The Pressure Is On: Water and Other Utilities Upping Their IT Infrastructure

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Water2Water is focusing its efforts heavily on the western portion of the United States, where water is scarce, droughts are common, and arcane and sometimes nonsensical methods of water allocation are still in place. In the western United States "you’ve got the old Spanish legal system of allocation, which is first in line, first in right; and the English riparian system, which gives you access to water if you own land alongside a river or a lake," says Patrick Meyers, a Water2Water product manager. Those laws, combined with complex environmental, municipal, industrial and agricultural issues, have created a system of water allocation in the western United States that just doesn’t work very well, he says.

One of the first projects the company is developing is a microexchange for water users on the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The Lower Rio Grande system contains 27 independent irrigation districts, to which it distributes an average of about 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year, though in a drought year like this one that figure dips to about half (an acre-foot equals 43,560 cubic feet of water). The area’s activity makes it one of the top five markets in the United States for water that is moved and traded.

Having an exchange like this "gives people in Del Rio, Texas, which is seven hours away from here, the ability to know that somebody in the lower valley has excess water in his account," says Carlos Rubinstein, Rio Grande Watermaster with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which oversees all water activity on the entire Rio Grande River. And because the price of water for irrigation fluctuates so much in the region from $20 to $40 per acre-foot, an exchange like this is ideal, he says.

Internet technologies like Water2Water can help lower the cost of finding buyers and sellers and facilitating trades, says Terry Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center, a Bozeman, Mont., nonprofit organization that helps develop marketing strategies for resolving environmental problems. "If I’m using water in a way that’s worth $5 and you have a use where it’s worth $200, we ought to be able to engage in a trade," he says.

But for other parts of the country where water is not a scarce resource, the appeal for this type of exchange seems to be low. MLGW’s Rogers, for example, notes that Memphis sits on top of several of the largest aquifers in the country and wouldn’t need a service like this, at least on the buying end of the equation.

Another sticking point may be the infrastructure itself. "It’s unclear whether the model will be a success. You can move gas around because of well-developed pipes, but water was never designed to operate that way. Where is the pipeline to do that? It has to be built. It’s just too early to tell whether it will be a success," Meta Group’s Waters says of Water2Water’s model.

Now that technology has found the water industry—and vice versa—many more things are possible. The water industry is taking advantage of technology as never before, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.

DC WASA, for example, plans to build on its customer information system’s framework by adding additional computer telephony, interactive voice response and real-time customer service interactivity online. The organization also has embarked on a project to install new automated meters at all houses and businesses. Eventually, the automated meters will be able to send data electronically back to DC WASA headquarters wirelessly, Beaman says (although the technology to do so has not yet been chosen). A companion project will involve mounting small computers in technicians’ service trucks to transmit customer service status in real-time to both customer service reps and customers. "Eventually, we’ll be able to tell customers that the technician is about to knock on their door," Beaman says, another way to boost customer service.

The Greater Cincinnati Water Works, meanwhile, is installing an imaging system to cut down on the hundreds of thousands of paper documents it has accumulated over 160 years. The utility also has installed a suite of geographic information system applications using software from ESRI. The goal, Rager says, is to track service requests and actions throughout the organization’s 400-square-mile reach. The GIS application now allows the staff to pull up a map that shows all water mains, valves and hydrants along with building descriptions, service outage locations and customer account data.

Although technologies like these can go a long way in helping water utilities save money and increase customer satisfaction, the bottom line remains the same.

"In five years, I fully expect that we’ll be heavily Internet-based in terms of gathering information, purchasing and interfacing with our customers, and technology will be an increasing part of every process we have," predicts Rager. "But the basic operation of the industry won’t change much. You still have to get it, treat it and pump it through pipes to people’s homes."

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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