Photo by Keith Larson
“It’s crucial to get IT and OT together and secure management buy-in. After these relationships are established, everything gets easier.” Jason Wirtz, City of Sioux Falls, and a group of water/wastewater panelists discussed digitalization and the responsibilities it brings.

Water industry takes the plunge on modernization

Nov. 16, 2022
Automation Fair panelists discussed digitalization and the responsibilities it brings.

Just like most supportive industries, water/wastewater is usually invisible until something goes wrong. However, with so many new challenges like digitalization, cybersecurity and sustainability crowding in, the industry is having to stand up and be counted on how it’s addressing these issues.

To provide some much-needed experiences and insight, the Water/Wastewater Industry Forum and its panelists took a comprehensive look at all sides of these topics on the opening day of Automation Fair in Chicago.

Leading off, moderator Eric Bindler, senior research director at Bluefield Research, framed the discussion with several salient findings about the state of water/wastewater and related disciplines:

The global digital water market is expected to grow by more than 8% during 2021-30.
  • Eight in 10 water utilities saw their digital comfort levels increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Only 1.5% of global water utilities serve more than 100,000, which means most are much smaller.
  • Distributed denial of service (DDoS) on global utilities increased by more than 223% during 2019-20.
  • The average cost of an operations technology (OT) cybersecurity incident is $3 million.
  • Sixty-six percent of U.S. water utilities allot less than 5% of their budgets for OT cybersecurity.
  • Twenty-one separate billion-dollar natural disasters occurred per year in the United States so far in the 2020s, compared to just three per year in the 1980s.
  • The water industry has a 2% share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Electricity prices in the United States increased 25.4% per year from July 2021 to July 2022.
  • Growing pains = vulnerabilities

    To handle the particular combinations of these challenges, the forum’s panelists shared details of their current projects and operations.

    “We’re presently doing a $215 million plant expansion to expand our capacity from 21 million gallons per day (mgd) to 30.1 mgd because the city has grown so much, so we need to do more digital data capture to find more leaks and act on other issues,” said Jason Wirtz, controls technician in the public works department in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We spent $136,000 per year on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system software licensing and hardware over the last three years, and we expect that budget to increase by $20,000 per year over the next three years.”

    On a similar expansion path, Mark McKinney, director of cyber and physical security at engineering consultant Tetra Tech, reported it’s developing a cybersecurity program for the drinking and wastewater systems relied on by one of the top 10 metropolitan municipalities. “We started by assessing their controls environment that has about 300 HMI screens and sought to stabilize their processes by adopting standard procedures and technologies, which could also help with their skills shortage due to retirements,” said McKinney. “Next, we’ll further standardize with a technical refresh of their master plant and modernize by refraining from using end-of-life equipment.”

    Though most water/wastewater utilities haven’t standardized on a particular cybersecurity standard yet, McKinney reported that many will likely implement a version of the well-known North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP) procedures and recommendations soon. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also published some steps for cybersecurity, so we’ll probably use some of them as well,” added McKinney.

    Desalination and system integration

    Even from a global perspective, Fritz van Rooij, operational technology manager at IDE Technologies, reported it’s facing similar difficulties and opportunities at the desalination plants it installs for clients in China, Israel and elsewhere worldwide.

    “We’re constantly innovating to optimize system integration, introduce autopilot functions and increase the flexibility and efficiency at our plants,” says van Rooij. “We’ve been incorporating digital-twin models of centrifugal pumps into our SCADA systems for two decades. They compare physical performance against virtual to analyze performance degradation, virtualize pump flows at various speeds that aren’t feasible for physical flowmeters and let users optimize efficiency.”

    Van Rooij added that IDE also employs digital twins to manage restoration of all-important reverse osmosis (RO) membranes and expects to save $0.5 million to $1.5 million at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant for the next five years by extending the life of its RO membranes. “These digital twins test the long-term effectiveness of various maintenance policies before physical implementation,” explained Van Rooij.

    Back in the United States, Jeff Krawczyk, vice president of sales and business development at system integrator Commerce Controls (CCI), reported that it completed an upgrade, digital transformation and sustainability project that included 144 motor control centers (MCCs) that are networked to their starters, soft starters and variable frequency drives (VFDs). “We’re responsible for putting the systems together and connecting the OEMs,” said Krawczyk. “For a water treatment plant in southwest Florida, we have cybersecurity in place, such as firewalls and DMZs, and they do internal network traffic monitoring.”

    Secure transformation to-do list

    To overcome the obstacles of achieving digital transformation, Wirtz reported that public utilities must also convince the budgetary authorities in their municipalities of the value of digitalizing to collect more and better data to improve future decision-making. “We spent 15 years on SCADA and collecting data from every well and lift station, but the question is: How much has to be spent before benefits are seen?” asked Wirtz. “Once we get the data in, we make better decisions, and it gives people the seed of an idea that they want more. Once this process gets started, it’s fun to see it grow. It’s also crucial to get IT and OT together and secure management buy-in. After these relationships are established, everything gets easier.”

    Krawczyk reported that digitalization, cybersecurity and sustainability efforts are even altering how projects are conducted by end users, systems integrators, contractors and suppliers. “In the midwestern United States over the past three to five years, we’re moving from the usual design/build process to a progressive design/build process, in which all parties including OT are involved much earlier, and we all work more alongside each other,” said Krawczyk. “In this way, end users learn they may want the Cadillac technology, but they understand they can settle for the Chevy.”

    McKinney added these tasks can be performed more securely and the accuracy of their data can be confirmed by running two devices and matching their readings. “This is also how digital twins let users model the behavior of their systems,” said McKinney. “We’re seeing more effort on pulling accurate data because it enables better models.”

    McKinney reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security previous listed water/wastewater as 12th on its list of the 16 critical infrastructure industries, but recently moved it up to third place. “Water/wastewater never used to get proper guidance from the government on cybersecurity. We only got safety and quality guidance,” added McKinney. “Now, water utilities are seen as having government-funded deep pockets, and that’s what threat actors go after. Consequently, governments are looking more closely at reliability and resilience, and there’s more to protect water/wastewater systems from end to end.”

    McKinney added that a small water utility north of Tampa, Florida, recently had a cyber threat get through its SCADA system and dialed its sodium-hydroxide level up past what was safe. Luckily, the utility’s operators saw the change and dialed it back to a safe level. “This incident was reported to the government and police, but it was clear evidence of an intrusion and showed many utilities that they need look more closely at building in protections,” said McKinney. “The EPA’s guidelines leverage the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), but we’re also likely to see more requirements at the state level.”

    Successful sustainability

    Just like achieving cybersecurity, the panelists reported that sustainability can also be accomplished if a practical approach is used.

    “We’re fortunate in that we started working on sustainability years ago,” said Wirtz. “We spent on instrumentation, fiber-optic networking and live data collection, but not all at once, and found we could really increase our maintenance predictability. It was a hurdle, but it was doable. This allowed us to stop running electrical equipment during high-demand periods and run when costs are lowest.”

    Krawczyk concluded that sustainability consists of the three Cs—contractors, consultants and community. “Many communities are getting better educated and engaged about sustainability, which is pushing contractors to be better problem solvers and reach out to system integrators, so we can all work as a team.” 

    About the Author

    Jim Montague | Executive Editor

    Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.