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Two Cities Share How AI Is Improving Their Water Utilities

As local water departments look to modernize their infrastructure with available technology, several cities are already laying out a model that utilizes artificial intelligence.

pipes under city
<a href="http://www.Shutterstock.com" target="_blank" > Artwork from Shutterstock </a>
Artificial intelligence (AI) offers government utilities a transformative opportunity to improve public service, update outdated processes and centralize data. In particular, water utilities can use AI to make timely repairs and adjustments in a way that poses fewer inconveniences for citizens.

One way to facilitate such AI modernization within water utilities is through public-private partnerships. Cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Newark, N.J., are leading by example.

Tucson

Tucson teamed up with VODA.ai in August 2020 to bring AI technology to its water infrastructure systems. Prior to using AI technology as a tool, the city relied on pipe-break history and human judgment to drive maintenance projects. In a press release announcing the partnership, interim Assistant City Manager and former Tucson Water director Tim Thomure stated that prior to the partnership, there was limited data available to make expensive maintenance decisions. Thomure believes that VODA.ai will help save water and costs by allowing Tucson Water to make more informed decisions. 

According to John Kmiec, interim director of Tucson Water, human experience previously helped dictate where to spend capital improvement project (CIP) funds. He described the potential for error and subjectivity with this method. For example, two people may have different opinions regarding the status of a pipeline, but whoever routes the funding may cause one project to get chosen over another. Kmiec believes that coupling human experience with AI technology will help the city decide what replacements need to be made with greater confidence.

VODA.ai was chosen through a pilot study that was conducted to determine which AI company would be the right fit to help Tucson be more proactive in infrastructure planning, Kmiec said. For this study, Tucson Water interviewed staff members about what they thought a hierarchy of critical pipeline replacements might be. Each hierarchy reflected a staff member's personal knowledge of pipe-break history and where problems had occured. The team also gathered information on pipe breaks from their asset management system.

In short, the AI program was able to better predict pipeline failures than its human counterparts, showing that the technology could help lead Tucson Water in the right direction.

“The end game of this is to be able to utilize capital improvement project dollars more effectively,” Kmiec said.

The use of AI can ultimately benefit the Tuscon community by ensuring Tuscon Water can plan for repairs. Kmiec said reactive approaches to infrastructure failures tend to lead to a lot of disruption for the community, impacting traffic patterns that affect people's day-to-day schedules. In contrast, with a more preventative strategy, pipeline replacements can be scheduled prior to breaks with proper funding to make the process as smooth and transparent as possible. 

Tucson Water continues to modernize its systems with technology, with an asset management system update and large-scale solar projects in the works.

“We want to be as sustainable and resilient of a utility as possible moving forward,” said Kmiec.

While it's too early in the process to see data on cost savings through VODA.ai, Kmiec stated the department is confident that it is hitting the right points. 

Newark

Newark Water and Sewer also adopted AI to make more informed decisions and to take a more proactive approach to improving water infrastructure, according to Tiffany Stewart, assistant director of the utility. 

The department is using two artificial intelligence systems for unique purposes. The first, Fontus Blue, is being used to gather and monitor data to predict necessary water treatment and quality adjustments. After interviewing multiple firms, the department ultimately chose Fontus Blue for its ability to preemptively identify problems. 

The second system is a compliance program built by Newark to ensure regulatory requirements are met by organizing the necessary reports and workers responsible for submitting them. This tool allows the department to have a centralized management system so that the department can more easily follow all state and federal regulations. 

As Stewart described, the regulatory process is expensive and requires a lot of reporting, so the team has been extremely receptive to this new technology. She noted the program’s benefits for the parties responsible for information input. For example, if a chemist at the lab is responsible for reporting on pH, they can go into the tool and click a link, which will take them directly to the associated regulation. The tool also benefits management by making information on the system’s chemical treatment processes easily accessible. Such information allows executive-level staff to have more productive conversations with the Department of Environmental Protection.

The technology also increases transparency with the community. Stewart said that people sometimes call the treatment plant directly with questions after they receive a notice in the mail. While the software platform’s data is not publicly available, the repository allows staff to understand what is occurring within a system on a particular day while answering questions.

In recent years, transparency with the community has been a fundamental piece of Mayor Ras Baraka’s efforts to upgrade the city's infrastructure and technology. According to Stewart, under Baraka’s administration, the city has invested over $170 million in infrastructure improvements and technology. The administration has emphasized the value of water as a key resource.

“He’s been very committed to investing in that asset and improving upon and protecting that asset, and so having that technological piece has been extremely helpful,” Stewart stated.

The department is also looking to expand its use of AI with additional data collection on the Newark Watershed. This data will be fed into the Fontus Blue software, ultimately improving its predictive ability. Newark’s 37,000 acres of forested lands protect the city’s watershed, with five reservoirs in that area.

Stewart said the department is now installing devices that monitor water quality in each of the reservoirs and throughout the watershed itself to get real-time information on water quality on a more continuous basis. The system will allow the team on any given day to make decisions about water quality adjustments. 

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Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
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