Smart water emerges in New Mexico

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By: SGN Staff

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By Neil Strother

 

Water system managers face some serious challenges: aging infrastructure, rising demand for water and difficulties obtaining needed funding for new projects, to name some of the more common ones.  These challenges were all noted in a recent Navigant Research webinar titled “Intelligent Water Networks.”  The challenges were also highlighted by the mayors of five U.S. cities in a recent water Utility Infrastructure Management roundtable discussion.  Their advice was to invest regularly in system upgrades, including new technologies to maintain service levels and increase efficiency.

 

Sounds easy, but it’s not.  One metro area making it look easier is Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The managers of the Albuquerque system (officially called the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority) have confronted the hurdles they face in a persistent drought environment with a combination of smarter, system-wide technology and long-term investing.

 

Ensuring Supply

Unlike other drought-plagued cities in the Southwest, Albuquerque has the advantage of some visionary leaders who in the mid-1960s agreed to take part in the San Juan-Chama water project.  It turned out to be a smart move.  Back then, surface water being diverted from San Juan-Chama into the Rio Grande was expected to provide a continuous re-supply of the city’s aquifer, ensuring a plentiful flow of groundwater in perpetuity.  It didn’t turn out that way.  By the mid-1990s, a federal study uncovered a disturbing reality: the aquifer’s water table was dropping at a fast clip, and simply relying on the aquifer would lead eventually to its depletion.

Avoiding Negative PR

The greater system intelligence has also paid off in averting negative publicity.  In one case, an elderly resident had left the area for several months while no one occupied the home.  Upon her return she received an exorbitant water bill.  She had a plumber check for leaks, but none was found.  Still, the granular meter data showed a significant leak, and when crews investigated further they discovered an installed water softener system was flushing for two and a half hours each night at 10 p.m.  The problem was fixed and the utility turned a potential P.R. headache into a constructive outcome.

 

The new smarter system “gives us eyes where we can’t be,” says Warren, who adds that the return on investment has taken less time than expected.  A detailed assessment of the ROI is still pending.

Clearly, not all smart water infrastructure deployments will have the same outcomes as Albuquerque’s.  Each utility operates under different circumstances, and regulatory guidelines.  For instance, San Francisco has installed smart water meters and is seeing operational cost benefits, but the utility was not mandated to cut per-user consumption as Albuquerque was.

 

And the water utility serving Nashville, Tenn., is shifting from automated water meters to smart versions to reduce costs and streamline operations, but unlike Albuquerque it has access to a plentiful supply of water from the Cumberland River.  Nonetheless, an intelligent system for water utilities can lead to greater efficiencies, and it’s reasonable to expect more utilities to follow in Albuquerque’s footsteps.

 

Neil Strother is a senior research analyst contributing to the Navigant Research Smart Grid practice, with a focus on smart metering technologies and related business practices.

 

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