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For Oregon’s Clean Water Services, Digital Transformation is About Smarter Watershed Management

Located on the Tualatin River Basin, Clean Water Services in Oregon serves a population of over 600,000 residents in urban Washington County and businesses including Nike and Intel. A fitting name, Clean Water Services is internationally recognized as a leader for holistic watershed management, and a One Water approach that integrates wastewater and stormwater collection and treatment.

But it wasn’t always this way. This is the story of how a polluted river, reduced to just a stream, spawned what today has become one of the most innovative water systems in America.

In this article, we’ll dive into key lessons from CWS’ digital transformation, and how it flows from a commitment to watershed restoration.

Necessity breeds innovation

Then…

In the late 1960s, Washington County’s water was in crisis. The Tualatin River, the area’s only river, was choked with pollution. Twenty-six treatment plants were discharging contaminated wastewater into area streams, provoking a moratorium on any new development in the region. The viability of the entire region was in question.

In the summer, the river was so small in some places, you could stand across it.

By 1970, the people of Washington County voted two-to-one in favor of creating a regional sewer utility—one of the first in the state. The vote signaled the community’s early commitment to protecting public health and the local environment through clean water.

And now…

Fast forward to today, and Clean Water Services’ CEO Diane Taniguchi-Dennis will tell you that everything the organization does aims to protect public health while enhancing the natural environment of Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed. 

That means that CWS’ job doesn’t stop at the treatment plant: it includes building salmon habitat, planting a canopy that mitigates evaporation, and offering conservation education.

As organic as it all might sound, these initiatives aren’t driven by intuition. They’re backed by cold, hard data, and a commitment to innovation. 

For Washington Country, there’s no other way: this is about securing a safe water supply for generations to come. 

Digital transformation requires culture change

In an industry historically focused on pipes and pumps, CWS has learned to stop viewing itself as a team of engineers, and instead as 400 water entrepreneurs working together to leverage science and technology through the power of Mother Nature. 

“In my experience, significant sustainable advances in smart water are only possible through culture change,” says Taniguchi-Dennis. “It’s really about a mindset focused on learning, thriving, and growing that drives digital transformation.” 

The defining features of CWS’ culture of innovation include: 

  1. Practicing agility and change readiness.

  2. Becoming less hierarchical and more networked.

  3. Bridging gaps between different subject matter expertise via multidisciplinary project teams.

It’s a commitment that cascades across every level of the organization, but is perhaps best illustrated by the tech team.

Transform IT into a Digital Solutions team

Innovating at the watershed-scale depends on having the right leaders around the table. That’s why CWS has transformed its IT department from a service center into a strategic business partner. 

The Digital Solutions team, led by Dr. Ting Lu, is a confluence of Information Technology (IT), Operations Technology (OT), and Engineering Technology (ET) that supports the organization on everything from permit compliance to optimizing water for the region. 

This team’s impact has been transformative, having introduced:

  • Dashboards to support transparency & decision making throughout the district

  • Real-time controls to optimize storm runoff capacity 

  • Automated vehicle-locator technology, sewer sensors and GIS data integration for data driven operations 

  • Technology to optimize basin planning and risk management

  • Virtual collaboration and learning platforms

  • Open-source, low cost IoT sensor solutions

And they’re not stopping there. 

Dr. Lu shared her vision for the next decade: “We would like to be using smart water and digital twin systems to provide insights and operational and planning decision support to not only our gray infrastructure, but also integrating our green infrastructure, natural systems and the watershed together at scale.”

Start with the basics

Like any good digital strategy, CWS started with the basics: compliance.

In 1991, the organization was targeting an aggressive Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) target of 0.1 milligrams of phosphorus per liter, which meant they needed to be operating some of the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities of the time. 

The effort was so paramount, it provoked its own sing-song slogan: “Point one in ninety one!

So, when CWS later ran into a thermal compliance issue based on excess ammonia in the water from fisheries, they saw the opportunity to rise above their regulatory duty and take control of their own destiny. 

“We realized that just focusing on the water chemistry or water quality wasn’t going to be enough to really meet the promise that the Clean Water Act brings to us, which is fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters,” says Taniguchi-Dennis. 

Instead of putting chillers at the treatment facility outfalls—where the benefit would have washed away just a few miles downstream—CWS decided to look at the problem holistically across the watershed. The solution? Planting trees and shrubs along the river and its tributaries.

And thanks to innovation at every level—from financing and revegetation to partnerships that tap into new revenue sources—CWS has the resources to do so quickly. Where CWS could previously plant 2 million trees and shrubs in a decade, they can now reach that target in a single year.

“You have to get to a point where regulatory compliance is just one part of an output of what your utility does, but really your purpose, or the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, are so much greater than that,” says Taniguchi-Dennis.

“And that’s really what smart technology is starting to allow us to do. It’s allowing us to really hear what’s going on in the environment.”

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Utility’s Digital Playbook

The water industry is awash with tech buzzwords. Digital twin, smart water, biosensors, IoT, artificial intelligence. They all sound great. But for most utilities, these technologies are so far from the present reality that they sound more like a distraction than a realistic goal.

“I’m using a software system that was built in 1991, and you want to talk to me about smart water and biosensors?”

“We don’t have the money or the time to experiment with this right now.”

“We’ve been burned by Cisco before—how do we know this will be different?”

These common frustrations reflect two challenging realities in the world of water today:

  • On one hand, the world of work has changed, and so have the challenges facing the industry. But many utilities are making do with outdated, offline technology, and threadbare budgets.

  • Meanwhile, major technology providers selling data warehousing projects have missed the boat on water. They promised the moon and then failed to deliver. But the costs of those projects are permanently stained on the balance sheet. 

It’s time for a new approach.

You need a systematic way to tackle digital transformation in bite-sized chunks in a way that works for your organization. What you need is a digital playbook

In this guide, we’ll show you how to write your digital strategy and drive buy-in with a step-by-step approach.

Why you need a digital playbook

Future proofing your organization

Change is coming fast and furious. 

About a third of the water workforce will retire in the next few years. Much of the knowledge and processes we rely on are currently trapped in those workers’ desk drawers, corkboards, spreadsheets—or worse, their heads.

Meanwhile, the nature of the work is getting more complex: regulations are more stringent, and weather patterns are less predictable. 

You can’t afford to work with tech that doesn’t work.

Finding the middle ground

Moving closer to the water utility of the future doesn’t involve moving a massive boulder. Instead, it happens brick-by-brick

There is a middle ground between the world of offline spreadsheets and the false promise of enterprise-scale data warehousing. Cloud-based tools can help bring mission-critical data out of Excel and into powerful dashboards, so your organization can act on those insights sooner.

How digital transformation happens

Tying innovation to organizational goals

Digital transformation without North Star goals will just result in more of the same. The key is to ensure your investments are being made with vision and purpose

All utilities share a universal goal: delivering clean and safe water. To do that today, and for generations to come, most utilities are looking to:

  • Capture efficiency gains to do more with less

  • Identify new opportunities for revenue capture

  • Engage the community 

  • Deliver excellent customer service

That means that any digital transformation project that’s worth its salt should tackle these challenges in some way or another.

Building blocks of change

There’s a reason that so many tech overhauls have failed: change is hard. And for that same reason, you can’t expect to leap from an Excel spreadsheet to AI-driven decision making overnight. To maximize benefit while minimizing disruption, you’ll need to approach transformation in stages. 

One framework we’ve found useful for thinking about this is the Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid.

The DIKW Pyramid

The idea here is that you can’t move up the pyramid before laying the foundation—and the bedrock of every good digital strategy is data.

Data 

Data is the lifeblood of our connected world, increasingly defining how our industry plans, understands, and executes projects.
If you’re just starting to experiment with digital transformation, removing data from silos and making it more accessible to everyone in your organization—i.e. freeing it from the C-drive or the desk drawer—should be the target.
It’s important to keep in mind as well that more data isn’t necessarily better. It might be that what your organization actually needs most is a data diet, i.e. a sustained effort to become more specific and intentional with the data you do collect.

Information

Of course, data is meaningless without context. 
For example, let’s say you’ve just spent the last few weeks collecting cost data. Without labels—i.e. ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ each cost is occurring—that data is just a series of numbers: “$5,876.46,” “$447.64,” “$77.89.”
To make data work for us, we need to ask it questions. And when that happens, data becomes information. It starts to tell us things about our organization that we didn’t know before—like which parts of the business are the most or least expensive to operate.

Knowledge and Wisdom

For that information to become something we can act on, we need to know why and how those things are happening. When we ask those questions, information turns into knowledge and wisdom.
In the water world, this part of the DIKW pyramid is where we’ll be able to use things like artificial intelligence and digital twins to make predictions. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this guide: we’re focused on utilities that are just starting to grapple with data and how best to start metabolizing it.

The important thing to remember here is that the tools you use to make decisions about your organization—whether management tools, artificial intelligence, etc.—are only as good as the data and information you feed into them.

You can’t jump from “data” to “wisdom” overnight. But by asking the right questions and being intentional with the data collected, you can make steady incremental progress towards that goal.

Executing the Playbook: Procurement

We’ve already mentioned how digital transformation is best handled in small, easy to manage, confidence-boosting chunks, rather than messy system-wide overhauls. 

Incremental change is king, and that applies to procurement and implementation, too.

But if multi-year tech installs aren’t the way to go, what’s the alternative? If you ask us, it’s pilots.

Pilots 101

Pilots have become the new gold standard for tech acquisition within municipal utilities because they’re lower risk, more manageable, and can help drive buy-in among teams that are resistant to sweeping changes.

To run a pilot, you’ll need to define project goals, involve key internal stakeholders, and pick a vendor that meets your specific needs and your budget.

Pilots don’t succeed every time—in fact, many of them won’t. Some utilities set themselves a goal of a 40% success rate for pilots. However high you do set the bar, the point is to not set it too high. 

Keep in mind that many utilities today have dedicated innovation budgets, and smaller scale pilots may run below the RFP thresholds, which makes it easier to get up and running quickly.

Picking a vendor: a checklist

With your game-plan set, the final step is to select vendors to work with.

Just as there is no one single perfect vendor for any one single utility, there is no universal rule for picking a vendor. This checklist, however, comes pretty close:

1. They understand the problem you’re trying to solve A good vendor should focus on your objectives, will spend time listening to your problems, and will demonstrate that they understand your particular needs. A bad vendor will spend more time talking about their specific product’s features, and will leave you feeling like they don’t really “get it.”

2. Selling a tool tailored to your utility’s needs One size does not fit all. Will configuring a tool for your needs end up costing more than the tool itself? When exploring vendors, don’t shy away from asking tough and pointed questions: that will help you determine whether the vendor really knows how to cater to a utility like yours.

3. Has a partnership mindset  Vendor support should be ongoing, not just at the time of install. It should feel like your vendor is on your side, that they’re available to help you when you need it—and not like they’re just trying to hand off responsibility and move on to the next project. 

4. Integrates with parallel systems 

New technology should reduce data silos, not create new ones. If it feels like a particular tool or implementation might be creating more problems than it’s solving, your vendor might not actually understand what your organization needs.

5. Searches for utility-wide benefits Digital initiatives should drive cross-departmental collaboration. Vendors should understand this and should be proactively looking for and suggesting opportunities, rather than just waiting for you to do so.

Conclusion

Although digital transformation represents an exciting opportunity for water utilities, implementing new processes and technologies takes time, money, and one resource that is particularly difficult to get back once you lose it: the trust of your team members. 

Instead of pursuing expensive and demoralizing data warehousing projects, utilities are far better off taking a pragmatic, gradual approach to achieving their smart water goals. Cloud-based solutions tailored to utilities’ needs make this new approach possible.  

With a digital playbook to guide your decisions, you can start driving change right now, not ten years from now.

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