Processing Magazine

Mixed opinions on water problems

Money and finance are the problems; information technology is the fix; which side are you on?

August 19, 2014

It’s said, often, that infrastructure for water provision to U.S. populations and industry is at a near-crisis stage. And there are signs that it’s the case. Yet because so many water sources are free, and for other reasons, the dollars-and-cents incentives that lead to decisive action often aren’t there.

It’s estimated that only about 10 percent of water is purchased at the source, and only about 1 percent comes from reuse.

On the other hand, some large urban entities are getting serious about “smart city” concepts, with water and wastewater management being a big part of it. And smaller entities are addressing targets of opportunity, making water improvements — perhaps not comprehensively — but where they feel greatest pain.

“There has been movement even in the last six months,” says Jerome Devillers, head of WeiserMazars' Water Infrastructure/Project Financing practice, “involving legislative efforts, refinancing instances and acquisitions.”

The remaking of water markets is slow compared to that of other industries. “It’s an extremely fragmented industry, with two or three large players, five or so medium sized, and everyone else very small,” says Devillers. “Comparisons based on company size alone are difficult. The characteristics are more dependent on location and financing. Of course, the larger players have the best access to finance.”

Even when the water source is free, “everyone upstream pays for the water. Non-revenue water isn’t free if it’s been pumped and treated,” says Rudy Engbert of IT automation supplier Schneider Electric.

Engbert is manager, water and wastewater industries, Wonderware Software for Schneider Electric. Schneider Electric recently acquired Invensys, and with it the highly successful and historically important Wonderware, Sim-Sci and Foxboro industrial automation brands.

“Water industries do face a crisis in several respects, including infrastructure degradation,” says Engbert. “But we believe it’s time to look beyond the human-machine interface and supervisory-control functions that deliver productivity gain in production-process industries.”

Few today would argue with the idea that to optimize resource use, including that of water, one good thing to do is leverage IT to get a handle on supply chain, planning, execution and distribution through efficient, computer-based coordination based on a single source of truth. 

IT-based automation has transformed and continues to transform the global industrial landscape. Water and wastewater is no exception, says Engbert, where the human machine interface is widely applied on the distribution side.

However, by going beyond SCADA-style process monitoring, other benefits are possible, including better workforce management, reclaiming non-revenue water, identifying viable incentives related to intelligent water use, and enhancing the communities’ ability to attract business, industry and people.

“Information technology has been critical in terms of metering improvements,” says Devillers. “Private companies have invested to improve customer service and the municipalities need to start doing the same.”

The key will be involvement by the private sector. “Water is political and that makes for large regional differences. Most obviously, there are no water rights east of the Mississippi,” Devillers says. “It is surprising that only ten percent of water is purchased, and while we expect reuse to climb rapidly, that low figure is not the source of any crisis. But there are real reasons to take action.”