Water is essential and access to safe, affordable water is often referred to as a basic human right. The pandemic certainly highlighted this, and for our industry, it was not business as usual. Looking back on the past year, there are lessons to be learned and insight to be gained about the future.
First, our industry is resilient. We kept water and wastewater systems operational the entire time. This is despite lockdowns, travel restrictions, global supply chain disruptions, radically different flow rates at many utilities, customer payment issues, and other operational challenges at both utilities and with the manufacturers supporting them. The fact that water and wastewater systems stayed online is a credit to all frontline workers and support staff. In this unprecedented year, if not for these frontline workers who showed up day after day when their own lives were disrupted, we could have had considerably more difficulty.
Secondly, the pandemic continues to accelerate digital transformation across all avenues of not only our industry but many others as well. Before the pandemic, few had used software packages like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Today, we conduct most business through these platforms, seamlessly including routine meetings, training sessions, and virtual service calls and support. However, this is only a small portion of a broader digital transformation. Smart infrastructure and the use of artificial intelligence to support plant infrastructure continues to develop and be deployed more rapidly and this will only accelerate. If we consider the adoption of AMI technology, it has been a relatively short time since this was introduced and today, manual meter reading has largely gone the way of the rotary telephone. As we continue to install smarter infrastructure, we can anticipate development of additional sensors and web-based platforms to not only help us optimize energy use at plants but also aid in extending asset life through additional leak and contaminant detection, pressure profiles, and chemical optimization to name a few. Industry collaboration on this front will further accelerate this change in the future. As an industry, we need to invest more in this transformation to include not only smart infrastructure but also examine how we digitize maintenance and support services.
Equally important is the issue of funding within the industry. Far too few utilities and manufacturers were prepared for the pandemic’s massive financial disruption and this placed some smaller utilities at a disadvantage, forcing them to choose between operational expenses and critical capital investments. Additional funding through State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs is certainly a step in the right direction but so is full cost pricing for water and wastewater. We have to educate consumers and politicians on the importance of fully funding these systems so that maintenance is not an afterthought. The challenging side of this is how to assist smaller and often disadvantaged communities and manufacturers. We need to develop a stronger framework to share not only lessons but purchasing and possibly operations, engineering, and other resources across utilities. Not only will this disproportionately help smaller utilities, it also will ensure continuity against the pending retirement issue the industry is facing.
As we catch our breath, let’s take a moment to apply all we learned and build an even better industry because water is essential. WW
About the Author: Bill Decker is vice president and general manager for the Equipment and Services Group at Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc. (a Metawater Company). He serves on WWEMA’s Board of Directors as Treasurer. WWEMA, a non-profit trade association formed in 1908, represents many of the most prominent and influential water and wastewater technology manufacturers working together to shape the future of our industry. Learn more about WWEMA at www.wwema.org.