How smart-water technology is helping solve the water crisis—one drop at a time

As water scarcity concerns loom, better solutions are needed. Smart-water technology uses data to better manage "digital-water" resources, improving efficiency and sustainability.

smart water technology Morro Bay, California

Cheryl Goldberg

February 26, 2020

min read
  • Water scarcity is becoming a significant issue globally, with 17 countries, representing a quarter of the world's population, facing extreme water stress.

  • In response, water utilities are beginning to embrace "digital water" strategies, which involves a shift towards smart-water technology, from big-data solutions to advanced management of distribution networks.

  • Black & Veatch, a major proponent of digital-water strategies, integrates sensor data across plant infrastructure systems, applies analytics and artificial intelligence to improve water operations, enhance sustainability, and control costs.

  • As water plants become increasingly digitized, concerns about cybersecurity are growing.

  • However, Black & Veatch envisions a growing number of digital-water applications throughout the water value chain to improve environmental sustainability, optimize energy production, and enhance visibility of operations.



Places all over the world are running out of water. Large swaths of South Africa, Brazil, India, and Australia—17 countries in all, representing a quarter of the world’s people—face “extremely high” water stress. Growing populations, increased urbanization, and climate change have landed the water crisis in the top five global risks each year since 2012, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

It’s increasingly clear that water utilities must rethink the way they plan and maintain water infrastructure. Many are embracing “digital water”—a digital transformation toward smart-water technology, from big-data solutions to advanced management of distribution networks.

Black & Veatch of Overland Park, KS, is a major proponent of digital-water strategies. Founded in 1915, the engineering and construction consulting firm specializes in infrastructure development for water and other markets. The company supports every aspect of the water industry, helping clients collect, store, and treat water and wastewater; plan and manage watersheds; harness energy from water treatment; and improve sustainability.

Black & Veatch integrates sensor data from across plant infrastructure systems into a single version of “truth,” then applies analytics and artificial intelligence to improve water operations, ensure greater sustainability, and rein in costs.

“Digital water lets us look at the infrastructure as a whole, not just individual assets,” says Michael Etheridge, chief engineer for Black & Veatch’s Water Group. “As the data becomes more integrated, plant operators can gain better insights into the relationships between data sets. This process helps identify correlation and causation between aspects of a system that humans can’t easily spot, so we can optimize operations. We can also use the data as part of an integrated simulation system that shows the impact of decisions before they’re implemented.”

Optimizing plant efficiency

Black & Veatch rendering of water treatment facility in Morro Bay, CA
A rendering of the new Morro Bay, CA, plant Image courtesy of Black & Veatch.

Black & Veatch is building a new water-reclamation facility in Morro Bay, CA, to replace the coastal city’s aging wastewater-treatment plant. The new facility will help the city discontinue the discharge of treated wastewater to the ocean and create a new sustainable and local water resource. With the capacity to meet up to 80% of Morro Bay’s water needs, the plant will include advanced treatment processes, allowing the use of treated water to replenish groundwater supplies while complying with stringent regulations.

In most plants, wastewater treatment begins when water flows from sewers and storm drains into a headworks facility, where it is filtered to remove stones and other inorganic matter. Chemicals and gravity precipitate suspended solids, which are pumped out and processed separately. The remaining water flows to a biological treatment plant that removes nitrogen phosphorus–related nutrients through aeration. Additional settling or filtration processes may be provided to remove other suspended solids.

Depending on regulatory requirements, the water might then be chlorinated or UV-disinfected, then released into a river or used for nonpotable services such as golf-course irrigation. In Morro Bay, additional filtration and treatment will make the water suitable for indirect potable use, where the treated water is returned to the water cycle through groundwater injection or pumped to a water-treatment plant to bring the water to potable-quality levels.

Plants have long used automation to streamline these water-treatment processes, eliminating manual data collection. Pressure sensors, flow meters, and other devices (used to measure chlorine, residual pH in the water, and more) feed automated plant-control systems that turn pumps on and off, filter backwash, and adjust chemical-feed rates. Digital-water concepts extend the use of that data to integrate it with related operational information and optimization algorithms to support improved operations from both quality and cost perspectives.

Using a cloud-based machine-learning technology called ASSET360 (developed by Black & Veatch subsidiary Atonix Digital), “Operators will be able to more quickly spot anomalies in operation,” Etheridge says. “They can also find less-obvious correlations that can lead to operational optimizations. For example, operators know that temperature impacts wastewater treatment, but machine learning might tell them that when the water temperature is below 50 degrees, using more of a particular chemical might increase the length of time before a filter requires cleaning, reducing labor and other costs.”

Better data integration and sharing

smart water technology morro bay plant rendering detail
A detail of the new headworks structure Image courtesy of Black & Veatch.

As the designer of the new Morro Bay plant, Black & Veatch is helping improve the project’s operational and maintenance efficiency and reducing costs. Unlike most construction projects where designers, contractors, and owners do not share data, Black & Veatch is working closely with all of the key players “to make data shareable and reusable at each stage across the project value chain, from planning to design to estimation, procurement, construction, safety, and quality assurance,” Etheridge says. Black & Veatch designs the project using Autodesk Revit, Dynamo, and Forge, easing data exchange between the BIM model and other applications.

Etheridge says Autodesk BIM 360 and Forge allow better integration and help the team get more out of the data, including sharing it with external stakeholders. “Say we specify a pump,” he says. “Previously, we would provide enough information so the contractor could buy it. The contractor would ask the supplier for information on how to install and start the pump. Then the owner would request preventative or predictive maintenance information and manually load that data into the computerized maintenance system to track maintenance requirements and raise work orders. Now, we pull data from the vendor as we’re designing the pump and pass it along to the contractor and the owner. The deliverable is a BIM model that includes the physical representation and data for use in maintenance, eliminating manual data entry.”

Using ASSET360, Black & Veatch can also combine design data with plant-control systems and Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data to supplement the vendor’s preventative maintenance with predictive analysis. “The manual might say a pump doesn’t need to be replaced, but vibration or heat might suggest it should be maintained sooner to avoid a costly failure,” Etheridge says. “Data helps optimize operations and maintenance resources by reducing the time operators spend on mundane tasks or by extending equipment life through data-driven maintenance.”

Security, sustainability, savings

As water plants become increasingly digitalized, concern about cybersecurity grows. Unless systems are properly secured, hackers could potentially wreak havoc, for example, by taking control of facilities and adjusting settings that impact water quality and safety. Etheridge suggests that water plants build cybersecurity protections into specs when building or upgrading facilities, segregate process-facing data on a private network, train staff about threats and best practices, and perform ongoing security audits.

But potential security threats are unlikely to stop the flow of digital water. Black & Veatch envisions a growing number of digital-water applications throughout the water value chain. Plants can improve environmental sustainability by turning waste into energy. Solids that settle out of wastewater can be treated to break down and produce methane gas. This gas can run generators that produce electricity, which can be sold back to the grid or used to power the plant. “Data can optimize energy production and help plant operators understand the best way to use that energy,” Etheridge says.

Municipalities might also combine IoT data with population data to decide which capital projects provide the best return or to communicate with consumers in real time about water availability and quality. “Better data integration is really about enhancing visibility, optimizing operations, and having the data to back that up,” Etheridge says. “And when we do make changes, we can see savings and actual cost benefits coming back.”

Cheryl Goldberg

About Cheryl Goldberg

Cheryl J. Goldberg specializes in writing and editing marketing content for technology companies.

Recommended for you