The Digital Dividend: How Innovation is Changing the Way We Manage Water

wet light bulb

By Tim Braun & OJ McFoy

Utility leaders often dedicate considerable time to finding ways to close gaps. Between aging water infrastructure, the impacts of climate change, and limited budgets to pay for upgrades, the job is often about finding ways to “do more with less”.

That imperative requires innovative thinking, as demonstrated by the utilities already enjoying cost-savings and efficiency benefits from the “digital dividend.”

Bridging Gaps

It has been almost a decade since the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) found itself managing one of these gaps, one that was hundreds of millions of dollars wide.

In the City of Buffalo, New York, a mid-20th-century sewer design was showing its age. Nearly two billion gallons of combined sewer overflow (CSO) were discharged into waterways annually. Regulators stepped in, leaving BSA with a Long-Term Control Plan for CSO abatement that would have cost up to half a billion dollars.

For a population of just over a quarter of a million people, this was simply unaffordable. BSA needed to think and act differently to solve this challenge.

Buffalo’s sewers were built to serve a much larger population. The key to solving their CSO issues was finding a way to adapt the city’s abundance of infrastructure so the system could run differently during wet weather.

Working with Xylem, BSA deployed digital technology to create a decision support system that can visualize, predict, and control flows, regardless of the weather. Like the traffic app you have in your car, the sewer system uses data from sensors across the network to pinpoint buildups. When one part of the network is under pressure, the city can redirect flow to an underutilized one, all while providing BSA operators a visualization of their system in real-time.

The technology allowed BSA to use its existing network to solve a longstanding problem without spending city resources on new infrastructure, and the results have been transformative. Within the first 12 months, CSO volumes were reduced by 450 million gallons, and the city reaped an initial digital dividend of $145 million in savings.

BSA continues embrace innovation and incorporate technology across its network. This digitally forward approach will allow the utility to continue to reduce the size and number of costly new infrastructure projects for decades to come.

Embracing the Ripple Effect

In April of this year, the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN) cited rising population rates, federal and local regulatory demands, deteriorating infrastructure, environmental challenges, and limited or competing budgets as some of the key issues sparking the adoption and acceleration of smart water technologies. According to Bluefield Research, global water and wastewater utility sector expenditure on digital solutions is forecasted to grow 8.8% annually, from $25.9 billion in 2021 to $55.2 billion (USD)
in 2030.

Each utility’s experience will be different, and everyone will have a different gap to bridge.

Over the past year, Xylem spoke in detail with global water, wastewater, and stormwater utility leaders and experts to pull back the curtain on their experience. The output of this research – “Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation” – showed that technology is a means to an end. One of the common themes in successful digital transformation is that the technology aligns with the broader strategic goals and is used where it can deliver value.

While data-driven technologies are becoming a greater part of smart water, the successful uptake of innovative tools remains largely dependent on a utility’s biggest asset – its people.

Breaking Open the Black Box

The water industry tends to speak a lot about technology. What isn’t talked about enough is culture.

Within utilities, there is often another gap, an information chasm between teams. Digital offerings tend to be siloed. This isn’t necessarily by design or intent, it’s simply a reflection of how the technologies and tools built to serve utilities have been developed for and within those silos.

For many utilities, modern culture is the manifestation of the age-old sentiment of “that’s how we’ve always done it.” For digital to succeed as a core strategy, utilities must foster an organization-wide digital culture and intrinsically involve operators.

Initially, BSA kept its real-time control strategy, technology, and algorithms apart from its team of operators. The project was protected inside a black box.

It was only when BSA daylighted the strategy, breaking open the black box and turning it over to its operators that the project flourished. By looking at digital challenges and solutions from both a top-down and a bottom-up approach, utilities can truly reap the benefits.

In a water sector at the intersection of aging infrastructure, climate change, and tight budgets, putting operators in the driver’s seat and building a culture of innovation can bridge gaps and deliver a digital dividend for communities.

Tim Braun was appointed vice president of enterprise solutions at Xylem in 2022, having joined the company following Xylem’s acquisition of EmNet in 2018. Braun is a clean tech entrepreneur and has focused on water and renewable energy technologies since 2007.

Oluwole A. (OJ) McFoy is CEO & General Manager at Buffalo Sewer Authority. He is a passionate public servant and water sector executive with more than two decades of leadership in advancing innovative strategies, delivering large scale multi-million-dollar capital projects and expanding equitable public health policies.

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