A Virginia wastewater district serving hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses is thinking big and looking ahead. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District is striving to demonstrate what is doable and investing mightily to show it.
The district’s billion-dollar “Sustainable Water Infrastructure for Tomorrow” program, or SWIFT, looks to eventually inject 120 million gallons a day of treated wastewater into a shrinking aquifer to replenish it, lessening the amount that’s released into rivers. According to the Daily Press of Norfolk, Virginia, the district hopes to have five plants running by 2030.
The project more than underscores the notion that bold ideas can and do take root in a sector that has been slow to change. It reflects that it doesn’t always have to be business as usual, as Black & Veatch’s 2021 Strategic Directions: Water Report bears out.
Based on expert analyses of a survey of more than 200 U.S. water industry stakeholders, the report shows that water utilities are fostering innovation in an evolving sector. And more than anything, they’re increasingly leveraging data to drive better decision-making, optimize and prioritize system investments and drive cost efficiencies that propel sustainable, resilient systems and results.
Data, Data Everywhere, But Where’s the Intelligence?
Rapid advances in business intelligence software and computing and data analytics are providing the opportunity to gather and integrate existing data with evolving next-generation, cost-effective sensors and smart devices. Such rich data sources can be overwhelming, but they also allow for predictive analytics to detect leaks, identify overflows, forecast usage, predict failures, inform investments, reduce lifecycle costs and much more.
But even though Black & Veatch’s survey shows a growing appreciation for the value of data, it’s typically not harnessed for maximum potential. Half of respondents said they’re collecting large amounts of data but not leveraging it effectively, while slightly more than one-fifth (22 percent) say they’re gathering just some data and putting to good use.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents described their data management practice as strong and strengthening, yet not fully integrated. That’s up 9 percentage points from 2020. At first blush, that appears to be an improvement, but it actually reflects a reduction of utilities reporting a robust, fully integrated approach (from 15 percent in 2020 to just 5 percent in 2021). This suggests that during the COVID-19 pandemic, utilities awakened to additional data utilization options and the fact that their use of data wasn’t as robust as they previously believed. An additional 30 percent said their data is siloed and unintegrated, unchanged from the previous year.
The survey’s findings appear to reflect that water utilities are discovering that their old way of doing business was fine when they had limited amounts of data coming in, but the tsunami of data being collected requires a more robust approach to capture its full potential.
The Need for Innovation
It’s not easy fostering innovation in organizations that have, in many cases, operated for more than a century based on legacy systems, given organizational inertia and the mindset that “we’ve always done it that way.” But the old business model — build essential infrastructure and charge the public for their share of the asset — no longer is viable.
Black & Veatch’s survey found that water and wastewater leaders are trying to foster innovation in various ways, typically in relation to organizational culture. Six in 10 respondents say their organization is promoting innovation through open lines of internal communication and by empowering employees to make decisions. However, it’s important to note that these are minimum conditions for innovation, as opposed to voicing proactive encouragement. More than half said they’re also doing so by folding innovation into their strategic plans.
Innovation is a process blending leadership and management much like implementing a safety program — you can neglect it, allow it or encourage it with culture and appropriate programs. The survey results suggest that companies in the water industry remain in an early stage of maturity when it comes to innovation. The development of innovation metrics will be helpful in signaling the management commitment to data analytics to drive innovation.
Innovation won’t change the laws of physics or enable water to be teleported from one location to another. But a disciplined inquiry into other ways an organization could envision, fulfill or expand its mission often shines a light on managerial practices or processes that are limiting thinking or action.
As the Hampton Roads project shows, water and wastewater utilities looking to survive and thrive as their business environment evolves need to approach innovation as they would any other managerial task: taking tangible steps, breaking down silos and committing to leveraging data to its fullest potential. Pick a desired end state, create specific measurable goals and metrics to guide progress, set up processes to nurture innovation and measure progress, and ultimately require accountability.
About the Authors
Chris deBarbadillo is plant optimization practice leader and a client director in Black & Veatch’s water business. She has 33 years of experience in wastewater process engineering, design, operations and research, including nine years of utility experience.
Kent Lackey is the East Region managing director for Black & Veatch’s water business. He has 26 years of experience supporting all facets of the water industry, from utility and infrastructure planning to design and construction of water, wastewater and reclaimed water systems facilities and infrastructure.
Bo Poats is an asset lifecycle risk management practice leader in the infrastructure modernization offering group of Black & Veatch’s Management Consulting. He brings 40 years of enterprise in risk management, strategic planning and implementation to multiple public and investor-owned utilities.
Jeffrey Stillman is Black & Veatch’s asset management practice leader for North America. He has 25 years of experience in system planning, program development, modeling, information system integration and business intelligence.
James Strayer is the department head for Black & Veatch’s planning and asset management team in North America. He has 27 years of experience spanning planning, design, construction, programs and asset management applications.