Jumping The Permit Compliance Hurdle

How could water utilities better plan for permit compliance? For any entity conducting business – whether it is providing a public service or selling a good – predictability is a key to long-term survival. You might not be able to control input cost changes, shifts in demand, or adverse events, but the better you can foresee and prepare for them, the more you will be empowered to ensure your sustainability.

As Goes Permit Compliance, So Goes Predictability and Sustainability

The sustainability of water utilities hinges on regulatory and permit compliance at the local, state and federal levels. If they cannot get permits, they cannot get off the ground to begin with. But maintaining compliance is the 800-pound gorilla. If permits are violated, utilities can often keep handling wastewater and providing drinking water, as these services are public health-critical, but violations are unsustainably costly on many fronts:

  • Fines can be huge and compound on a daily basis as long as violations are outstanding. Violations can also mean lengthy and expensive legal proceedings involving other government entities, interest groups, and citizens
  • More and more, they are the canaries in the coal mine giving the first notice of failed – sometimes catastrophically so – infrastructure
  • Since water utilities are monopolies and users cannot turn to other providers, the loss of public trust that violations engender can be profound, lasting decades and creating ripple effects up to the highest levels of an organization or government.

Treating Permit Compliance as a Product

All too often, water utilities see permit compliance as a hurdle they must jump to fulfill their mission: providing clean water efficiently and at a reasonable cost. In the worst-case scenario of breach of public trust, where permit compliance is seen as a hurdle, going around it is a possibility – unless and until caught. The Flint, Michigan water supply crisis happened in large part because the Flint Water Treatment Plant maintained permit despite officials knowing it could not provide safe, clean drinking water.

While clearly Flint Water did not plan for permit compliance as a primary product, too few water utilities do either. What if they did? Would planning a product that everyone depends on start to seem much more positive and predictable than jumping a hurdle or avoiding a punishment? Would it help managers and decision-makers feel more like empowered, responsible adults than guilty children?

For drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, permit compliance is a matter of keeping within standards for a wide range of contaminants (such as metals and harmful bacteria) and indicators of health (such as temperature and pH) – that is, maintaining acceptable quality. So many factors go into that – exogenous ones such as weather events and endogenous ones like infrastructure status. And with climate change, ageing assets and emerging technologies, more new and unexpected factors come into play every day, making planning more challenging than ever. So how can utilities plan for compliance as an end product? All signs point to data as a keystone.

Collecting the Right Data at the Right Time

It is no secret: water supply, wastewater, and stormwater utilities all know what their output is supposed to look like: clean water, which equals compliance. To get there, they need to know what is entering the system and when, what tools they need to use to create compliance, and what their measures of success are indicating – all questions that must be answered by gathering data that passes QA muster. Technology such as new types of sensors and even drones are making possible the collection of critical data in the field that just a few years ago would have been unimaginable, greatly leveraging the ability to gather data about what is coming into the system – typically the greatest challenge to compliance. The right data quality and quantity optimizes data-driven decision-making – which only makes sense to achieve a result (regulatory compliance) that is characterized by data measures.

Making Data More Powerful By Expanding Its Accessibility

A single utility may have dozens of different systems where compliance-critical data is kept, each with protocols and nomenclature known only to staff in specific organization units with highly specialized expertise. It is as if staff working towards the same goals just down the hall from each other were operating on different planets, and the message that only a certain few people – rather than everyone working together – are responsible for compliance.

Achieving consistent compliance rather than reacting to violations requires connecting dots and detecting patterns with a clear “line of sight” across all the organization’s data. But using multiple data storage applications stymies this line of sight, making it much more difficult to spot, investigate and respond to potential problems before they lead to violations.

Decisions are Easier and Better When They are Data-Backed

There is probably no water utility manager out there who never struggled over making a big decision when helpful or critical data was simply not available. Some of the most difficult ones are decisions around money – how much should be planned for future infrastructure, what level and what type of efficiencies should be targeted, how should rates be set? Though the connection may seem indirect, these funding decisions are the foundation to maintaining predictability and steady future compliance – and they are frequently finalized by government legislative bodies with no water utility expertise and a long list of other priorities. Rich data, with its significance put into sharp focus through sound and appropriate analytical tools, gives water utilities the best chance at decisions and their aftermath that will help realize predictability, and permit compliance, for the long-term.

Do you want to improve Environmental Permit Management in your organization? Talk to us and ask for a demo: our team of experts spend time with your team to better understand how you currently manage permit compliance and identify optimization priorities.

Smart Water Systems: Data and the Future of Water

Smart water systems empower utilities to provide better service at lower costs, increased effectiveness and efficiency, and with reduced environmental impacts. While ground-breaking data collection and analysis technologies make smart water systems possible, increased pressure on resources from threats like climate change make it necessary. As just one sobering example, the United Nations predicts that about two-thirds of the world’s population — 4.6 billion people — will face water-stressed conditions in the next decade due to increased and completing demands, more extreme climate conditions, and record-shattering weather events.

Using Data To Drive Management

Smart water systems’ critical capability is that they fulfill the promise of data-driven decisions and actions. While water utilities have long gathered extensive data of all sorts, they have all too seldom been able to use it to good effect. It sits siloed in legacy repositories that can’t talk to each other, and it’s all too common for a utility’s disparate units to have no idea what data the others have. And technologies that enable the data to be consolidated and analyzed have been expensive and cumbersome to implement. So the truth and clarity that data should provide have remained out of reach.

In 2017, the Smart Utility Task Force of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) outlined its vision for the “Digital Utility of the Future” that would exploit data, analytics and integrated systems to meet these aims:

  1. Reduce Operational Costs
  2. Manage and Mitigate Risks
  3. Enhance the Customer Experience
  4. Improve Financial Execution
  5. Optimize Asset Performance and Uncover Hidden Value
  6. Leverage Existing Communications and Computing Platforms
  7. Maximize the Engagement and Efficiency of Employees; and
  8. Integrate Water Quality, Policy, and Performance

What Smart Moves Have Water Utilities Made?

Many public drinking water providers are already using information and communications technology to build smart systems to achieve a sustainable, efficient and clean water supply. As a huge bonus, these innovations let them transform what were formerly “just” ratepayers into allies and partners in conservation, reducing costs, and spotting problems.

To cite just one smart system breakthrough, in 2013 the Kansas City Kansas Board of Public Utilities (KC BPU) implemented Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AIM) for the city’s water supply system that delivers hourly readings in real time of each customer’s water consumption. That’s a lot of raw data that on its own doesn’t make a system smart. But when the data is analyzed to identify consumption patterns and levels that indicate waste due to plumbing leaks, and water department staff quickly contact the customers to let them know, the system becomes smart – new data is collected and used in a new way to prevent waste, lower costs for the provider and customer, decrease stress on the water supply and infrastructure, and forge a bond of cooperation between provider and consumers. Within a few years of the program’s outset, KC BPU had contacted over 1,500 customers – or 2.6% of the utility’s 56,000 households served – with a Residential Leak Alert.

A Smart Step for Wastewater – Reduce Operating Costs

Smart systems are still largely in the future for wastewater treatment utilities, but on-boarding them will be vital to providing service efficiently and protecting the environment.

As a starting point, smart systems can help wastewater utilities resolve some of their “low-hanging fruit” issues like identifying and reducing waste in resource use, thereby reducing operational costs – the first of NACWA’s aims for digital utilities of the future. Some opportunities:

  • Pumps and blowers generally account for most of the energy usage at treatment plants. By using smart systems to track energy use and performance, inefficiencies can be uncovered and eliminated.
  • Energy and chemical use in process and disinfection systems can be tracked and compared with industry benchmarks, highlighting additional areas ripe for to tackling inefficiencies and reducing operating costs.
  • Collection networks conveys wastewater to treatment plants and support community growth and development. But by their nature, these diffuse underground networks are prone to flow problems including waste fat blockages and inflow/infiltration from groundwater and stormwater. While utilities address these problems with programs including ratepayer education and infrastructure replacement, a smart system can identify potential blockage buildups by using flow meters and level sensors. Tracking the resulting data can point field staff to address potential problem areas immediately these areas instead of making field visits based on historical patterns.

The Water and Wastewater sector is confronting growing challenges such as ageing infrastructure, increasing pressure from the regulators and the public and fragmented expenditure allocation. Water utilities now have to step up and go beyond simply complying with the Clean Water Act (CWA.) They need to adopt innovative technologies to improve environmental and regulatory compliance performance, while reducing costs and increasing revenue.

The future digital water utilities will have to be able to capture, synthesize and analyze multiple layers of data to extract key insights. This will require a centralized system focused on cross-functional interoperability to provide for effective decision-making. The utilities’ challenge of how to increase efficiency is ready to be answered by the right advanced technology that will allow them to tackle process automation as well as access to the right data at the right time.

The Klir Water and Wastewater solution provides a single decision-making platform and a 360° view of all Urban Waste Water and Drinking Water missions to help utilities make informed decisions and meet the organization’s strategic objectives.

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