Smarter Water Distribution

A recent Pike Research report on the future of smart water metering in the U.S. highlights both the need for, and opportunities in, an advanced metering infrastructure for water utilities. With changes in weather patterns affecting the amount of rain that's falling on the U.S., getting a jump on water conservation-including upping the efficiency of water distribution-makes good economic and environmental sense.

According to the report, water scarcity is a near-term threat for the U.S. "when 36 states [are] expected to face water shortages by 2013." And, as noted in Camille Rickett's GreenBeat article, "Water gets smart: 31 million digital meters expected by 2016", there's interest in creating smarter infrastructure for water distribution, leveraging some of the technologies that have been developed (or are being developed) for the electrical Smart Grid. Not a bad idea, since many technologies under consideration for the Smart Grid are concerned with communication and data transfer and thus can be applied to other problems. Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI), for instance, with its two-way communications from meter to utility, could just as easily apply to water as to electricity.

Take a look at the precipitation data from NOAA, that shows the departure from normal amounts of precipitation for the contiguous U.S. states, from October 2009 to the present day. There's an awful lot of yellow and red showing for the western states and some portions of the east coast, where precipitation is below normal levels, while the midwestern states are (overall) getting plenty of rainfall. (For more fun with data, check out the National Drought Mitigation Center's Current Conditions page) The rainfall (or lack of it) directly affects the usable water supply which means that some areas of the country will be forced to more proactive in their water management efforts than others.

For the water utilities, the ability to identify and rectify water losses quickly and effectively means that more water is going to consumers, resulting in higher revenues for the utility. From an economic standpoint, it's a persuasive argument. As is the reality that potable water is valuable, precious, getting scarcer, and thus should not be wasted. However, water utilities vary greatly in size, funding, and enthusiasm for improvement. The small New Hampshire town in which I live, for instance, doesn't have the funds to do anything this complicated and a large number of its inhabitants rely on wells rather than the town water supply. Contrast that with the city of San Diego in California which serves a much larger population, has a more sophisticated and complicated water distribution system, and is actively working on improving its water treatment facilities and (faced with an increasingly severe water shortage) pushing hard for greater water conservation and efficiency of use.

As the Smart Grid is implemented and improved over the next several years, I do expect some of the relevant technologies to be applied to water distribution, although I suspect adoption will be very slow because utilities and taxpayers will balk at the price tag, regardless of the potential ROI. What do you think?