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Actionable Intelligence to Inform Better Decision-Making Today and Tomorrow

July 14, 2021
Over the last eighteen months, cities on the frontline have been navigating the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The water sector faced its own unique challenges, as utilities across the country did their best to maintain essential services such as access to water and sanitation. Those who had implemented digital capabilities were far better equipped to weather the storm, focusing the industry’s attention on the role of digital solutions in promoting greater resiliency.

While the largest health and economic crisis of our time revealed just how fragile our water systems are, recent extreme weather events have also compounded the issue. However, digital solutions that promote greater system visibility can empower utilities to make informed decisions based on data and insight, allowing them to allocate resources accordingly and become more resilient in the face of unforeseen events. While digital disruption has been bubbling in the water sector for some time, solutions are advancing, and digital adoption is accelerating.

Take hydraulic modelling for example. Over the last few decades, hydraulic and hydrologic modelling has dramatically increased our understanding of urban watersheds, specifically the wastewater and stormwater infrastructure situated in urban settings. By leveraging data to understand the fluid flow in hydraulic structures, hydraulic modelling tools can help water managers simulate design alternatives, identify flow problems, develop solutions, and evaluate operating strategies.

Recently, advances in computing power, combined with advances and cost reductions in sensor and telemetry technologies, have also now made it possible for water managers to break new ground and reach a new echelon of opportunity. High-resolution models can now run in real-time, with real world precipitation data, while correcting critical downstream model nodes with observed sensor data.

The outcome is a continuously calibrated real time digital twin of the urban watershed to support effective and efficient operational decision making to enhance resiliency.

The Intelligent Urban Watershed

However, by combining the power of the Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics, machine learning and advanced control theory algorithms, there is potential to elevate this technology even further to create the ‘Intelligent Urban Watershed’ – a hyper-accurate model of the traditional urban watershed that can enhance what’s possible in terms of understanding water flow to gain optimal coordinated control of existing infrastructure.

High quality real-time forecast data, coupled with powerful self-learning capabilities, can improve watershed understanding with each wet weather event so infrastructure systems can automatically reconfigure in response to changing conditions. If the same platform is connected to all critical assets throughout the watershed, water managers gain full visibility and can understand the impact of what has happened in the recent past, what is happening now, and what is about to happen – all wrapped up in the knowledge of how to best respond.

Robust digital twins of the urban watershed, equipped with real time sensor and forecast data, converge to provide powerful operating systems to optimally manage critical assets. The same platform can simultaneously run multiple future exploratory models of infrastructure solution sets for planning considerations. This approach greatly improves the daily operations of the collection system while aggregating institutional knowledge from operators, planning engineers, and utility leadership, to inform more optimal capital infrastructure programs as well.

Intelligence In Action

Best of all, Intelligent Urban Watersheds can generate significant cost savings – sometimes in the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars – by getting the highest performance, capacity utilization and resilience from legacy infrastructure.

Simply put, these smart solutions are empowering cities to deliver more with less. For example, the City of Buffalo was experiencing nearly two billion gallons of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) annually, leading to an enforcement action requiring significant capital improvements to its collection system. By partnering with us to deploy a wastewater network optimization system, the city has reduced CSOs by 1.4 billion gallons per year in both 2019 and 2020. This program has empowered Buffalo to deliver its long term CSO control plan more economically, saving ratepayers over $145 million.

The innovative, real-time decision support system used a network of sensors and artificial intelligence to gain visibility into the city’s sewer systems, enabling operators to better manage storm and wastewater, avoid overflows and reduce discharges. With real-time situational awareness of critical data points throughout the system, operators now have the visibility needed to allocate resources effectively during severe weather events.

The Future Is Digital

Digital tools are empowering water utilities all over the U.S to understand, operate and increase the resiliency of legacy infrastructure throughout urban watersheds. As water challenges escalate, there is a growing realization that ignoring the advantages of digitization is no longer an option.

By highlighting the true impact of long-term disruption, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an impetus for enduring and widespread digital transformation in water utilities. By implementing systems that integrate advanced digital solutions, utilities become armed with actionable intelligence to inform better decision-making today, and tomorrow.



Written By: 
Tim Braun
Senior Director
Global Enterprise Architect
Xylem Inc.
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