Recurring concerns about aging infrastructure assets, a graying workforce, challenges from wildfires, floods and drought increasingly are testing the resilience of water systems. All of that lately has been against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic that halted the nation’s economy, leaving tens of millions jobless and testing the financial resilience of many providers.

U.S. water industry leaders are looking to accelerate innovation in strategy, operations, and capital planning by harnessing digital assets and data analytics. A Black & Veatch report, Strategic Directions: Water, finds efforts to adopt and implement technology are geared toward pushing better decision-making, optimizing and prioritizing system investments, and driving cost efficiencies to help deliver sustainability and resilience.

The survey of nearly 300 water industry leaders paired with analysis, details the migration toward data-driven “digital” or “smart” water technologies is picking up speed, fanning the promise of everything from reliable consumption forecasts and customer engagement metrics to more robust leak detection.

Respondents cited aging water and wastewater infrastructure as the industry’s chief challenge, eclipsing such issues as justifying capital improvement programs, managing capital costs, or system resilience. Saddled with doing more with less, approximately 15% report having a fully integrated approach to data management, up from just 5% last year. More than half say their data management is strengthening, but not fully integrated, contributing to lost opportunities in optimization.

Climate change—and the increasingly worrisome predictions about it—continues to grab attention among water utilities as one of their rising challenges. Add to that the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted the water industry as many commercial and industrial customers, a water utility’s largest-volume consumers, were forced to temporarily halt operations, straining revenue and cash increasing flow. Many water providers lost revenue when they suspended water and wastewater shutoffs to delinquent accounts.

The industry is migrating to a holistic, programmatic approach to challenge-solving rather than a siloed method. Digital transformation is being viewed as an integrated tool in the planning toolkit, including the emerging promise of innovations such as “digital twins” —integrated digital representations of physical assets that provide historical, current and predictive analysis in near realtime, simulating scenario options before actions are taken.

While the majority of water utilities report they are collecting a lot of data, only 20% say they are leveraging it effectively for digital transformation, meaning most utilities have a long way to go in their push to optimize their utility data analytics.

The two most often cited resilience issues were natural or man-made disasters (nearly 84 percent) and catastrophic failure of infrastructure (56%). Water and wastewater utilities actively are responding to mandates by conducting resilience and vulnerability assessments; more than half —54%—have done so in the past year, with an additional 22% having carried that out in the past two to three years. Utilities are, indeed, taking threats seriously and addressing vulnerabilities to become more resilient.

Faced with climate change and increasingly extreme weather events, nearly 60% of respondents say water reclamation and reuse are part of their sustainability goals and metrics, demonstrating that an expanding portfolio of water reuse strategies is becoming the norm.

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