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How is California tackling water sustainability with data? What does it mean elsewhere?

May 11, 2023

By Mike Antos and Richard Hake

New report shows how water data can support a more resilient and equitable future. Smart sensors are a key component.

As our changing climate puts more stress on the availability and quality of water, the need for collective action and new solutions becomes more urgent. Depending on where you live, your community’s water crisis may be different. Some face too little water, others too dirty water, and some too much water.

To tackle these challenges, we need to come together in new partnerships and networks. We need to make new decisions to achieve universal and sustainable solutions. But we know decision-makers require reliable and meaningful information. The road from data to decisions can be long, winding, and full of potholes. The problem? When we don’t have open and transparent data, we struggle to make effective and timely water management decisions.

California offers a case study in how to work together to ensure the right data is available when needed. In 2016, the state’s lawmakers passed AB 1755, Dodd—The Open and Transparent Water Data Act. The bill requires state agencies to create, operate, and maintain an integrated water data platform. Why? Better data makes planning for a sustainable water future is easier. It supports advances in water equity. And it can help protect vulnerable communities, economies, and ecosystems. 

Data-driven insights improve utility performance and community outcomes. It helps provide better water management for years to come. 

Collaboration fills the cracks

The California Water Data Consortium was formed in 2019 to support the agencies tasked with implementing the new law. The Consortium brings together diverse groups to find solutions to the state’s most critical water data challenges. State and water agencies, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and tribes are all working together. Their common goal? Water sustainability.

In February, the group released a new report: Putting Data to Work: Why Investing in Water and Ecological Data in California Matters. The report lays out ways to improve the quality, accessibility, and sharing of water data.

A Stantec team member is part of the Consortium steering committee. We’re proud to be part of the team coordinating progress on these important next steps:

  • Invest in water data infrastructure.
  • Continue to empower groups to work together on water data.
  • Create open data standards and protocols.
  • Automate the collection and reporting of critical water datasets.
  • Expand public awareness of and accessibility to water data.
  • Streamline procurement. This will enable innovation.

This report is a major milestone for the open water data effort in California. The exchange of this data is essential to understanding what actions should be taken to sustain water resources. Open water data is key to evaluating past actions, decisions about what is working, and what needs to be adapted. Without the data, we won’t be able to develop the water policy and management that set us up for meaningful solutions.

To meet our water management challenges, data and innovation must play linked roles. The good news? Across our clients, we see a growing pattern of focusing on the role of data in decision-making, in policy, and in innovation. We find this exciting! The industry is changing and asking us to innovate and solve new problems using new strategies. 

Accurate, timely, and transparent water data can enhance water security and sustainability. 

Putting recommendations into practice

So, what does it mean to invest in water data infrastructure in practice? We’re happy to share these examples of how Stantec is implementing efforts that align with the Consortium’s recommendations around water data. It shows how they can work.

One approach our colleagues are taking is using the latest Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology. For example, it’s easy to invest in smart sensors. These sensors not only capture volume and flow, but they can also provide minute-by-minute reading of other parameters. These might include biochemical oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, coliform readings, pH level, industrial discharges, and other details. In the past, these parameters would have taken days to analyze.

Sensor technology continues to advance. Newer sensors will provide us opportunities to use the data to make smarter, more informed decisions. Stantec has developed an analytical engine, Stantec Altitude, to capture all the value these new sensors can provide. This operational services platform analyzes real-time data and provides advanced insights. Using this machine learning platform in tandem with other predictive analytics tools makes a smart sensor even smarter.

Smart sensors can also help when it comes to collecting large amounts of data in real time. This can help prolong the life of water infrastructure.

For example, corrosive discharges into the sewer system can damage pipes, structures, and pump stations. A smart sensor providing real-time monitoring of industrial discharges can help operators predict and prepare for such potential damage. The sensors can help utilities address high and low pH waste streams being discharged into their sewers. This type of real-time data collection provides decision support that helps clean water agencies operate more efficiently and protect their infrastructure more effectively. 

Reliable and timely data is key. It forms the basis for innovation, modeling, collaboration, and solutions.

Using data downstream

Here’s another example of how data can help in real life. Agencies often look for innovative, efficient ways to fulfill their need to maintain the quality of water discharged into their combined sewer system. A client in the Southeastern US had an issue with identifying sources of specific pollutants coming from stormwater runoff into a combined sewer system from unknown locations within its service area.

Samplers identified multiple sites for monitoring based on their nearness to a potential pollutant source. Those included an interstate highway and runoff from industry. Without data, the traditional approach would be to deploy human samplers to these 10 sites to capture samples of flows right after a rain event. Automation exists that allows for collection of “grab samples.” But there are costly and complicated aspects of automatic sample collection. And it often leaves uncertainty if there is truly a problem at the site.

Instead, the agency and Stantec worked on a solution to help characterize the sites prior to deployment of samplers. IoT sensors were used to capture electrical conductivity and total dissolved solids readings. The sensors measured water quality every 15 minutes. This helped the team deploy samplers only in areas that truly needed more investigation. We further analyzed this data with our machine learning platform to provide other insights when correlated with rain events. Next up? Predicting pollutant concentrations for future rain events. 

Sampling plus smart sensors can more quickly identify areas of concern and set the stage for action. 

Taking these lessons global

These are just two examples of the value of water data. It supports more efficient and effective decision-making and water management. And this leads toward a more resilient and equitable water future.

Open and transparent water data isn’t a movement unique to California. We are seeing it across North America. The Consortium’s report and policy brief show why investing in water and ecological data matters. 

Reliable and timely data is key. It forms the basis for innovation, modeling, collaboration, and solutions. We are excited to support our clients and use today’s technology to preserve and protect water quantity and quality. And we know that it is achievable at any scale.

Sustaining the physical infrastructure of the past and present—and protecting and restoring ecosystems we all depend on—calls for investments in modern water data. We are excited to be part of the California Water Data Consortium as it pursues its mission.   

  • Mike Antos

    Mike is a senior integrated water management specialist who works with our team in Pasadena to support the integration of physical and social systems into water projects.

    Contact Mike
  • Richard Hake

    Leading the development and commercialization of our digital tools as well as driving innovation for our Water business, Richard is dedicated to connecting ideas and promoting creative thinking.

    Contact Richard
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