Protecting Water Resources with Geospatial Data

Everyone knows that water is essential to life, yet it is something many of us take for granted.

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by Tony DiMarco

Everyone knows that water is essential to life, yet it is something many of us take for granted. We just turn on a faucet and it's there, or we hook up the hose and water our lawn or garden. However, access to clean water is a luxury in many parts of the world.

As the world's population continues to grow, water resources are under siege. According to the World Bank, 1.1 billion people today do not have access to safe drinking water. With increasing demand and finite resources, better management of our water supply is urgent if we are to avoid an even more severe global crisis.

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When a project is entered into the asset management database, all data associated with that project is captured.
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Protecting this precious resource starts with the infrastructure that brings water into our homes, our businesses and every other walk of life. Water infrastructure — which includes pipelines, pumps, storage reservoirs, mains and meter connections — is the lifeline pumping water wherever we need it. Across the world, our ability to improve and maintain water distribution systems is critical.

Unfortunately, through a combination of age and poor maintenance, most of the world's water infrastructure is inadequate. In the United States alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will cost $277 billion to fix the nation's water infrastructure.

Like many other industries, the water industry is currently under pressure to do more with less. Various factors, including dramatic climate changes, increasing pollution, tougher regulatory mandates on critical infrastructure after 9/11, harsh economic times and poor infrastructure are converging to create a challenging environment under which water utilities are expected to continue providing clean, quality water to their customers. In most cases, throwing more resources at these issues is simply not possible. However, one way in which water utilities can improve their operational efficiency, and therefore cut costs, is through a comprehensive, IT-based asset management system.

Accurate Data Is Key

The water and wastewater industry relies on complex infrastructure, with a maze of underground networks, to move water from Point A to Point B. Drinking water pipe networks in the U.S. cover more than 700,000 miles, more than four times the length of the national highway system.

How can an information system help enhance the efficiency of water infrastructure management across an organization?

According to a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO): “Among other things, comprehensive asset management allows utility managers to obtain better information on the age and condition of existing assets, determine the level of maintenance needed to optimize asset performance and useful life, assess the risks associated with the failure of various assets and set priorities for the maintenance and replacement, understand the trade-offs and implication of management decisions about the assets, and use better information to justify proposed rate increases or capital investments.”1

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GeoMedia technology has allowed HCWSA to digitally map its infrastructure.
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A comprehensive information system that integrates geospatial data can help a utility better manage long-term projects, as well as pinpoint leaks or other disruptions along the pipeline.

For water utilities, large and expansive water and wastewater distribution systems represent a high percentage of total corporate assets. The resources needed to plan, design, construct and maintain these assets involve the majority of the utility's workforce.

Municipal and private water and wastewater distribution systems rely on accurate databases to manage their assets. With today's new technologies, a geospatially-powered solution enables water utilities to flawlessly manage daily operations as well as long-term transactions. A comprehensive asset management system brings together the tools needed to plan expansions, conduct engineering analysis and design work orders for field personnel. It allows water utilities to integrate massive amounts of data in a consolidated form so they can better manage mapping, asset and maintenance records.

Whether a water utility serves a thousand customers or a million, it can realize measurable benefits when it leverages asset management data across all departments. An IT-based asset management system can help:

  • Ensure distribution components are properly maintained
  • Increase the effectiveness of future planning activities
  • Better manage water distribution
  • Support mobile workforce management for all types of field work

Incorporating Geospatial Data

The San Jose Water Company in California is an industry leader in incorporating geographic information system (GIS) data into its daily operations. Founded in 1866, San Jose Water is an investor-owned public utility that serves more than one million customers and has about 350 employees. It uses Intergraph's GeoMedia for multiple applications, including cartographic production and data management.

Initially, San Jose Water incorporated GIS data for digital map creation. It now also uses an open GIS platform to deliver data to employees and customers. “GIS has definitely boosted our productivity and there's obviously a cost benefit associated with that,” said Jeff Hobbs, GIS coordinator for the San Jose Water Company. “Data as a whole can be used in so many ways. We use it in an IT-centric role as a tool to solve problems, manage our assets and improve overall management. The openness of our system allows us to easily house data in our Oracle Spatial database, as well as leverage it in a multitude of other applications like our customer information system (CIS) and more mainstream applications like Google Earth.”

“Our infrastructure includes water mains built about 110 years ago, as well as those built 40 to 50 years ago when San Jose experienced explosive growth,” added Hobbs. “With an information-based management system, we can easily pinpoint water main leaks and determine which water mains need to be replaced and rank them by priority.”

San Jose Water also uses the technology to determine important factors such as who the utility will impact if it closes a particular valve.

The Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority (HCWSA) in Georgia, which has about 200 employees and more than 55,000 meters, is another U.S. utility that has realized the value of an IT-based infrastructure management system. The utility historically relied on paper-based maps and as-built drawings. However, because they were easy to damage or misplace, the documents were housed at the utility's main office with restricted access.

Field crews made regular office visits to obtain maps, aerial photos and other information. This required a lot of time from office personnel to locate and copy data, as well as lots of unnecessary driving time on the part of field crews.

Like San Jose Water, HCWSA also implemented GeoMedia technology, which has allowed the utility to digitally map its infrastructure. The utility also recently integrated an application that allows it to more easily push information out to the field. When a project is entered into the asset management database, all data associated with that project is captured. Field personnel can link to a sewer line in the database, for example, and pull up all the information associated with that line remotely, including aerial photos.

Allen Rape, GIS manager at HCWSA, said the technology saves time both for office and field personnel. “We were able to sell our board members on the technology because we showed them that the amount of time that could be saved in man hours could be directly translated into a significant dollar value,” he said. “We literally never see our field crews anymore because they're using their laptops in the trucks to access the same information. Procedures that used to take two to three days now take two to three minutes, literally freeing up days for us to complete additional projects and work orders.”

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Field personnel can link to a sewer line in the database and pull up all the information associated with that line.
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Henry County also plans to leverage the technology in the future to allow customers to access information about their accounts online and even enter work orders. Additional future plans include pulling live supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) information through the system, instead of having sewer management crews deliver the data back to the office via paper over the course of a few days, which is the current procedure.

Beyond the 50 States

Water utilities in other regions are also benefitting from technologies that help them easily store, maintain and access geospatial data.

In Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, South East Water Limited has the demanding task of supplying a steady stream of clean water to 1.36 million customers in Melbourne, the nation's fastest-growing city. The utility has turned to G/Technology as its core platform for storing and managing crucial spatial data related to the more than $1 billion worth of assets that make up its water distribution network. South East Water Limited has also implemented the system to analyze the data for better decision-making and for distributing data to key stakeholders via the Web.

“Maps, more than any other invented metaphor, can inspire inference of information and quickly communicate knowledge,” said Martin Dunkley, manager of asset information at South East Water Limited. “The large majority of the information handled by a utility has a ‘place in space,' so logically the core platform should be geospatially based.”

The constantly looming threat of drought, combined with population growth and climate uncertainties, have quickly made “water security” one of Melbourne's major challenges. “Good decision making in these challenging times needs good information,” said Shaun Cox, CEO of South East Water Limited. “Intergraph's technology is playing an increasingly critical role in our organization, especially in the core area of asset management and decision support.”

Non-Revenue Water (NRW) is a measure of the volume of water lost, often due to aging, leaky infrastructure. Using a comprehensive asset management system, South East Water Limited has been able to achieve one of the lowest NRW in the industry.

In addition to providing valuable insights into the distribution system, which has improved operations and even the bottom line, the technology has also allowed South East Water Limited to share key data with many important audiences, including developers, local councils, emergency services, the public and 1,200 external customers.

Overall, the system has enabled the utility to make vast improvements in productivity, risk management and customer service, while saving millions of dollars.

Future Survival

Forward-thinking companies such as San Jose Water, Henry County Water and Sewerage and South East Water Limited understand the benefits of a comprehensive, geospatially-powered water infrastructure management solution.

Improved water management is essential as we replace aging and crumbling infrastructure. As other water utilities are challenged by increasing water demands under the current economic conditions, we expect to see more providers turn to similar spatially-enabled asset management systems to help protect this critical resource.

About the Author:

Tony DiMarco is the director and global industry manager for the utilities and communications business unit at Intergraph Corp. He is responsible for defining and communicating the industry solution go-to-market strategy from a global perspective by working with customers, analysts and partners to define and communicate market requirements.DiMarco holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and master's degree in business administration from New York University. He is a member of GITA International and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

References:

1. “Water Infrastructure: Comprehensive Asset Management Has Potential to Help Utilities Better Identify Needs and Plan Future Investments.” U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), March 2004. http://www.gao.gov.

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