This isn’t news. In fact, it’s an old and long-standing problem.
America’s water infrastructure is deteriorating quickly, causing increasing failures because adequate investments haven’t been made in rehabilitation or replacement. Not surprisingly, aging infrastructure is the major worry for respondents to Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report survey. Nearly 80 percent of the water, wastewater and stormwater professionals who took the survey named aging infrastructure as the most challenging issue they face today.
Many also report that the experienced workers who have kept their water flowing for decades are reaching retirement age. These dual problems are forcing utilities to focus on asset management, shift hiring practices and adopt new strategies for the workforce of tomorrow.
2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report
With its survey of nearly 300 water industry stakeholders as its backbone, Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report comprehensively analyzes the sector’s complex landscape of challenges and opportunities. The leveraging of data in driving decision-making and optimizing efficiencies in water and wastewater systems is widening even as infrastructure continues to age, climate change strains assets, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial havoc pressures the bottom lines of many utilities through lost revenues. We look at all of that and more.
Making the Grade
According to the bi-annual infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the 2019 edition again gave America’s drinking water infrastructure a grade of “D” — unchanged from 2017 but an actual, albeit marginal, improvement from the “D” of 2009.
This worry has been years in the making. Water utilities start in small, centralized locations and grow as the communities they serve expand. Investment typically has gone into keeping up with municipal growth and daily operations.
Meanwhile, as the water system grows and grows, the pipes that have been in the ground generally only get attention when they’re close to failure. Replacing that pipe is costly and disruptive.
How old is our water infrastructure? That depends. When journalists at Circle of Blue — a water-oriented online news venue — queried public works departments of U.S. cities, they found that half of Philadelphia’s mains are at least 90 years old, with some mains pre-dating the Civil War. The average water main’s age in Baltimore is 75. Whereas in San Antonio, half the pipes were installed after 1985.
In another study, Utah State University researchers who examined some 200 water utilities in the United States and Canada in 2018 found that 16 percent of their mains were beyond their useful lives. Six years earlier, only 8 percent of mains had reached the end-of-life stage. And because a larger proportion of pipes are reaching or exceeding their life spans, pipes break more, resulting in a 27-percent increase in ruptures during the six years between the two Utah State studies.
This, of course, shows up in those American Water Works Association and ASCE report card statistics: An estimated 240,000 main breaks happen annually, and 6 billion gallons of treated drinking water go to waste each day due to leaking pipes.
The water system’s age and frailty are forcing utilities to increase efforts related to asset management. Some are choosing to augment these endeavors with analytics.
England’s Anglian Water supplies water to more than 6 million customers and manages infrastructure for the largest water-utility territory in the country. This past year, the utility commissioned Black & Veatch to develop a digital representation that mirrors the region’s water treatment and distribution infrastructure. This “digital twin” will have embedded artificial intelligence capabilities that enable predictive analysis to support decision-making and failure-prevention efforts. The digital infrastructure also is in constant dialogue with its physical counterpart, which allows Anglian Water to simulate and test options before implementation in the real world.
Such technology is a huge addition to utility intelligence and also serves to address the threat to organizational knowledge: retiring workers.
On average, survey respondents report that 26 percent of their workers will be eligible for retirement within the next five years. Twenty-five percent say that at least more than 30 percent of their most experienced workers will hit retirement age in that five-year window.
If a utility’s most experienced people suddenly leave en masse, what happens when crews need to fix a pipe that’s been in the ground for 50 years? It’s the experienced workers who know the quirks of the system, and that institutional knowledge will follow them out the door.
Only 44 percent of survey respondents could agree that their utilities had robust documentation processes in place. Most — 83 percent — agreed that some tribal knowledge is lost when someone leaves. Sixty percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Our system has some peculiarities that only a small group know about”.
It’s not unusual to hear water utility workers admit that they only have a handful of people who could go to an older part of town and understand where to go on the line to redirect the water or how to work on that specific type of pipe. Even worse, water utilities face recruiting challenges because the work is difficult and not necessarily appealing to a new generation of workers. It takes a special commitment to rush to fix a ruptured pipe at 1 a.m. when it’s 28°F degrees outside and water is gushing all over the street.
The same is true for treatment systems. In recent discussions with utilities about risk and resilience assessments under America’s Water Infrastructure Act, we asked the question, “If you were without access to digital control systems or data, how well could you operate the system?” A number of utilities would struggle to find the operations manual and have fewer experienced workers who could operate treatment works without advanced online control systems.
Despite the grittiness of many water utility jobs, water providers still have had to change what they look for in new hires, too. Nearly 80 percent say digital savviness has become more important. That’s likely because water utilities increasingly are using mobile workforce management systems, meaning workers must navigate that software on a laptop or tablet. They also may need to be able to use a content management system to access the documentation held within it.
Communication skills also are considered more important now, according to nearly three-quarters of respondents. That makes sense, given that the people out in the field fixing a broken pipe or meter are also the public face of the utility: If they have poor communication skills, it can reflect poorly on the organization.
Analytic skills are equally important, according to nearly three-quarters — 72 percent of respondents — because these new workers will need to learn quickly, before their more experienced teammates retire.
To attract these skills, water utility managers are raising their recruitment efforts by increasing compensation (78 percent), improving work/life balance (59 percent) and adding workplace perks (41 percent).
The data reflects the combination of aging infrastructure assets, quirks and all, coupled with critical workforce elements often closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, that creates a unique challenge for any essential service provider. Yet, technology and an increasing recognition of the value of water services may provide the key resources necessary to ensure the reliability of systems for decades to come. Sensor deployments, metering and increasingly smart data modeling, digital twins and analytics provide new levels of insights that can complement institutional knowledge (before it leaves) to create a permanent record of critical system functions that can be studied, refined and improved.
While maintaining water and wastewater infrastructure will never be considered easy work, deploying technologies that both reduce operational inefficiencies like leakage and non-revenue water while reducing the likelihood of asset failures of the type that disrupt service (and sleep) definitely lighten the load.
About the Authors
Robert Knee is principal consultant at Black & Veatch’s Management Consulting Group, where he provides organizational readiness and change management expertise, with a focus on changes associated with customer, workforce and asset management technology Implementations. Knee has 10 years of experience applying his organizational psychology expertise to helping utility clients realize the benefits of change.
Will Williams is associate vice president of asset management for Black & Veatch’s water business. He has spent nearly three decades working in the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the United States implementing asset management solutions for multi-sector utility clients. Williams has extensive experience in asset management planning, including asset failure analysis, risk and resilience assessment, performance benchmarking, maintenance optimization, business planning, serviceability assessment, whole life costing, operational efficiency, business change management and infrastructure rehabilitation.
Joe Zhou is senior managing director at Black & Veatch’s Management Consulting Group, where he leads the Business, Technology and Architecture Offering group that includes security and resilience, asset management and analytics to provide innovative and insightful consulting services to asset-intensive industries, such as power, oil and gas, and water. Zhou has more than 25 years of experience enabling business transformations with digital technologies and leading business practices.