March 31, 2010 By Russell Nichols
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