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The digital utility is within our reach

Technology can enable water, waste, food, and energy integration—but only if we make it a priority

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District in Northern California, where technology has virtually eliminated water waste.

By Marshall Davert, Executive Vice President, Water (Broomfield, Colorado)

If you’ve been in the water industry for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly seen the effects of automation. Glance around any plant. While the same basic infrastructure is still in place, you’ll see more computer screens, and fewer people, than in years past. 

My first project as a young engineer was to automate an irrigation system. At the time, a number of factors worked against us: the sensors, data gathering, and communication technology were embryonic. Those problems are gone; the digital twin has become our reality. We have the ability to create mathematical models that can parse millions of data points, recognize patterns, and connect disparate facts much more quickly than our own minds. These computers never get tired, and they never forget.

Related item: The water-energy nexus

It’s a scary reality, but one that holds great promise. This week, more than 600 water experts are gathering at the Global Water Summit in Madrid, Spain, to discuss the opportunities that lie ahead. The fact is, our newfound ability to use data can let us run our systems right to the edge.

Why does this matter?
One very important reason: it will allow us to better integrate the energy, food, water, and waste streams. While we have long realized the world could benefit from this integration, it couldn’t be optimized in the way it now can. Today, our farmers can put the smallest drops of water at exactly the right spots, at exactly the right time to germinate their seeds and increase production. Our operators can monitor wastewater so closely that reuse holds far fewer public health concerns than ever before. 

The new Lynden Water Treatment Plant in Lynden, Washington.

The barriers that stand before us are no longer technological. They are logistical and political. In most cities, the water enterprise function is separate from wastewater, solid waste, and power. Integration will take time and money. Wastewater converted to energy is still some of the most expensive, and it will be an uphill battle to encourage acceptance of this cost. Yet we must. Only by moving forward can we improve upon the process, which will in turn reduce those costs and the payback period. Only by moving forward can we secure a sustainable future for our people and our planet.

It sounds drastic, but it’s simply a matter of numbers. If we don’t make changes now, we’re in for a rocky ride. Already, one-third of our world’s population lives in water-stressed areas. Nearly 2 billion people drink unsafe water. Even if we halt global warming in its tracks, water availability in some areas of the world will likely decrease by up to 50 percent. The situation looks far more dire if Earth’s temperatures continue to increase.

We require a societal decision on the value of integration to help push the regulatory and political agenda. It’s a big ask, but it’s not impossible. We used to undertake infrastructure projects with concern for not much more than the benefit/cost ratio. Our society came together, demanded change, and decided there were other values. Now we see a focus on triple-bottom-line and quadruple-bottom-line considerations.

Events like the Global Water Summit are important to encourage this dialogue amongst policy officials and decision-makers. We’ll share some thoughts after the Summit as well for those interested in continuing the conversation.  

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Dr. Marshall Davert is the Executive Vice President of the global water business line. He provides strategic direction for the planning, delivery, and operation of water-related infrastructure for public and private entities.

If we don’t make changes now, we’re in for a rocky ride. Already, one-third of our world’s population lives in water-stressed areas.

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