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The pandemic helped some utilities boost resiliency and delivery—while reducing risk

September 02, 2021

By Gavin Gilchrist, Doug Owen and Sharon Matthews

Being thrust into change unlocked a myriad of opportunities for transformational operations adjustments

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly altered many aspects of our day-to-day lives. People and organizations alike have changed their habits and operating procedures to meet the needs of a virtually connected world.

Many changes were already underway before the pandemic started. But some changes—such as the technology-adoption rate—have greatly accelerated. For example, a recent Forbes article about eCommerce adoption states that “10 years of eCommerce adoption was compressed into three months. And not only did the shift to an eCommerce-first mindset happen in countries where online shopping was already widely accepted but it also happened in cultures where in-person, local, cash-reliant, and daily shopping is the norm.”

Our industry has many parallels to the eCommerce “nudge principle.” As an example, as many in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry shifted to remote work, it triggered a reevaluation of current operating procedures. Our Program Management teams often work as embedded staff members within client organizations, supporting their program- and project-delivery goals. Rather than seek temporary solutions, we’re helping clients use this as an opportunity to look at ways to not only allow programs/projects to progress but to become nimbler and instil an appetite for ongoing change. This includes the adoption of technology that has been available for years but not used to its full capability. 

Efficient and precise water-monitoring systems to ensure water quality is consistent and compliant is critical to providing San Diego with clean, affordable water.

In this blog, we’ll examine how our Program Management Group helped three of our clients adapt to a “new normal.” Along the way, the clients set themselves up to become more resilient, optimized delivery and operations now and in the future, and, most importantly, reduced risk.

San Diego Pure Water Program: Improving resiliency and mitigating risk by increasing remote dependability

San Diego has a robust supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) platform to monitor and control their water operations. Due to the pandemic, the City saw it needed additional processes and embedded redundancy in their Water SCADA operations system in case on-site staff needed to temporarily abandon the primary SCADA control room.

Finding the hidden lessons and viewing change as an opportunity to innovate and improve is what will enable utilities to be more resilient.

As consultant program manager for the San Diego Pure Water Program, we offered staff with specialized skills in operations technology to support the City’s Water SCADA team. Working with the City, we set up alternative control centers at two treatment plants within two days. This way, if the main control center had to be abandoned or quarantined, the water treatment plants could still operate from the alternative control location.

To help fortify the City’s remote-operations capabilities for the future, we collaboratively supported and mentored the IT Water SCADA administration team in operational technology. The team reviewed the Water SCADA platform and identified critical issues that needed immediate attention. Additionally, the team discussed methods and ideas on how the system could be optimized. One example was the creation of a toolset that provided a method to create and manage the distribution Water SCADA platform database. This toolset eliminated the repetitive and manual method previously used, saving time and eliminating errors. Moving forward, the City will have a more effective Water SCADA IT team and, in the case of an emergency, the ability to operate their facilities from a secure alternative control center. 

Clean Water Atlanta Program: Enhancing and extending “smart utility” focus to protect future water economy

For the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM), the pandemic did two things:

  1. It increased awareness of the need to be prepared
  2. It reinforced that strong data management is the way to get there

Because DWM was already focused on their journey toward being a “smart utility,” the DWM/Stantec team was poised to swiftly enact a response to the changes in day-to-day operations caused by the pandemic. 

Clean Water Atlanta Program – becoming a “utility of the future” doesn’t stop during a pandemic and DWM’s pre-pandemic commitment to innovation, service, and value helped it be ahead of the curve when the world changed.  

In the short term, our program management team supported DWM with the creation of an action plan to ensure that water/wastewater treatment, distribution, and collection needs were met in unity with safety standards. We also helped manage changes caused by the pandemic to make sure the Consent Decree-driven program didn’t miss a step. We worked with contractors to proactively address the impacts of the pandemic to keep projects on schedule.

Next up, our team is continuing to support DWM’s smart utility goals by looking at business process management, resources, and finances to find more efficiencies. We will conduct a financial analysis to see how the pandemic is impacting revenues for capital projects to determine the capacity for work.

We are also supporting an integrated water resources plan that looks at the social, economic, and cost data for projects over the next 10 years to determine the best fit for future projects. This type of smart analysis will help with project prioritization, funding allocations, and other major decisions. The analysis data can be reevaluated as the future state of the program, organization, and external factors evolve, making DWM a resilient organization ready to adapt to change.

Move East Baton Rouge (MOVEBR): When the show must go online

Pre-pandemic, most governments required in-person public bid meetings to review and vote on the preferred bidder. The public could attend these meetings.

Naturally, the pandemic made public meetings a challenge. So how does a city do business when it needs public meetings? Simply avoiding the meetings can mean project delays, missed funding, and even a perceived lack of openness among residents. 

The transition to online public meetings didn’t stop MOVEBR. The change increased both attendance and clarity of community’s vision for municipal projects.

This was the challenge for the East Baton Rouge (EBR) Parish, the most populous parish in Louisiana. Safety—and potential project gridlock—was at stake. The program team had two options: delay all awards for important infrastructure and community-enhancement programs until it was safe for public meetings or develop a virtual approach to meet public safety requirements and local procurement laws.

Stantec, as part of the MOVEBR program management services team, supported EBR’s chief engineer to quickly transition to virtual meetings. We provided training to selection-panel members and enabled the online meetings. To further reduce contact risks, we developed a digital business interface, replacing the collection of hard copy proposals with an online system.

The new processes have reduced the costs of in-person meetings, minimized the amount of time required to attend meetings by staff, simplified the procurement process, and increased public access and transparency. After multiple contract selections and virtual public meetings—with an average of 90 attendees, double the in-person format—the City-Parish is looking to continue the use of this virtual approach post pandemic.

Finding the opportunity to thrive while building a more resilient future

Navigating the challenges brought on by COVID-19 has changed the way we work. We’ve seen that fundamental, procedural, and structural changes can keep programs and projects moving forward.

Increasing the use of technology can boost efficiencies in program and project delivery—saving clients time and money. Improving an organization’s approach to asset management can boost maintenance plans and avoid needless capital spending. A focus on creating better transparency and a commitment to public engagement can increase public and stakeholder trust, resulting in fewer roadblocks for future projects.

Finding the hidden lessons and viewing change as an opportunity to innovate and improve is what will enable utilities to be more resilient. These three clients have not only weathered the storm of the pandemic but have firsthand experience of the benefits of keeping an open mind in the face of change. Now it is up to us and our clients to continue to welcome transformational change as we recover, adapt, learn, and continually strive to optimize operations across the board. 

  • Gavin Gilchrist

    Gavin brings a well-rounded point of view to our team. He’s responsible for leading the development, pursuit, and startup of Stantec programs for Water, Buildings, and Infrastructure.

    Contact Gavin
  • Doug Owen

    Doug has nearly 40 years of experience consulting with utilities on drinking water, wastewater, and water reuse treatment and facility planning. He currently serves as program manager for the City of San Diego’s Pure Water Program.

    Contact Doug
  • Sharon Matthews

    With experience in planning, design, and construction management, Sharon serves as program manager for the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s (DWM) Program Management Services Team. This includes support in becoming a SMART Utility.

    Contact Sharon
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