Government Technology

Mixing Water with Wireless

October 31, 2003 By

In Broward County, Fla., when it rains, it pours -- an average of 43 inches per year. That's during the wet season, though, which lasts roughly from June through November. For the rest of the year, the county receives about 17 inches of rain. The annual feast or famine rule for rainfall occurs throughout much of south Florida, a state that relies on groundwater for 95 percent of its drinking needs.

Home to 1.6 million people, Broward must manage its water supply closely, thanks to the extremes in the weather cycle, and it must make sure the water quality remains high. Like so many fast-developing jurisdictions, the situation isn't getting better. The county expects its population to reach 2 million by 2020 and water use to more than double by the same time -- to 360 million gallons per day from the current rate of 155 million gallons per day.

All that growth will put a strain on maintaining water quality and infrastructure in Broward. Without a good management program, pollution problems could arise, and with them, costly remedies. But Broward has a top-notch water monitoring program in operation, and part of its success is due to mobile technology.

Since 2001, the county's Department of Planning and Environmental Protection has used POSSE -- a work management system running on mobile computers -- to monitor underground storage tanks. Every day, inspectors fan out into the field, conducting inspections and inputting valuable data on their laptops. At the end of the day, reports are posted to the department's servers, and customers -- storage tank owners -- have access to the reports over the Internet.

The new application has improved worker productivity and slashed the use of paperwork, according to Jeffrey Halsey, environmental licensing manager for the department. The system works so well that Florida is pursuing a similar statewide program, he said.

Pay More, Use Less

You would expect Broward County -- which sits on a single source aquifer and Florida -- with its heavy reliance on groundwater for drinking, to have aggressive water-monitoring programs. But water monitoring and its related costs are growing throughout the country.

There are 160,000 public drinking water systems in the United States serving 268 million people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency -- the majority are ground water systems, which are highly susceptible to pollution from leaking tanks and other sources.

As residential development grows and water distribution systems age, the cost of having clean drinking water grows. Water mains break more than 237,000 times each year in the United States, and cost estimates for rebuilding, repairing or replacing broken pipes and ageing water utility systems range from $151 billion to $1 trillion.

Broward County's mobile inspection system may seem like a minor cog in an enormous wheel, but technology -- especially the wireless variety -- is going to play an increasingly important role in helping to monitor problems and mitigate costly repairs.

Two cities in Utah have deployed water monitoring systems that rely on wireless technology. Salt Lake City and Park City use technology from the Hach Company and Wireless Systems Inc. that remotely measures water quality in real time and transmits the results to water officials.

This type of remote water monitoring is feasible thanks to use of control channels on cellular networks. Control channels are used for data transmission, and operate with considerable capacity to provide administrative services, such as billing, to the wireless carriers. They provide national coverage and operate at low cost. In recent years, a number of firms have begun using the control channel to provide reliable remote monitoring services to business firms.

Minding the Hardware

Aside from the water quality project in Utah, numerous cities are using wireless technology for remote monitoring of pipes, valves, meters and other parts of infrastructure that make

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