Navigating the digital landscape toward a water secure future

March 18, 2024
How the water sector is adapting to challenges through digital transformation.

Global water challenges have never been more pressing than they are today.

Climate change is increasing, bringing with it water scarcity and the need for resilient infrastructure. This need is clearly demonstrated by the World Health Organization’s statistic showcasing 25% of the global population already lives under water stress. By 2030, almost half of the global population will live in water-stressed regions.

As challenges increase, the need for innovative solutions has never been greater. The good news is that many of the technologies we need already exist. However, we need accelerated implementation to increase the resilience and water-security of communities everywhere.

Our future depends on it.

Utilities respond to urgent water challenges through climate mitigation and adaptation efforts

In 2023 alone, we’ve seen three notable trends across utilities: setting net-zero and climate-neutrality targets to increase climate mitigation, conserving water through reuse and conservation initiatives, and the growing prevalence of digital solutions on the global regulatory agenda.

First, utilities are recognizing decarbonization to combat the effects of climate change. More than 80 water and wastewater utilities have set net-zero and climate-neutrality goals. These utilities are committed to meeting their goals with strategies that optimize operations while cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By using existing, highly efficient technologies, water utilities are dramatically reducing electricity and process-related GHG emissions across water and wastewater processes.

Scottish Water has made a big dent in its greenhouse gas emissions by deploying advanced technology at 200 pumping stations across its network. The utility combined and deployed high-efficiency pumps and advanced digital technologies across its network reducing energy consumption by up to 60%, accelerating its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Water reuse is another step utilities are taking to combat water scarcity. The recent passage of legislation in California approved direct potable reuse. This is a significant step toward securing the water supply across western states facing water stress as it decreases the need to transport water over long distances to cities, and reduces the need to extract water from rivers, lakes and increasingly depleted underground sources.

UV disinfection technology, combined with advanced treatments such as membrane filtration or reverse osmosis, are critical to sustainably treating water for reuse. Moreover, the integration of digital technologies like advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has proven to be indispensable in both sustainable water treatment and monitoring recycled water usage.

This was seen in the partnership between Xylem and Metro Water Services located in Nashville, Tenn. While reviewing digital twin data provided by Xylem Vue powered by GoAigua’s Network Real-Time Decision Support application, the customer found that the water age at a particular tank was significantly higher than expected. The utility decided to reduce the tank fill lower limit by just three feet because of this insight. Digital twin technology has the power to optimize a utility’s operations by providing system visibility and empowering operators to manage and correct drinking water distribution in real-time, with a clear understanding of water age, pressure and plant mix, through a single application.

We have even seen growing prevalence of digital technology on the global regulatory agenda, which signifies a shift in industry standards. For instance, new rules set forth by California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to protect groundwater resources may require the use of digital technologies to meet the goals of local agencies groundwater sustainability plans. Digital investments are becoming essential to achieving regulatory compliance as utilities align strategy with regulation to maximize return on investments.

Shaping the future of water management           

Regulation and challenges are increasing, alongside the sophistication of tools to address these challenges. In the next five years, we will see an unprecedented acceleration in the use of digital tools within the water sector, surpassing advancements of the past decade. Now is a vital moment for the sector to adopt these solutions.

At Xylem, we want to be at the forefront of this evolution. We prioritize innovation and collaboration of the most creative minds in water to help solve the challenges utilities face. But how do utilities get started?

Each utility’s digital transformation journey is different. It takes trial, error and patience.

For instance, Silver Creek Water Corporation began their digital transformation journey in 2001 with their transition from manual meter reading to automated meter reading (AMR). This shift was initiated to navigate their growing customer base and high employee turnover. But they didn’t stop there. As they saw results in digitizing their system, Silver Creek made additional improvements in 2015 by upgrading their system with Xylem technology allowing the utility to manage and monitor meters remotely for enhanced operational efficiency and to further improve their customer service. To this day, they’re still experimenting with new technology. Silver Creek’s 22-year digital journey proves that digital transformation truly is a commitment to continuous improvement.

Embracing the digital revolution

Utilities like Silver Creek that navigate challenges by adopting digital solutions are positioned for future success. The journey toward digital transformation is not just a technological evolution – it helps shape the future of communities worldwide. Utilities should consider the following tips when approaching the shift toward digital solutions:

  • Put strategy before technology. Avoid the impulse to dive into technology. Put strategy first and align digital strategy with regulatory expectations.
  • Choose team, then tech. Connect digital strategy to daily work. Empower operators to use data and digital tools in ways that make their work easier and optimize outcomes.
  • Connect small projects for big wins. Successful operators find a sustainable pace of change, delivering small wins by putting quality data to work and building thoughtfully on each success.
  • Show progress at every step. Articulate the value of digital in a way stakeholders can understand and show progress at every step of the journey.

Now is the time for the water sector to embrace the digital revolution and move forward into a future of enhanced efficiency, sustainability and global water access.

About the Author

Mike McGann

Mike McGann is senior vice president and president Xylem Americas and Measurement and Control Solutions. He leads teams solving tomorrow’s biggest challenges for water, gas and electric utilities. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a United States Marine Corps Veteran, he is skilled in applying continuous improvement methodology and process control to help individuals and teams do their best work and serve their customers and communities.

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