The United Nations warns that two-thirds of the world's population could run short of water by 2025, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office says at least 36 states expect to face water shortages by 2013.
Experts in the emerging field of water IT seek to use digital technology to cut water waste, save energy and reduce costs. Last year, for instance, the Water Innovations Alliance launched a smart water grid initiative with IBM, Intel and HydroPoint Data Systems Inc. that's intended to bring advanced IT to water management.
"The reality is that the way we have set up water systems in this country isn't that different than what could have been set up in Roman times: rough, brutal and old-fashioned," said Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the Water Innovations Alliance. "But when we think of a smart water grid, on the other hand, we have the day-to-day effect to use water more smartly, use the right amount of chemicals and pressure, and use resources to combine against satellite data. To have a system where water resources give us feedback, that alone without making a single repair, can save between 30 to 50 percent of water that the system uses."
Such technology can help water utilities automate water systems, detect problem areas earlier, give customers tools to monitor water use, provide more accurate rates and reduce demand.
Across the country, 68 percent of water utility managers believe the adoption of smart meter technology is critical, and one-third of them are thinking about implementation, according to a 2010 Oracle study, which surveyed more than 300 water utility managers and 1,200 water consumers in the U.S. and Canada. But as economic stimulus funds trickle down from the federal government, will this smart technology be enough to block an impending water shortage?
In Fayette County, an expanse of peaks and valleys in West Virginia, about 12,000 residents will soon see the rise of smart water technology from their own front door.
West Virginia American Water -- part of American Water, a U.S. water and wastewater utility company that provides services to 20 states -- is installing a system that uses advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and continuous acoustic monitoring (CAM), which detects leaks by picking up a leak's acoustic signature. Water meters are linked together via wireless mesh technology to create an automatic metering infrastructure that enables two-way communication and provides real-time information about water usage, said Wayne D. Morgan, president of West Virginia American Water.
With this technology, Morgan said, "the utility can study data, prioritize the identified leaks by their estimated size and dispatch service technicians to fix them." Also, utility workers can call residents directly if the system triggers an alert.
"We can proactively contact a costumer and say 'Unless you've been filling up your swimming pool the past two days, you may have a toilet leak,'" he said.
This technology illustrates how smart water technology can help residents and municipalities not only stop wasting water, but also save money. According to American Water officials, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will finance 82 percent of the $4.7 million project, which was considered a green project for its potential to reduce water loss, vehicle emissions, energy consumption and pollution.
The new system, which will be in place by the end of 2010, could decrease the amount of water lost in the county by nearly one-third. In a pilot version of the program, Morgan said, the company saw payback in about two years. By pinpointing the leak before the main breaks, he added, a utility can prevent drastic amounts of water loss and property damage. Without the detection tools, leaks could turn ugly.
"If a leak is left unattended, it can undermine the street," Morgan said, "and you can see a
semi or a dump truck fall into that cavern created by the leak."
But as funding streams run dry in the recession, water utilities may choose to save money instead of making large investments such as smart water technology.
According to the Oracle survey, 75 percent of early adopters of smart meters have concerns with capital costs and 62 percent worry about operating costs. Survey responses from the entire industry reflect similar fears with implementing smart meter technology: 46 percent and 42 percent cited the lack of a measurable return on investment and up-front costs as the top two respective roadblocks.
In East Providence, R.I., the water department installed about 15,000 meters linked to radio units. Utility workers drive around with radio receivers to collect the water data remotely for billing. The process cuts billing editing time down from a few weeks to two or three days, said Water Department Superintendent Ken Booth.
In 2007, Booth said, the city installed an intelligent register called an E-Coder on each device that examines histories and backflow. If the devices detect any irregularities in water usage, the department sends a postcard to residents to inform them of a possible leakage problem.
Booth admits that he hasn't had the time to figure out the amount of savings generated from the smart meters in East Providence, but he's heard from residents that the meters help them stay informed, he said.
For other citizens, it's not an issue of money, but of privacy. Some critics have blasted the idea of an automated system that monitors water usage levels and can, in turn, inform the government when somebody's away on vacation.
"Don't bother sending me a notice for a new meter, I'll keep the old one that doesn't report my movements to big brother," one person wrote on a local news Web site. "Wake up people, they want to know everything about us. What's next? A vacation tax?"
In that regard, Booth said, the technology makes little difference: The water division retrieves the same information from the smart meters that they do from reading the old meters the old-fashioned way.
"A few people complained about how this is like Big Brother," Booth said. "I think that's a paranoid point of view. We can't listen in on anything in the house. We can't see anything in the house. We're only looking at water consumption. The social benefit far outweighs any concerns."
Over the next two years, Santa Clarita, Calif. will roll out a massive irrigation system over 700 acres that's expected to save more than 180 million gallons of water a year. The project is touted as the world's largest smart water management implementation.
The city's previous irrigation system required manual adjustments whenever the local weather conditions changed. This week, the city announced its partnership with HydroPoint, the manufacturer of the WeatherTRAK Internet-enabled, centralized irrigation controllers that will replace outdated irrigation timers in Santa Clarita's 40 landscape maintenance districts, including parks, medians and streetscapes.
The new controllers, according to the manufacturer, can adjust watering schedules automatically while eliminating the costs of weather station maintenance, telephone lines, wireless transmitters and additional equipment. Paid for by landscape maintenance district funds, the implementation will cost about $1.5 million for the controllers, installation, setup, training and regular reports, the project managers said. None of the city's general fund goes toward the project, officials said. With the new system, the city hopes to reduce annual water consumption and, as a result, costs by 20 to 40 percent.
"This is what we considered our lowest-hanging fruit with the most significant and quickest return," said Jason La Riva, landscape maintenance specialist for Santa Clarita. "Ultimately the driving force behind this program was to reduce our water
consumption. If we can knock out 20 to 40 percent right off the bat, this is a real significant contribution to our community and water conservation efforts statewide."
So can smart water technology save the world from running out of water?
There is no simple answer, mainly because the world water crisis is a myth, according to Asit K. Biswas, one of the world's leading authorities on water management. Biswas is the president of the Third World Centre for Water Management and winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize, the Nobel Prize of the water world. According to a new Centre report, titled Water Crisis: Myth or Reality?, he stresses the point that the world is not running out of water, but that water problems stem from a mismanagement of available resources.
"What we are facing is NOT a crisis in terms of physical water availability but a continuing crisis in water governance," the report said. "Water is being used very inefficiently in most countries of the world, and for nearly all purposes ... The water problems of the world are management-related and not supply-related. There is no question that current and future water problems can be solved with existing knowledge, technology and adoption of good practices. We need 'business unusual' approaches."