Visualizing Sustainable Water Resource Management

3D modeling helps the city of Tallahassee reduce groundwater and wastewater pollution3D modeling technology brought to task in managing water resources

More than 900 million people struggle to find enough clean water every day. Another 2.6 billion don’t have access to basic sanitation. But any faucet can run dry and none are exempt from the realities of a changing climate, growing population, and declining resources. Assuring sustainable water resources and sanitation globally is the requisite challenge for the 21st century.

To help call attention to this pressing challenge, the United Nations recently issued a declaration proclaiming access to clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right. To help forestall a widening water and sanitation crisis, the UN declaration also urges its member states to provide financial and technological assistance to developing nations.

We focus here on technology, a key driver for accessible clean water and sustainable resource management in the coming decades – both in the developing and industrialized world.

Autodesk is a company familiar to regular TriplePundit readers. Their 3D modeling technology, combined with the Building Information Modeling (BIM) process, stands at the vanguard of sustainable building design and retrofit. I recently spoke with Geoff Zeiss, director of technology for Autodesk, to explore how that technology provides a unique benefit helping water districts, utilities, and watersheds meet the challenge of  sustainable water resource management. The vast range of knowledge and enthusiasm Zeiss has for the topic is far beyond the scope of one blog post, but following are some brief examples of the how technology is used, helping bring to millions the “fundamental right” of clean water and sanitation.

Increasing productivity: doing more with less

Vital to the challenge of water management, Zeisss says, is squeezing more efficiency in response to dwindling resources, budget constraints, aging infrastructure, and growing demand.

Attrition: managing a shrinking workforce

Along with aging pipes and infrastructure, water treatment plants across the globe are faced with an aging workforce. Manpower and experience aren’t being replaced at the rate of attrition, forcing municipalities and water districts to compensate through greater productivity and efficiency. The ability to model and visualize existing infrastructure with Autodesk 3D modeling and BIM enables a smaller, younger workforce to more effectively operate and maintain water treatment facilities.

Aging pipes and infrastructure: better documentation and managing “As-builts”

Much of the aging water systems in place around the world are plagued with inaccurate and outdated records. Updating these records is made more difficult when most of that infrastructure is underground. According to Zeiss, most water districts are at least two years behind in updating their records – a glaring obstacle to improving productivity and efficiency.

Managing these “as-built” records, Zeiss told me, is a key factor for stretching a limited workforce. With improved record-keeping, combined with 3D visualization modeling, productivity and efficiency in maintaining aging pipes and operating complex wastewater treatment systems is vastly improved.

Anchorage Municipal Power and Light is but one example of how major utilities are using tools, such as Autodesk’s Topobase, designed specifically to manage infrastructure design and as-built records to seamlessly incorporate critical design information into system workflow across an entire organization.

Seeing the big picture: communications, design and decision modeling

Pollution and waste

Sixty percent of the US population gets their water from ground sources – aquifers and watersheds. An EPA study conducted from 2006 to 2009 revealed 9000 of the 25000 wastewater treatment facilities dumping sewage in waterways feeding those groundwater sources. The amount of leakage and waste in the United States could supply the water-stressed state of California

Reducing pollution and waste is an ongoing effort for many water districts. Autodesk modeling technology is able to map watershed flow, water treatment design, and the interaction between the two. With this visualization comes the ability to test various scenarios in the design phase to maximize watercourse resources and treatment facilities.

Retrofit water treatment: Tallahassee reduces pollution from wastewater

In 2002 the city of Tallahassee commissioned a study with the US Geological Survey to track groundwater movement of Wakulla Springs, a springshed lying adjacent to the city’s Thomas P. Smith Reclamation Facility. The study revealed “interaction” between the springshed and effluent from wastewater reused for irrigating crops on facility sprayfields and farmland.

Design upgrades to the wastewater treatment facility that began in 2008 benefited greatly from the Autodesk tools used by Hazen and Sawyer, the environmental design contractor hired by the City of Tallahassee to implement the retrofit design. Hazen and Sawyer was able to model the entire watershed system, from springwater to wastewater, and combine this information with updated records and as-builts to efficiently deliver a more effective decision-making process within an abbreviated production schedule.

Intelligent networks and network modeling: reducing “non-technical” leakage and pollution in Brazil

Sixty percent of water wasted in Brazil is from poverty-sticken favelas, where substandard water and sanitation is widespread. Zeiss defines non-technical loss as “non-revenue water  loss not due to technical problems.” In the developing world, mapping substandard ad hoc water distribution and non-technical leakage can greatly reduce waste and improve water quality, especially in impoverished areas where substandard dwellings and infrastructure is the norm.

In Manaus, Brazil, civil engineer Figueiredo Ferraz designed plans for watershed recovery for the Sapolandia, Franco, and Quarenta watercourses. Undocumented and substandard water and sanitation systems in the watershed would often choke off the natural waterways, adding to the  pollution and exacerbating disease in an ongoing cycle of environmental degradation.

Using Autodesk tools, Figueirdo Ferraz developed  designs for alternate routing, channeling, and drainage. Presenting these plans digitally in “real time”  allowed planners to evaluate early in the process the various design options, choosing those best suited to alleviate watercourse congestion and pollution.

Communicating a common vision

In all these scenarios, one common benefit of 3D visualization and BIM is the ease in which essential design elements can be communicated for all stakeholders. For public works projects where many of those stakeholders are citizens, governments, and other “non-expert” entities such communication is essential. Visualizing the impacts and consequences of a project’s design before any ground is broken is especially advantageous for a common understanding of desired and expected outcomes. In other words, it helps get things done.

A core element of many solutions

There is no one answer for achieving the mandate of the United Nations declaration to assure clean water and sanitations for the world’s inhabitants. Autodesk 3D visualization and Building Information Management is not the answer, but indeed are core components of a variety of solutions for sustainable water resource management across the globe.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, of course. Zeiss had many other examples to talk about, and some promising new developments on the near horizon that must remain off the record for now. But not for long, new technology and innovative processes are bringing finding solutions to daunting challenges at a pace that is breathtaking – even for old pros like Zeiss – and heartening – even for old curmudgeons like yours truly.

In the end, it will take more than technology to create a sustainable and equitable future. But technologies like Autodesk visualization and processes like Building Information Modeling help us visualize what that future could look like, and lays out a path on how we might get there.

The rest is up to each one of us.

Image credit: Hazen and Sawyer

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications.