Innovation in the wastewater sector and the challenges facing water companies

To meet the challenges of climate change and a growing population, the wastewater industry needs to continue to make the most of its capital and operational investment.

The wastewater industry is currently facing a number of significant challenges from a technical, customer and regulatory perspective.

As our climate changes and populations increase, our sewerage systems are coming under increasing pressure to accommodate greater and more intense flow volumes, whilst dealing with an ever-aging network of pipes and pumping stations that require continual maintenance or replacement.

The water services regulation authority, Ofwat, is driving the industry to deliver improved outcomes, increased customer engagement, as well as increasing levels of efficiency. Add to this the need to balance TOTEX (total expenditure) investment plans and deliver long term catchment strategy - whilst planning for proactive network management – and the pressure can be felt. Particularly when considering that this all needs to happen within the backdrop of changing legislation and regulation as Britain negotiates its exit from the European Union.

Change is therefore needed to tackle these challenges and bring our networks and service up to date, but how?

RPS’ recent annual conference (October 2018) looked at innovation in the wastewater sector and the challenges facing water companies. We engaged senior wastewater managers from across the industry and representatives from UK water companies for this one day conference, and together we sought to identify where the main challenges lie whilst hosting open discussion on the future of the UK’s sewer networks.

Delegates were unanimous in the view that if we are to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth, then we need to continue to invest in improving the understanding of network performance through a balance of modelling, asset management and intelligently targeted monitoring technology.

This will enable us to intervene in sewerage failures before flooding and pollution occurs. Delegates also called for a more integrated approach to delivery from water companies, regulators, councils and highway authorities.

The need for industry wide consistency in standards, performance measures and risk assessment is vital for successful change; as is the need for broader cultural change to drive collaboration, partnership and customer / community engagement.

It is not widely known outside the world of water companies that the UK water industry deploys sophisticated software, skilled engineers and technicians along with advanced technologies in order to keep our sewerage systems operating effectively. A massive amount of data is produced; however this data is not being used to inform decisions. One theme that emerged from discussions was that we are ‘data rich but information poor’ and there was a consensus that we should make better use of asset data we have and share it better, particularly with customers.

If water companies invest wisely in installing monitoring technology, guided by modelling and asset management approaches to install them at the optimum points of the network, and invest in the skills to analyse the data received, then they will reap rewards in AMP7, not only in terms of optimised investment, but transforming customer service and business reputation.

There are a series of key factors which will influence our success in meeting these challenges. We need to innovate, we need to have confidence in our data and our processes and we need to engage with stakeholders and customers. We also need to continue to develop the skills of our future workforce and as such we have a complicated balance to achieve innovation and best practice in urban drainage.

This article originally featured in the Institute of Water Magazine in December 2018

“If water companies invest wisely in installing monitoring technology, guided by modelling and asset management approaches to install them at the optimum points of the network, and invest in the skills to analyse the data received, then they will reap rewards in AMP7”

James Hale

Technical Director

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