In 1992, the United Nations declared March 22 World Water Day (WWD), with a different theme each year to highlight issues related to water. This year’s theme is water and climate change and their inextricable links. First, we need more understanding and adaptation to climate change’s effect on water in order to protect public health. In addition, society needs to be more mindful and efficient about how we use our water in order to help reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change will have an impact on water more than anything else. The challenge is clear: Water touches every part of our lives. From agriculture to energy to data centers, secure supplies of water are critical. And beyond different sectors, people will be affected. More than 2 billion people currently live in an area suffering from water stress.
The good news is that people and companies are already working on solutions to mitigate the impacts and increase resilience for people, communities and industries. One of the key challenges for improving water quality and quantity is good data. Technologies like sensors and advanced meters help understand usage at the end user, and drones and satellites can help measure water at the source. But there’s a lot more to the system, and climate change can pose a threat to the already stressed water infrastructure. Technology can help there, too.
Water infrastructure in the U.S. is overall in bad shape. Every four years, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) produces a report card on the state of American infrastructure. In 2017, the year of its most recent report, the ASCE gave U.S. drinking water infrastructure a D and wastewater infrastructure a D+ — and those grades have not moved upward for over a decade.
Our communities’ pipes are old — some, in fact, are well over 100 years old. And while this has made for an impressive run, it means we have a lot of leaky pipes to contend with, and a lot of wasted water. Up to 30 percent of water is wasted before it ever reaches the end user. And this has a knock-on effect: It takes a lot of energy to pump and treat that water. In fact, about 4 percent of U.S. electricity generation goes toward moving water from its original sources to our communities, businesses and farms. To further complicate matters, most of the energy generated in the U.S. comes from water-intensive fossil fuels. So, in effect, we’re wasting water twice.
Photo: Kansas City, Missouri, is one city that has found a high-tech way to upgrade its aging water infrastructure (via Colton Sturgeon/Unsplash).
Climate change will put additional pressure on stressed infrastructure. Those pipes face particular challenges with extreme rain events and flash floods. Some cities are being proactive, and just in time. For example, in 2010, Kansas City, Missouri, recognized that the city needed to replace its 140-year old water and sewer pipes. Unable to afford the associated price tag, the city unveiled its Smart Sewer Program, a 25-year, $4.5 billion plan, which included investing in sensors to control sewer and stormwater flows and provide deep data sets to enable city planners to precisely pinpoint where the most critical upgrades were needed.
The city installed 300 sensors covering over 300 square miles. When record-breaking floods inundated the city in 2019, the water and wastewater system became overwhelmed. Increased rainfall and flash floods are likely in the city’s future. Having a smart system in place can provide real-time monitoring to respond to emergency situations and, optimally, mitigate damage and enhance emergency response time as well as improve the speed of recovery.
Sensors are tried and true technologies and provide improved data for water utilities, but may be out of range for some utilities, at least on a wide-scale deployment, based on cost. Other technologies continue to advance in the water space.
For example, Xylem’s SmartBall technology is another method to help pinpoint pressure changes in real time, providing what is referred to as “decision intelligence” in the utility industry, i.e., providing accurate, up-to-the-second data to help decide the best course of action. Picture SmartBalls as free-swimming acoustic sensors that are highly sensitive to small leaks.
Al Cho, vice president and general manager for advanced infrastructure analytics at Xylem, refers to the approach as health care for water infrastructure. “Just like an X-ray helps identify hairline fractures, a SmartBall listens to the water and can find small leaks before larger failures occur,” Mr. Cho said. Similar monitoring solutions can be deployed to act like a FitBit for pipelines. “This allows utilities to address the weaknesses in the infrastructure with precision.”
Climate change will have a significant effect on our water systems; we already know this. Making our water infrastructure more resilient through upgrading with precision and using technology to help harden critical infrastructure, we enable our utilities and their customers to ensure safe and secure water supplies in an uncertain future.
Image credit: Pixabay
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.