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Water system providers worry about aging equipment, weather challenges

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SALT LAKE CITY — A survey of more than 450 water industry entities — the majority of which deliver drinking water to the tap — lists aging infrastructure, extreme weather conditions and changing consumption habits as top concerns.

The “Strategic Directions: U.S. Water Industry Report” echoes critical worries listed by Utah's largest water providers and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which all point to huge financial investments that are necessary to fix leaking pipes and failing dams, and make technological upgrades to existing wastewater treatment facilities.

Black & Veatch, a global company specializing in infrastructure projects for energy, water, telecommunications and other government services, conducted the survey of 454 public and private water utilities in March, with more than 60 percent of respondents identifying water supply and water scarcity as the most significant climate issue.

As Utah and the rest of the West struggle with the aftermath of a fourth year of drought, that climate change concern and how it may affect water supplies in the future resonates among water providers.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently issued an executive order, calling on state agencies to cut their water use and conduct an analysis of where turf could be replaced with less consumptive vegetation.

The Utah Division of Water Resources on Friday announced, too, that if residents were to follow the agency's weekly lawn watering guide, more than 24 billion gallons of water could be saved during the outdoor irrigation season.

"The weekly lawn watering guide is a simple tool that, if Utahns really use, could result in substantial water savings. And by substantial, we mean more than 24 billion gallons between April and October. That’s billion with a capital ‘B,’” said Eric Klotz, the division's water conservation and education section manager.

The division estimates that about 74,000 acre-feet of water could be saved during those months.

Curiously, water conservation and demand management are not the top climate change mitigation steps being taken by water utility companies, according to the Black & Veatch report.

Providers instead picked energy management as their No. 1 action, a strategy that by itself does not directly provide a new water supply or stave off flooding concerns.

California, which is experiencing its worst recorded drought in history, is implementing a host of draconian measures to weather the shortages of drought.

Utah, while not in the same dire circumstances, has a number of cities and water districts that have implemented reductions and called for voluntary measures to reduce water consumption.

"All the water we will ever have, we have right now; thus, the world must survive on a finite resource. Yet the demand is not finite," the report said. "What is certain is that the problem of scarce water will confront many utilities and their end users in the near future. Water utility systems are among the least visible aspects of our metropolitan infrastructure, and they have often been among the least discussed. This needs to change."

The report added that data sensors, intelligent metering and cloud-based analytics software offer utility managers "real-time" information about consumption, demand and vulnerabilities in the system.

"The current environment is ripe for taking advantage of smart technology, particularly with aging infrastructure in major cities in the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard and water scarcity in the Southwest," the analysis concluded. But still, "aspiration is outpacing tangible progress."

As some areas adopt smart technology that can track pedestrian traffic patterns, automate street lighting for energy efficiency or tap into wireless sensors for air quality, the report found that 40 percent of water utilities did not know if there was a move afoot to make that transformation that involved them, which indicated to the authors that water systems are being "left out" of the conversation.

That exclusion, the authors said, is a concern given water's necessary role in economic development and population growth.

In Utah, smart technology is just beginning to catch on with water delivery systems.

Metering of secondary water systems is a big push being undertaken at the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which is the largest geographic provider of water in the state.

In May 2014, Park City made a $2 million investment in smart technology, and officials there are confident the real-time information for consumers will demonstrate a water savings.

At the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, a $2.7 million "smart" system is being installed over the next year for 8,800 retail, residential and commercial customers with no rate increase accompanying the upgrade.

Bart Forsyth, the district's assistant general manager, said the project was first envisioned in 2010 and budgeted as a capital expenditure the district believes will pay for itself.

While the smart meters will help the district discern pressure points such as leaks or other inefficiencies, Forsyth said the star feature of the system is the software that will allow customers to see in real time their water use, such as how much was used the night before when the sprinklers came on.

"What it really comes down to is providing some meaningful information for our customers when it comes to their water use," he said.

The district plans to send out periodic reports to users that provide a comparison of a household's water use to that of surrounding homes, broken down by efficiency standards.

"This social norming has proven to be very powerful in changing behavior and achieving additional water conservation results," Forsyth said.

Because the district actually has a small retail base and delivers wholesale water to municipal customers such as the cities of West Jordan, South Jordan and Riverton, as well as improvement districts, Forsyth said the hope is to convince other entities to make the investment in similar technology.

"We want to be able to showcase this system and offer our assistance in implementing this in these service areas," he said.

Forsyth said he believes such a transformation is an easy sell.

"We want to convert our customers from being ratepayers to educated consumers," he said. "And with smartphones and what's available out there, I believe our customers are crying out for this. I think they want this information. They want to be able to see their water use and compare it with others."

As consumption habits change, a water provider's bottom line is going to be negatively affected, but maintenance costs will remain the same, the report notes.

More than 48 percent of utility companies surveyed said they plan to increase base or fixed charges to offset declining revenues, reflecting a trend toward charging customers to "access" systems beyond rates purely based on consumption.

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