Feb 27 2020

How Smart Water Makes Cities More Transparent

Agencies implementing smart water technology programs embrace reduced costs, improved sustainability and a more resilient and efficient system.

Smart technology is used in local governments across the country to help with something that’s both a major resource and potential headache: water. 

How much water is in the ground, in rivers or overflowing a shore during a storm? How can water be used more efficiently? What about the pipes it flows through? What about residents? How much water are they using — that they know of? What’s in that water? Do they have a leak? Could they use less if they knew their consumption, especially when compared to their neighbors? 

Those are some questions smart water technology can answer and some potential uses for the data drawn from it, says Will Sarni, former head of Deloitte's water strategy practice and current CEO of Water Foundry, a water consultancy. “You’re seeing digital technologies emerge that are better able to understand what’s going on in the watershed, which benefits industrial and utility sectors too.” 

What Is Smart Water Technology?

Smart water technology is a way to collect, share and analyze data from water equipment and water networks. It is used by water managers to find leaks, lower energy use, predict equipment failure and ensure regulatory compliance. 

Around the country, smart cities are using all kinds of devices, including Internet of Things sensors, smart meters, monitors, mapping and other data-sharing tools for smart water programs. The goals of each technology are tailored to the smart cities they’re used in, but generally include reducing costs, improving sustainability and creating a more resilient and efficient water supply system.

The market for these technologies is expected to grow by 18.5 percent between 2018 and 2024, reaching $31.6 billion by 2024, according to Zion Market Research

Smart City Water Solutions Predict Future Events

The city of Virginia Beach turned to smart water technology so it could have better information for emergency management. The coastal city, which is hit often by hurricanes and other storms and is planning for sea level rise, wanted to know more about its water levels. 

“Observational data is important,” says Sridhar Katragadda, lead data scientist for the city. “There was no water observation that could give us the water levels in streams in real time.” 

Virginia Beach started deploying smart water sensors in 2015, using them for StormSense, which was developed with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. It’s a forecasting project that uses street-level hydrodynamic modeling, data from sensors and crowdsourced data collected after floods. It allows city officials to predict floods from storm surges, rain and tides up to 36 hours in advance. StormSense won the best practices category in AWS’ 2017 City on a Cloud challenge

Katragadda says they started with 10 water level sensors in 2015. There are now more 40 installed in Virginia coastal cities through a cooperative agreement. StormSense also uses data from more than 25 sensors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

In the future, Katragadda says, the city’s smart water program will be ingrained into the lives of its citizens. “This will be part of their daily routine, asking, ‘What is the water level in my neighborhood and how high?’” 

Smart Water Management Systems Use Real-Time Tech 

The government of Ann Arbor, Mich., uses real-time smart water technology. The city worked with the University of Michigan to develop Open Storm, a package of open-source sensors, hardware and algorithms to measure and control stormwater. Sensor nodes collect data on water flow and quality, then transmit it via a cellular network. It gives a real-time, instant snapshot of water conditions.

As part of the project, student volunteers installed valves on city water systems to open and close after a storm. After flooding, the city can choose to release or throttle the water via remote control valves. 

“It’s nice to know what’s happening in real time and have it precisely measured,” Harry Sheehan, chief deputy water resources commissioner for Washtenaw County, Mich., said last year at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.

Smart Water Technology Makes a Difference in California

Water Foundry’s Sarni says smart cities that want to use smart water technologies should look to California, which is leading the way. The state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires “governments and water agencies of high and medium priority basins to halt overdraft and bring groundwater basins into balanced levels of pumping and recharge,” according to the California Department of Water Resources

Under this law, critically overdrafted basins should reach sustainability by 2040, and high- and medium-priority basins by 2042.

“California has done a very good job in terms of understanding water as a strategic resource asset for the state economy and investing in things,” Sarni says. 

In the state’s Solano County, for example, solar-powered sensors are used to detect water flow in real time. According to Wired magazine, farmers send the data from those sensors to small satellites called CubeSats, which work around poor cell service in the area. Farmers can then trade their water on a blockchain platform.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How smart cities turn to the cloud for smart water and other solutions

Smart Water Technology Leads to Stronger Decisions

Sarni says that California also stands out in its smart water direction because of who can see the information drawn from these systems: everyone. The Open and Transparent Water Data Act requires multiple agencies in the state to create, operate and maintain a statewide integrated water data platform that shares information and promotes open-source platforms and decision-support tolls related to water data. 

“We need to democratize access to data and actionable information. The layperson should have access to data and understand what it means,” he says. 

Fountain Valley was one of many California municipalities hit by drought. Officials deployed smart technology, including smart meters, to let municipal officials see where water was being used, and how. It also gave the community information about water consumption and showed areas of improvement. As a result, the town was able to reduce usage by 23 percent

This transparency isn’t limited to California. Houston partnered with Microsoft to modernize its infrastructure, and part of that project included providing smart water meters to 500,000 water customers. These meters gather information on water usage every 15 minutes and, in the future, will give customers real-time leak alerts and conservation advice. 

Artificial Intelligence and Smart Water Technology

Microsoft also worked with DC Water, a water and sewer utility company, to create the first IoT smart water fountain, which monitors, tracks and reports water quality in real time.

DC Water is also stepping into the world of AI by applying analytics to the watershed treatment process to identify and address operating anomalies with pumps and by developing an IoT platform to monitor wastewater treatment assets, manage energy and avoid costly maintenance. 

DC Water used Microsoft’s Cognitive Toolkit to automate detection and classification of pipe anomalies for its 1,900-mile sanitary and combined sewer system. The toolkit has cut the evaluation process from hours to minutes.

“Defects are precisely pinpointed and output from the process will be used to create predictive models for pipe performance, allowing DC Water to make informed, data-driven decisions on replacing or rehabilitating pipes,” according to Microsoft. 

“It’s basically facial recognition … for sewer pipes,” Thomas Kuczynski, vice president of IT at DC Water, tells GCN.

Eric Overton / Getty Images