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Making the Most of this Watershed Moment in Water Infrastructure

Making the Most of this Watershed Moment in Water Infrastructure

By Amy Bunszel

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) reflects a turning point in infrastructure. The $1.2 trillion investment signals broad public recognition that our nation’s transportation and water networks need to be repaired and modernized. While the historic levels of funding put our infrastructure on a stronger path to wellness, they won’t get us over the finish line. The next step is for the public sector to take a hard look not just at what we build, but how we build and operate our infrastructure. In the water sector, we’ve seen what can be accomplished when we digitize the planning, design, construction, and operations of water systems and urge policymakers to focus on smart water technology adoption to unlock efficient, safe, and sustainable water management for all.

Utilities demonstrate today how smart water tools can save costs and increase productivity from design and planning to construction, operations, and maintenance. When the EPA required the city of Toledo, Ohio, to upgrade its water system after a toxic algal bloom, the city ran a completely digital design process in the cloud and collaborated across geographies and time zones. Using reality capture and augmented reality, the project team created precise representations of site conditions and enabled virtual visits. The process saved thousands of hours—which saves taxpayer dollars—and enabled on-time completion, even during the pandemic.

Utilities are experiencing incredible results from digitized water infrastructure asset management programs, like that of Ross Valley Sanitary District (RSVD), one of California’s oldest sanitary districts. Under regulatory pressure for ongoing failures, the wastewater system adopted a risk-based asset management program that included digital tools, software, and training. RSVD’s approach reduced sewer overflows by half over a three-year period and exceeded regulatory requirements. RSVD continues to expand its digital-first approach, using dashboards to track metrics related to everything from manhole and pipe repairs to incidents and inspections, leveraging the data to improve decision-making across the system.

These examples show how the digitalization of infrastructure extends the life of public assets and maximizes the use of the world’s most precious resource. Digital asset management enables real-time insights and predictive maintenance capabilities to ensure safe and reliable service for the public. Technology can help communities simulate the effects of too much or too little water and develop design alternatives to avoid those challenges. Advanced digital design gives utility managers the data to measure, track, predict, and ultimately, reduce pollutants and sewage overflow.

The technology exists to help maximize our water infrastructure investments, and now we need new policies to promote adoption, such as:

  • Federal funding that gives flexibility to states, localities, and utilities to leverage technology to innovate and improve upon water infrastructure design, construction, and management methods,
  • Support for states, local governments, and utilities to develop and maintain active, up-to-date digital asset management plans for water infrastructure to give water managers the data and insights needed to streamline systems management and enhance sustainability,
  • Federal guidance and education on use of smart water tools to prevent or resolve Clean Water Act and other regulatory violations,
  • And prioritization of digital water tools to monitor and adjust water distribution in real time to mitigate drought impacts and better manage limited water resources.

Autodesk recently joined the US Water Alliance, an organization that convenes a diverse group of water champions working towards a sustainable future for all. In the policy debate, we expect water will continue to be a priority beyond the BIL. The Water Resources Development Act reauthorization expected in 2022 and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda offer additional opportunities to transform how we provide reliable and resilient services to utility customers.

We’re in a defining moment in the movement to protect our water resources. Aging infrastructure, climate change-induced flooding and droughts, and lead and emerging contaminants, have brought much-needed attention to our water systems. The private and public sectors are coming together to act, and progress is being made. But it will take more attention, more innovation, and maximizing our investments to tackle these challenges. Let’s move forward together, boldly.

Amy Bunszel is Executive Vice President for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Design Solutions at Autodesk. She manages product and industry strategy and execution for Autodesk’s 3D design portfolio including the Autodesk Architecture, Engineering and Construction Collection, AutoCAD family, Autodesk Revit, and more. Bunszel holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a member of the President’s Council for Cornell Women working toward success of women at Cornell and beyond.