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America’s drinking water infrastructure system serves the public with 39 billion gallons of clean water every day, delivered through 2.2 million miles of underground pipes. In a single line, those pipes would wrap around the earth more than 88 times. But this vast and complex network is rapidly aging. In fact, according to ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, a water main breaks every two minutes, and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost each day. The report card recommends that utilities “implement asset management programs, tools, and techniques to evaluate asset condition and risk, and to prioritize capital and O&M decisions.” It further says, “states should provide funding, training and technical assistance for asset management programs.”

In response, utilities are beginning to adopt digital technologies to power robust asset management programs that can help monitor operations, prioritize capital investments, and better prepare for and respond to emergencies. Digital technologies help to build water utility assets more effectively, and the resulting digital twins of the physical assets can provide remarkable insight into their detailed operation. The resulting knowledge and visibility can improve performance and service to our communities as well as create a virtuous cycle to better inform both capital planning, O&M, and emergency preparedness and response.

But the tremendous advancement in technology presents challenges to utilities with limited budgets, deeply established manual and paper-based information processes, and a workforce that is not trained to implement the digital tools needed to enjoy the potential benefits. And regarding that workforce, the ASCE report forecasts that over 10% of water sector workers will retire or transfer in each of the next five years, with some utilities losing up to half of their staff within 10 years. So essential institutional knowledge is evaporating.

Digital Capabilities of U.S. Water Utilities

To benchmark the current digital readiness of this industry, Dodge Data & Analytics conducted a study of water utilities, underwritten by Bentley Systems, and published the findings as a free report: Digital Capabilities of US Water Utilities.

In a survey conducted by Dodge, utilities were asked to rate their organization’s current degree of proficiency for the eight categories of digital capabilities shown in the summary chart. To maintain consistency across all responses, individual task-specific definitions were provided to the respondents for each of the six levels of proficiency that they could select between.

The full report has complete details on each capability, but as this summary chart reveals:

  • Only a few utilities currently have high levels of capability for any of the digital skills studied; and
  • While the majority are generally in the mid-tier, many utilities report low or no capabilities for some of the most promising emerging digital processes such as real-time asset management, leveraging digital twins or using digital context (i.e., laser scans).

The report also details how utilities are addressing digital priorities; for example, showing that half to two-thirds have little or no capabilities to manage asset information in real time, a critical aspect of a robust asset management program.

As well as assessing the current state, the report sheds light on utilities’ obstacles to advancing their digital capabilities, including:

  • Organizational challenges such as resistance to change, lack of understanding of the value of digital tools and processes, and lack of alignment on digital goals; and
  • Functional issues such as poor data quality, insufficient funding, lack of internal digital skills and inadequate IT infrastructure.

Encouragingly, the report also reveals:

  • Most (87%) of utilities are currently engaged in collecting a wide variety of types of data from their assets, although 50% of those acknowledge they could do more;
  • Two-thirds of the utilities that currently collect data are already sharing information frequently between internal groups, so better information will circulate freely to everyone’s benefit; and
  • Capital planning staff at utilities are generally more digitally capable than their counterparts in O&M, and emergency preparedness, so engineers and contractors working with these departments should have a ready audience to engage with digital project design and delivery processes that establish a digital framework for downstream uses during operation.
Opportunity for Engineering and Construction

Federal and state/local governments are aware of the pressing need for capital investment in the country’s water system. And it is significant. ASCE’s 2020 study, “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure: How a Failure to Act Would Affect the U.S. Economic Recovery” says the annual drinking water and wastewater investment gap will grow to $434 billion by 2029.

Numerous Dodge research studies over the years have shown that digital design and construction for infrastructure reduces project durations and improves cost, schedule, safety and quality performance. So, if engineers and contractors implement digital tools across their project teams for water projects, they can not only improve their performance but help utilities to ensure an ever-improving future for our national water infrastructure.

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