Raw vs. Flint: A Tale of Two Waters

May 9, 2018

Searching “Can I drink the tap water in the United States?” in online travel forums will deliver comments that rangefrom “yes” to “duh.” However, that confidence belies a significant population in the United States that distrusts their water supply. From backgrounds of privilege, such as those exclusively drinking raw water, to systematic inequality — causing severe issues such as the Flint Water Crisis — these individuals encourage others to satisfy their thirst without the tap.

Unfortunately, these concerns spread easily, leading to a general distrust of tap water. This puts pressure on water utility revenues, reduces conservation power and limits possible positive changes, such as water reclamation and recycling. However, cutting edge technology trends like IIoT, cloud computing and blockchain offer unique, comprehensive and direct solutions. They give companies the data and tools to put information and control in the hands of customers, reassuring them of water supply chain integrity.

Who’s afraid to drink the water?

There are two polar groups who won’t drink US tap water. There are those who have enough wealth to question providers and those who have been systematically neglected by their governments. The disparity is best illustrated by two “water issues” in the United States: the raw water trend and the Flint Water Crisis.

What is the Raw Water Trend?

Mostly followed by Silicon Valley types and a few other all-natural pockets, raw water is water exclusively taken from non-regulated sources. It has not been processed by water treatment facilities or pumped in from anywhere. It is bottled at the source. People claim that it can be trusted because it is free of government intervention and “off the grid.” This luxury water trend sees bottles selling for a 30x mark-up of traditional bottled water.

Raw water should not be conflated with well-water. Raw water has not been treated or altered in any way. Raw water is usually surface water instead of naturally purified ground water collected by wells. Wells must be tested annually, at minimum, and monitored for contamination. Furthermore, wells have proper storage and piping to prevent bacteria or other parasites from getting in the water supply. If wells get contaminated, they are treated immediately by well owners.

Although raw water providers conduct pathogen testing and reduce some legal liability, there has been a “wild raw water” corollary movement: individuals are drinking water anywhere they can get it, whether it’s local lakes, rivers or other water sources. Trend leaders openly discuss searching for water under the cover of night. These foragers are more likely to find parasites such as Giardia, bacterias E. coli and Salmonella, and virus invaders like norovirus.

Despite the potential dangers and gut-rolling consequences of consuming raw water, proponents march on. They claim that exclusively drinking it will prevent lead toxicity, mind-controlling chemical consumption and other harmful problems associated with water treatment. Others, such as trend leader Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn), also claim that it must be drunk on a moon cycle, cannot “die” before you drink it and that it provides wellness benefits not found in normal tap or bottled water.

What happened in Flint? A case study of water supply chain transparency

Water supply chain transparency is when a consumer can track their water, know what was done to it, and see where it goes after. Transparency includes actively informing consumers about changes, needs, processes, risks and other events. A transparent water supply chain would follow the same four-part risk-management system adopted by private companies. Unfortunately, in the case of the Flint Water Crisis, the Flint municipal government and the state offices did exactly the opposite.

DeLoitte author David Linich outlines this system succinctly:

  1. Identify and prioritize risks – Figure out what could become a problem.
    “What costs the most” may not be upfront dollar amounts but defined by long-term consequences. For water supply, that means identifying aging infrastructure, figuring out sources of toxicity and mapping potential pathogen pathways. It would also mean getting rid of risks that are too expensive to bear.
  2. Visualize risks – Gather risk information in one place and map out confluence or exacerbation points. Identify measures that could mitigate or prevent risks from turning into liabilities. This may involve data modeling if the information is available. For example, a water treatment plant may manage all records in multiple locations to prevent sampling fraud. It could also centralize decision-making at the treatment plant rather than at a political office. In the case of Flint, following these first two principles would have meant investigating the Flint River pipelines and pumps. Another risk prioritization would have been due-diligence on the water quality of the river. Understanding the unique reactions between the corrosive water and the lead pipes could have averted the whole series of traumatic events. Even setting up an independent office to handle the water change, instead of hiding results and communication, could have led to safer, more helpful conclusions.
  3. Close information gaps – Implement feedback mechanisms and reveal information publicly as much as possible. For a water supply, it gives customers control over their water quality. This is the most important step for the consumer and what clears up distrust. A water utility could simply text customers and ask for a water rating on a scale of 1-5. Daily or annual quality can be posted on publicly accessible sites with live updates. Maps of the city could be displayed that show age and material of piping. Once the Flint Water Crisis had become full-scale, reports continued to be ignored. Customer feedback was disregarded. Leaders claimed ignorance while teams designed to prevent this type of disenfranchisement played down the severity of the problems. The water utility and the municipal government deflected all claims with zero accountability.
  4. Manage and monitor – Use the revealed insights and feedback to continuously improve the process, ensure higher standards and reduce liability. Seeing feedback from many consumers about water tasting like metal should prompt an immediate investigation because that is a high-priority risk. Now that Flint is attempting to put citizens back on tap and stop handing out bottled water, they have an opportunity to enact this type of water supply chain transparency. Arguably, if they do not increase visibility, they will experience a direct hit to their bottom line as customers who can will choose to avoid total reliance on city water.

Technology puts customers at ease

The raw water trend is more problematic than its pseudo-scientific and subjective spiritual reasoning. It illustrates that even those most likely to be educated and have the most access to trustworthy information question the water supply chain. Likewise, Flint is more dangerous than just having lead pipes or corrosive water. Rather, it validates the fears of customers and citizens that they can’t trust their water authorities.

In both cases, something else is set up as “better than” water treatment operations that ensure taps flow. However, water treatment facilities in the United States and other developed nations are better than ever. Regulations concerning potable water for homes and other usage has never been tighter. Now, municipalities and water utilities must put this awareness and control in the hands of the consumer. Technology advancements offer easy, affordable solutions to reassure the public water conscience.

Cloud systems offer powerful computing programs that can put information in the user’s hands. By having a central data storage system, real-time updates can be delivered to customer portals indicating water quality. Monthly and annual reports can be generated with cloud-based analytics specific to customer usage and total system usage. By breaking down silos of information, water authorities and consumers alike can benefit.

The data to be used in these cloud programs would come from IIoT monitoring and remote action. Application of IoT to water-based services has been trending. According to “Inside the Internet of Things: Making Water Utilities Smarter” by Dan Rafter, smart monitoring has helped some systems reduce water loss via leaks, reducing water consumption by 7%.  However, the connection drawn between it and supply chain transparency has been overlooked.

By monitoring pipes in cities, wastewater plants and other aspects of the water supply, data can be delivered in real-time consistently. Interrupted data transmissions would trigger alerts, and biosensor data beyond thresholds would prompt instant warnings. Interfacing IIoT with a utility specific cloud software-as-a-service could put data and warnings on the user’s cell phone with app technology. Consumers who could afford it could theoretically install IoT devices on their own water tank and meter, shutting off their water with a tap and sending reports when concerned with quality.

A final tool would be implementing blockchain as a ledger of integrity. Documenting water source changes, quality reports, treatment operations and service contracts in a blockchain would add accountability to the system. Any concerned customers, regardless of privilege, would have the ability to verify where their water came from. This blockchain process could also prevent corrupt governing bodies from obfuscating information in the event of a crisis.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

Despite the potential technology holds for increasing customer trust as much as improving the bottom line and non-revenue water stats, its adoption is not guaranteed. Technology will not be the magic resolution for customers quenching their thirst according to star signs. Water authorities unconcerned about accountability or their customer’s needs will not be motivated to adopt beyond cost-reduction.

Fortunately, many engineers and leaders in the water industry seem to share a sense of urgency about water supply transparency. Monitoring the water supply chain from start to end benefits everyone. Increasing visibility means optimizing a process, which can lead to less waste and better controls. It can also improve efforts related to water reclamation, recycling and conservation.

If you would like to clear up your supply chain or bring more control to your water management, please contact Sealevel. We would love to design a solution for your unique IoT needs.