For Water NSW, keeping the water flowing and customers in the loop is the ultimate mission
From the mighty Murray to the Macintyre, from the wild rush of the Castlereagh to the sleepiest creek, the freshwater flowing through New South Wales is its most precious resource. With a customer base including irrigators, water distribution utilities and stock and domestic users and overseeing territory that reaches from the heart of the cities to the back of the beyond, Water NSW ensures that all customers in the state have access to the water they need, and the vital information about their water that matters most to them.
In addition to managing the licensing, ordering, metering, billing, and payment systems for consumers, Water NSW operates and maintains the state’s dams and weirs, and oversees the health of NSW’s rivers, and the myriad streams and creeks flowing through the land. The government-owned corporation protects the Greater Sydney drinking water catchment, supplying safe water to the city’s water utility, Sydney Water, as well as to councils and other water distributors.
Additionally, Water NSW oversees the state’s bulk water supply and manages the state’s surface and groundwater resources. VENTURE recently spoke to Ian Robinson, the firm’s Chief Information Officer, to better understand the opportunities and challenges of managing such a complex water transmission, storage, and protection operation — and what the organization is doing to keep its customers educated and informed.
Water NSW is a raw water provider that provides access to water through licensing. Licensed customers order water from the company, which meters usage and bills for its consumption.
“We also have large customers who distribute potable water, typical town water coffers, of which Sydney Water is the largest,” Robinson clarified. “We then have 50,000 regional irrigation customers, farmers primarily, who either have a pump connected to the river, or a groundwater bore they use to pull water out.”
Swift water, smart technology
It takes a sophisticated operational infrastructure to manage the state’s water transmission and storage needs. Water NSW fastidiously plans capital expenditures 20 years in advance, but maintains the flexibility to meet unforeseen challenges as they arise. An extensive in-house maintenance staff manages the day-to-day operational activities, including system monitoring, dam safety, pump reliability, and all of the nearly countless moving parts of a substantive utility.
Given that infrastructure development plans are made so far in advance of project undertakings, care is taken to ensure that best-fit technology is applied to meet operational needs of the organisation and to enable business improvement initiatives. “The most important thing is to work at the strategic level where our investments are made, and to enable our stakeholders to link technology investments to strategic plans. Our infrastructure plans are made on a 20-year basis, but IT plans are done on a much shorter-term basis, typically no more than five years, and I really struggle to see beyond two to three because technology is changing so rapidly.
“Each year we reset our strategic plan, which is focused primarily not on our 20-year investments in dams and very large civil infrastructure, which is where we get the primary part of our revenue, but more on the operational side. How we interact with customers, how we measure the quality of our water flows, the monitoring systems of our water, and the unique hydrometrics network that only exists in the water industry.”
Water NSW employs monitoring capabilities that give real-time visualisation of activity at any point in the network. “When you're covering vast spaces, you don't have the manpower to be at every site every day, and you don't want to have people manually reporting, so we collect data through telemetry systems and automated tools in the river.
“We’re constantly measuring flows, volume, and algae, and doing tests to confirm water quality, bringing that data back and analysing it in a typical computing environment which involves big data, lots of regular readings where we look for exception patterns and opportunities for insights into how we can better operate the system.”
The firm engages a hydrometric field staff of roughly 100 people to collect data and maintain instruments in the field, making sure the data collected is suitable for analysis. There is an extensive team of scientists who work with analytical reporting tools.
“We present that information to our entire range of external stakeholders through a set of web portals or geospatial mapping tools or through custom information service delivery,” Robinson said.
The firm is an invaluable source of usage information for its customer base, delivering critical insights on the future of the state’s water supply and how it relates to them. “We are building systems that give customers forecasts and insight into what the state of their river is going to be in the future, so they know how to plan their use of the water, when their allocation is likely to be used, and to determine the best times for them to access the water and optimise their crop growth.
“Farmers, like every other business people in the world, are starting to look at how other businesses do it better. How do they learn? How do they keep up to speed with the latest technologies? They are increasingly putting their own technologies on their own land to improve their yield and performance. We link our technology investments to our strategy. We look at the key areas we want to improve in the business and then apply technology to those areas on a consistent basis.”
Robinson is passionate about data access for all of Water NSW’s stakeholders. “For us, analytic teams are absolutely essential because there are so many sources and uses of data, it becomes quite a complex environment to manage. The challenge is to make sure the data we have can be accessed by any user for any purpose, for any piece of data, and to make that connection seamlessly in an integrated fashion,” he stressed.
“There's a whole range of technology areas we’re looking at, including more telemetry devices in the field, the analytics of the water capture data to provide information back to customers about the state of the river and their ability to pump, and the digitization of the customer process.
“Our purpose in life is to improve the way we manage water and give information about the management of that water transparently so that customers can see that we're doing the best job we can.”