode we talk to a leading expert about the latest developments in the Internet of Things. Today we have our Senior Editor, Christina Cardoza, joining the podcast to talk about efforts to digitize the water supply chain with Dr. Alison Adams, the Chief Technology Officer of INTERA.
When you turn on your faucet, you just expect there to be clean water. But the process it takes to get to your faucet is not as simple as turning a knob. Water utilities have to first jump through a number of regulatory, technical, and infrastructure hoops to ensure the safety and quality of the water supply. In this episode, Christina talks to Dr. Adams about how a digital transformation, powered by data and analytics, can ease the burden on water utilities, and provide a more resilient, sustainable, and innovative future. But, first, let me hand it over to Christina and our guest.
Christina Cardoza: Thank you for that great introduction, Kenton. And welcome to the podcast, Dr. Alison Adams.
Dr. Alison Adams: Thank you, Christina. It’s a pleasure to be here today.
Christina Cardoza: Why don’t we start off. If you could tell us more about INTERA and your role there?
Dr. Alison Adams: Yes. Founded in 1974, INTERA is an employee-owned geoscience and engineering company with deep roots in solving complex water-resource problems, and effectively assisting utilities with these difficult issues. My role as the Chief Technology Officer is to bridge together data, analytics, and technology so that data is transformed into actionable information, which supports decision making.
Christina Cardoza: What did you do before coming to INTERA? What brought you to the company?
Dr. Alison Adams: Before INTERA I was the Chief Technical Officer at Tampa Bay Water, which is a large water utility located in west central Florida. And I spent most of my career there on improving decision making and data utilization through this digital transformation process. When I was working on my PhD at Colorado State University I got very interested in the role of data, coupled with human decision making, in this role of decision making for water utilities. When I went back to Tampa Bay Water after finishing my PhD, I just became very involved in moving the agency forward in this world.
And while I was at Tampa Bay Water we had employed the services of INTERA to assist us in several complex modeling projects. We had a very complicated groundwater/surface-water model that we were developing, and INTERA helped with that development process—along with some other decision-support tools, which we needed to make operational decisions regarding water supply management. And when I retired from Tampa Bay Water, INTERA asked me to join, and it seemed like a very natural extension to the type of work that I had been doing there for years.
Christina Cardoza: I didn’t realize you had already formed a relationship with INTERA before joining there. That’s great. You mentioned as part of your role you’re really helping to solve some of the challenges around utilities, and it’s funny, because you don’t normally think of water utilities being something that generates a lot of data, or something that needs to undergo a digital transformation. So can you just talk about some of the trends and challenges happening in the water utility industry today?
Dr. Alison Adams: Well, the water utility industry today is faced with an increasing number of issues which are competing for its resources. And many of these issues really kind of came to being about 20 years ago when we had the economic decline, which really caused water utilities to recognize a declining revenue stream in the face of growing infrastructure needs, and in growing climate change challenges. Now, the water utility industry has always dealt with risk—primarily because of the public health mandates of drinking water and the requirements for safe, high-quality drinking water—but with the added challenges of climate change, significant economic swings, changes in water-use patterns, increasing water quality concerns, and those types of concerns—it has caused the customer base to become increasingly aware and asking a lot more questions and wanting transparency from the utility industry.
And so, compounding issues, along with the risk that the water utility industry faces—and the primary risk is related to the fact that in this country, water supply is a 24/7 activity. Unlike electric grids, which can have brownouts and blackouts, a water utility system can never go offline. And so the pressure to always provide water to the tap is a very real pressure that water utilities face. The water utility industry must figure out a way to become more responsive, more—not reactive—but the ability to handle the various crises and risks that they face in a day-to-day operational basis.
Christina Cardoza: You mentioned the power grids and electrical utilities. I know that part of their digital transformation efforts have become challenging because they’re dealing with a power grid infrastructure and architecture that has been virtually untouched for years. And so they’re trying to deal with how to modernize this legacy infrastructure. What is the state of things in water utility? How equipped is the architecture and the infrastructure to handle these new evolutions and changes?
Dr. Alison Adams: Well, I think there’s a lot of similarities there, because much of the water infrastructure—the actual infrastructure that moves water within the urban environment—is also very, very old infrastructure. In some cities, in some places it’s well over 100 years old. And so the ability to maintain and upgrade and operate those systems is very, very challenging. Much of our water utility infrastructure is all buried—underground pipes—and so kind of out of sight, out of mind. And this has caused it to be slow in moving toward digital transformation concepts—employing sensors, employing methodologies to be able to view what’s going on underground. And also it’s just very difficult to maintain things underground if you don’t have some sort of monitoring system in place. So there’s some similarities there.
The water utility industry also, as an industry, is an old industry that has been very, very slow to change. It’s an industry that’s built around a lot of “people trust,” over decades of working with each other—which is also new in today’s environment, where you have a different workforce who is not really interested in working for a utility from the ground up. It’s a changing workforce that actually wants to utilize and take advantage of more technology, more information at their fingertips, more understanding of the system. And the utility industry has been kind of very slow to adapt to that, to adopt those new ways.
Part of the challenge, though, for water utility industry to adopt to new technologies is the regulatory environment. Water utility industries are very much guided by what the regulations are. Their water quality testing, their water quality monitoring, their water supply system monitoring are all pretty much driven by the regulatory requirements. And regulatory agencies in this country are very, very slow to adopt innovative ways to want to move toward adaptive decision making, adaptive management, predictive analysis, scenario planning—all of these types of tools that data analytics through digital transformation provides at your fingertips, the regulatory agencies are like, “Well, you know, we haven’t really worked that out in the past. Our regulations have been fixed. They’ve been this way for decades—they seem to work. Let’s just continue monitoring the situation, and we’ll see if we have water quality problems.” Or you have an environmental problem due to your groundwater pumpage, and oftentimes by the time you gather enough data for someone to decide, “Oh—looks like we’ve got a problem,” now it becomes very, very costly for the utility to then correct what they’re doing and try and fix the problem.
Whereas if we had more capabilities to use predictive analytics or scenario planning through more data analysis and data information coming into the system, then at least utilities could adapt their management strategies to either avoid impacts or minimize impacts, and that would really help reduce a lot of the cost in mitigating, or clean up, or trying to fix problems that regulatory agencies actually would rather avoid, but they seem to have some reluctance in employing the technology needed to actually avoid those situations.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Lots to unload there. I want to come back to all the regulatory requirements and regulations that water utilities are having to deal with today. But before we get there, talk to me more about how water utilities can start this digital transformation journey. Where is the best place for them to start tackling some of these challenges, and is there a best way or best practice to do so?
Dr. Alison Adams: I’ll be honest—with utilities, digital transformation is not an inexpensive proposition. And oftentimes it’s one that, at the very start of the process, it’s difficult to do the cost benefit analysis that a lot of utilities want to do when they’re deciding whether it’s a go/no go on projects. Because a lot of the benefits that a utility is going to gain at the beginning are going to be difficult to cost—because they’re going to be savings in staff; they’re going to be more process savings. You’re going to streamline what is going on in your organization. You’re going to bring your organization together and get rid of the silos—the engineers working in one department, the operators working in another department, your water quality lab working in a—planning all of these, which are typically very separate departments and areas within a utility, they must come together to work as an entire business. So you have to have that executive leadership because of funding and the organizational changes that digital transformation will result in your utility.
The next thing that you need to do is assess what you have. You need to—and that might sound kind of odd—but utilities are not new organizations; they’re old organizations, and they built different databases. They may have a SCADA system. They may have a laboratory water quality system. They’ll have different databases that people were collecting different types of data that were needed over time—whether it was monitoring a well field, or some regulatory requirement, or some planning activity—their demand data, these things start to create lives of their own, their own little spaghetti databases. You need to assess what all that looks like, so that now you can start forming a plan of where do we want to go, and how do we get there?
And a lot of the digital transformation revolves around bringing all of that data—that is usually very scattered throughout an organization—into some central location, so that everyone has common access to all of your high-quality data. Your regulatory reporting is one of the easiest, most effective ways to demonstrate the benefits of digital transformation, when you can automate the regulatory reporting that every utility goes through. And a lot of times that’s a very—the regulatory reporting is a very costly activity in terms of staff time, the number of staff that you employ to do that. And automation can absolutely reduce the cost that a utility spends in that area. Once you kind of make the assessment of where you are, and then you build a plan of where you want to be, then you go about implementing that plan.
And another key aspect is, don’t take on more than you can assimilate at a given time. Digital transformation is a huge organizational change, and if you try and do everything at once, you’re going to overwhelm your staff. They’re going to be so busy with all the change-management activities, they’re going to say, “Well, what about my regular job? What I’m here to do.” And they’ll get frustrated. Staff will either leave, or they just won’t participate in the process, and you’ll end up with a lot of failure. So it’s a process that it has to be deliberate, but it has to recognize the time it takes. And it can take years for a utility to go through this process, and that’s okay. You need to be adaptive in how you’re making decisions to implement certain technologies. The technology world is changing every day. There are new sensors, there are different database systems, there’s different communication protocols—and you have to be willing to scan across the horizon, take advantage of what there is today, make decisions, move forward, and do it in a much more incremental and deliberate fashion.
Christina Cardoza: Yeah, that is such a great point. I feel like, especially with COVID 19, there has been such a rush and acceleration for digital transformation. But it’s important to remember that this is a journey, and there’s not going to be a hard deadline or a hard stop, and it really is going to take time. And so if you want to do it successfully, you have to make sure that you’re putting the time and the effort in, and you’re not rushing things.
Dr. Alison Adams: Each step along the way you need to let your staff kind of get settled into the new way of doing things and get comfortable, and then move to another increment. Also, like I said, this journey can be expensive, and you need to plan for those expenditures and pace that out based upon your own economic situation at the utilities, and not overwhelm yourself by trying to spend too much money too fast.
Christina Cardoza: Exactly. And talking about the expenses and the funding, you mentioned data: how important it is to assess where you are, and then connecting all of those siloed technologies and departments. Data is also going to be very important in these journeys to keep track of how you’re doing—allowing stakeholders to see the health of projects and where the bottlenecks are and where they can improve. So, what type of data is available for water utilities, and how can they turn that data into actionable insights?
Dr. Alison Adams: Well, our water utility collects a wealth of data. For decades one of the utility’s primary tools has been a SCADA system, which are Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition systems. That’s been their main bread-and-butter, industrial-control system. SCADA systems are also great at collecting all types of data related to the operation of a utility—whether it’s how much water is coming into your water treatment plant; what is your chemical dosing rate depending upon the quality of that water; and the quality of the water that you need to deliver to the customer. A lot of this is regulatory, required data for what’s the quality of the water coming into a plant. What’s the quality of the water leaving a plant? Is it not only meeting safe drinking water requirements, but many utilities have their own criteria for safe delivery of water that they also want to monitor and make sure that the water is of a high standard to its customers.
So utilities end up with just an enormous amount of data that, if you don’t figure out how to use that data, you can become easily overwhelmed. And so developing good data analytics—also the move to having those data analytics actually completed at the site where, or at the point where, the decision is most effective. For example, if you have a control valve, or you have a chemical-dosing regulator, if you have analytics—what we refer to as analytics at the edge, where that sensor is now also coupled with some data analytics as it brings information in, the analysis is performed, and then the decision can be updated and made right there on the fly to change a critical control element of a water utility. Those are some of the ways where digital transformation can really transform the way a utility can respond to its changing environmental conditions, and still continue to deliver the high-quality water that it’s responsible for.
Christina Cardoza: A lot of this reminds me of the digital transformation initiatives happening in the manufacturing space right now. There are a lot of differences, but the whole, ensuring the safety and efficiency of operations, using predictive analytics, processing data at the edge—all reminds me of what’s happening in the smart factory right now, and they’re using a lot of automation and AI sensors to find those answers, find those insights, and get that data. So, what sort of—I know it’s a culture change first, and then the tools and the process will help—but I’m curious what sort of tools and technologies are water utilities looking to take advantage of in this transformation?
Dr. Alison Adams: Well, I think one of the first things that many water utilities went for is the automated meter reading for the water distribution at the individual home. That technology has been out and about now for 10-plus years, and that’s one of the first pieces of technology in the field that utilities went to, to gain a better understanding of what was happening at their end-use customers. Because that ultimately—understanding the end-use water needs—really helps drive the overall planning and operation of a water utility.
A new piece of technology that is gaining a lot of traction in water utilities today is this notion of a digital twin—where you take your SCADA system or your control system, and you create a duplicate, a replicate, of it digitally, so that you can now begin to take your hydraulic models—the models that actually help you better understand how water moves through pipe, the impacts of pressure and temperature and water quality on the water in the system and deliver it to the customer—you create this digital twin of your system, and then you can start playing what-if games. You can start making changes. If you had a sudden pressure drop in a certain area of your system, what does that do to your overall system?
Before, a utility—absolutely, it became very difficult to plan even infrastructure upgrades and improvements. You had to take a segment of pipe out of service. You had to take a part of your system out of service. Well, what was that going to do to the rest of the system, and how long could we be down? And a lot of times those decisions were made on experience. You would run some hydraulic models, but oftentimes those models were very limited in what they could actually tell you about your system. And then sometimes you just kind of hoped for the best, and you had a good recovery plan if something went wrong.
But these capabilities of a digital twin—where you can replicate the hydraulics of your system and then start really tweaking it, impacting it, and seeing what happens, seeing where your pressure points are, seeing where your failure points are—has really helped a lot of utilities’ insight, and to improve their operation of their system, understand where they need to focus their maintenance programs, understand where they actually need to focus their asset management programs in terms of pipe replacements, or pump replacements, or in that sort of thing.
That’s where a lot of this is going. I’m also aware of some utilities starting to look more at artificial intelligence as part of their data analytics tool. Since there is so much data coming into the system, and AI is becoming more ubiquitous in the analytic world, it becomes kind of a natural transition to move in that direction to take advantage of what is referred to as “big data” to really assess large systems.
Christina Cardoza: I love this idea of a digital twin and the water utilities utilizing this, because I feel like it helps not only plan for today, but also plan for the future in all of this.
Dr. Alison Adams: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, digital transformation can provide managers with the tools to adapt to changing conditions, which is really kind of critical to a water utility. And one of the areas where they probably had their biggest risk is, water utility operators, they love steady state conditions. They want to turn the plant on and the water, their source water, comes in at a steady rate and they treat it and they deliver it. They don’t really like many changes throughout the system. But I think, today, we do have a lot of changes throughout the system. And many of these digital transformation tools that are starting to become available are really going to help utility managers become more adaptive and more responsive in their day-to-day operational conditions.
Christina Cardoza: And we mentioned assessing risk and risk management a couple of times. And just to give our listeners a full picture, what did risk management traditionally look like for water utilities, and how are they having to change that?
Dr. Alison Adams: Risk management for water utilities was really more or less focused on the economic risk, and also the regulatory risk. The biggest driver for water utility has always been its mandate to deliver high-quality drinking water and to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act—federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirement of what those standards for safe drinking water are. Also, not only are there federal standards, in many different states there’s also different states’ standards. And also there could be different local standards. So a utility is faced with a lot of regulations that they might need to meet.
And so the regulatory requirement often drives the economic conditions. So you have to spend the money to meet the regulatory conditions, but utilities are public entities, most of them. There are private-investor-owned utilities that are regulated separately—usually through a utility commission—and their rate settings are done in a different fashion. My experience has been with a public utility, and rate setting is a very, very public process. It’s a very political process. And oftentimes to set rates at a utility, the answer is you just simply don’t get to change them. They are what they are.
So utilities don’t have a lot of money coming into their systems in order to do a lot of innovation—unless they can get some grant funding, or some other federal access to federal or state monies to do these sorts of things. The pressure to keep your rates low, actually a lot of times puts utilities very much at risk to move to innovation or to do things in an innovative fashion that actually in the long run will probably save them money, but it’s just that notion of spending that first dollar value up front in order to get over the hurdle. Most of the risk, historically, around water utilities is this kind of push-pull relationship between the economics of running a utility, coupled with the regulatory requirements of things that you must do to meet safe drinking water requirements.
Christina Cardoza: Talk to me a little bit more about those government regulations. Do you think this is helping them on their digital transformation journeys? Or can this sometimes complicate things?
Dr. Alison Adams: The regulatory agencies are very much complicating moving in a digital transformation way. The regulatory agencies are very, very slow to change. Most of the regulations actually start at the federal level. The Environmental Protection Agency is the overall guiding, regulatory body to set safe drinking water requirements. They can then pass those obligations down to the states. The states can either adopt the federal standard, or they can adopt standards that are more stringent than the federal requirements. But when you’re either dealing at the federal level—and the problem with the federal level is, of course, they look across all 50 states and they go, “Oh, wow, we don’t really want to change this. These regulations have been working fine from a national perspective for 35 years—since the mid 1970s. They’ve been working for a long time. Let’s don’t monkey with them. Let’s don’t change them.” Whereas a utility might go, “Well, look, if I could employ some data analytics and improve my predictive capabilities and be more adaptive so that I am responding to the actual environmental conditions that we’re measuring in the field—let me do that instead of having to meet your fixed standard.”
But the regulatory agencies are very, very slow to want to accept that type of management strategy. It just probably puts more pressure on them to understand what’s going on. It takes away this kind of fixed standard that’s easy to review on an annual basis, but it’s really causing water utilities to not move in that direction, because they’re going to be driven by what the regulatory requirements are. And if the regulatory agency doesn’t embrace the innovation, then the utility is not motivated to continue with it. They’re going to say, “Well, what’s the benefit to me? I mean, I might improve my management of the system, and I know that ultimately things will be better, but it doesn’t improve me from a regulatory agency’s perspective. And actually they might ding me. They might criticize me during part of the year because they see that I did something that didn’t actually meet their fixed standard just for some portion of the year.” So that’s a large part of the problem.
Christina Cardoza: So how does INTERA help the water utilities in this area? How is the company helping water utilities address regulatory concerns and regulations, and still meeting their digital transformation goals and innovation?
Dr. Alison Adams: INTERA is really focused on taking better use of the data that many of its clients are collecting—taking that data and turning it into actionable information. And recognizing the importance of good decision making—supporting strong decision making with the clients and the regulatory agencies. It’s not an easy lift to get regulatory agencies—INTERA works with many different regulatory agencies, particularly in the mining space, as well as the water utility space—to help them understand the value of these data analytics, supporting these better decision analyses and better decision opportunities. But, again, it becomes still something that the regulatory agencies are struggling with—this notion of adaptive decision making, of incremental decision making.
But we continue to work through with clients the value of this, and the importance and the value of turning their data into actionable information. I think that’s probably one of the key items that INTERA is doing, is really getting their clients to understand it is actionable information—it’s not just gathering data and putting it in a database, but turning that into something that now you can act on. Whether you’re doing it to try and respond to a regulatory requirement, or whether you’re doing it just because it makes sense from a business perspective—it’s improving the efficiency of your operation; it’s improving the effectiveness; your customer base has more transparency. You can demonstrate to your customers—they can actually see what’s going on through this actionable information, through these data analytics. That is really where a lot of the utilities are gaining some ground and recognizing and valuing the digital transformation, is in getting their customers to really understand the nature of the business and what goes on in producing safe drinking water.
Christina Cardoza: Now, I should note, in interest of full disclosure, that insight.tech, the program that produces this podcast, is Intel® owned and operated. How are you working with Intel to help water utilities address some of the things you just talked about? And what has been the value of that partnership?
Dr. Alison Adams: Intel brings access to technological innovation, and the opportunity to work with a global partner. Right now we’re working specifically with Intel—Intel is offering grant funding for us to conduct some pilot or some demo projects, where we are deploying particular types of sensors—solutions in the field to demonstrate to water utilities the benefits of some digital transformation activities. We’re looking at pilot projects and demo sites to give kind of a proof of concept, if you will. Intel is funding those efforts. We’re working with other technology providers that have different types of technology solutions deploying this information in the field.
INTERA is working on the data analytics side, the database side, the display of this information to show how we can take that data and turn it into actionable information, so that a utility can now make decisions. And I think this is going to be a very, very important part, going forward, is the ability to do these pilot projects and demonstration projects for different utilities of different scales. Not all utilities are of equal financial security. Most of the utilities in this country are actually small- and midsize, and don’t have access to funding. So I think these types of demonstration projects and grant projects that Intel is funding are going to be very important to help get these concepts of digital transformation out into the water utility industry.
Christina Cardoza: Now, we’ve sort of been dancing around this next point, hinting at it at least, but a lot of these regulations and grants are a focus towards a more sustainable future. But I’m noticing over the last year and a half, companies and organizations are trying to be as prepared as possible for what’s to come next. So I’m seeing a lot more interest in resiliency and being resilient water utilities. So can you talk a little bit more about those two buzzwords, and how they fit together in this digital transformation?
Dr. Alison Adams: Resiliency is the key to sustainability, because resiliency represents the ability to deal with risk. The World Bank estimates that every $1 invested in resiliency results in $4 saved. I mean, that’s pretty phenomenal to me. The notion of building a resiliency is really—that’s the only way that you’re going to be sustainable. And through that—we can’t plan for every risk that’s going to happen out there, but it is possible to develop ways to manage our way, through resilient systems. And I think that’s really the key item that digital transformation offers for us. Whether you’re responding to a flooding event caused from extreme rainfall that we actually could predict better now if we had the sensors in the field and the data analytics—we can actually predict that flooding event from the rainfall that’s actually occurring in the ground and causing sudden changes in our water quality. We would be able to predict that. And if we are able to predict that, then we’re able to develop mitigation strategies and adaptation strategies in order to prevent that from becoming a disaster or a crisis.
Christina Cardoza: I know we’re near our end of time here. One of my last questions I want to ask you is, what is your vision of where the industry is headed? And how the technology today will enable that future.
Dr. Alison Adams: I think the industry must be headed in a direction to make it more nimble and adaptive—particularly in its operational decision making, in its day-to-day decision making—how it handles changing environmental conditions. The industry has to continue to be more efficient with its use of all of its resources. And by this I mean its capital funding, its water supplies, and its people resources—all of those. We have to be more efficient and effective in how we use that—use all of those. And the primary means in obtaining this future, I believe, is through digital transformation.
Christina Cardoza: Well, thank you again for joining us today, and for the great conversation.
Dr. Alison Adams: Thank you very much. I certainly enjoyed it.
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