Water Supplier Digital Divide Threatens Supply Resilience

by | Aug 26, 2021

The old adage that “one is only as good as the weakest link” is particularly true for the water industry and frames a growing threat to the water supply resiliency of entire regions in California.   When the smallest public water suppliers lack the technology and data necessary to plan, fill supply gaps and safeguard security and water quality, unexpected system failure and disaster looms.  The task and cost of recovery may be borne by everyone in the supply chain through stretched supplies and greater competition for regional, state, and federal dollars, as well as increased water rates.   This will be the subject of a discussion at an upcoming session scheduled as part of the Annual U.S. EPA’s Water Workshop on Thursday, September 2, 2021. 

In 2020, Cal Mutuals conducted a survey of members’ data and technology uses and needs facilitated through a grant from Toshiba America, Inc.-Digital Solutions. The survey of over 300 water systems was coupled with focus groups and found that more than 40% of our small water system members are not using any technology to monitor wells, pumps, pump stations, meters, valves, tanks, reservoirs, and chemical levels.   Further, the majority of water systems report that some operators visit sites every day or multiple times per day and noted that many operators currently do not have access to monitor plant operations remotely away from the site.  Those with older technology simply don’t trust it because the manufacturers have stopped providing service and software updates, missing out on staffing efficiencies when they can’t afford replacements. 

Small water suppliers face added disadvantages in the legislative and regulatory arena when policies, regulations and plans affecting them are developed based on approximations, averages, and estimates of industry standards where no data exists.  This may result in earlier groundwater or surface water supply curtailments, unwarranted fines, or missed funding opportunities. 

Cal Mutuals has written a Primer to call attention to the growing digital divide between large / medium size water systems as compared with small water suppliers and invites discussion and engagement to identify potential solutions. 

Cal Mutuals has identified a few potential solutions as a start.  These include:

    1. Reformulating pricing and licensing structures for technology equipment, technology services and repair and maintenance to ensure that technology is within reach of small systems.
    2. Empowering regional water suppliers and larger agencies to provide help through economies of scale facilitated by joint purchasing arrangements and mutual aid agreements.
    3. Focusing a portion of state grants toward technology for small water suppliers.
    4. Encouraging peer to peer approaches to engender trust in technology and data.

Join us for our session (Session 8B) on Thursday, September 2, 2021, from 10 AM – 12 PM PST as part of the 18th Annual EPA Drinking Water Workshop: Small Systems Challenges and Solutions. Cal Mutuals will be joined by Joone Lopez of Moulton Niguel Water District and Donald Mah of Toshiba American Inc. Digital Solutions Division for a panel discussion “Closing the Digital Divide: Challenges and Solutions for Small Systems”. 

This free, public workshop is sponsored by the Office of Research and Development (ORD) and the Office of Water (OW), in partnership with the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA). To register for sessions, please visit EPA’s Workshop Website: https://www.epa.gov/water-research/18th-annual-epa-drinking-water-workshop-small-system-challenges-and-solutions

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