The AI Interview: Lisa Beutler, President of the American Water Resources Association

Lisa Beutler, AWRA President and Executive Facilitator of Stantec, looks at developments in a changing world of water

American Infrastructure: First, could you state the mission of the organization and how you see that?

Lisa Beutler: Our organization is the American Water Resources Association. We are the first and the oldest multidisciplinary water resources association in the country. Established in 1964, we’ve long held that role as the preeminent multidisciplinary association. We really focus on informational exchange, professional development, and education about water resources. Our tagline is, “We promote community conversation and connection.”

AI: How is technology transforming the way we address water infrastructure issues in this country?

LB: The water industry has adopted some amazing technology. Sensor technologies help us understand and think more about how a system is operating. It gives us real-time data for decision-making and it lets us model different variables so we can ways to do things completely differently.

Utilities using enhanced modeling tools plan long-term to improve how they design and prioritize capital investments or how to schedule maintenance, and even know where maintenance hot spots are. This planning greatly improves utility efficiencies.

Use of tools like drones and better weather forecasting technology let us see what’s going on with our infrastructure and see what’s happening with the watershed upstream. This helps predict the time when water is going to hit certain infrastructure, which in turn allows us to do better planning of when we might do water releases or how we might manage our flood systems.

Another area of technology advances is with social media. We’re able to connect with people in completely different ways. Some utilities use Twitter to receive real-time customer feedback on system problems. When citizens use social media to talk with their utilities, it creates a completely different relationship, especially if a utility is able to use its social media effectively.

AI: What efforts are being made by the AWRA this year to make water infrastructure more resilient to the extreme weather caused by climate change?

LB: AWRA is keenly interested in this. We just had a conference in Nebraska with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. They were up to their eyeballs – no pun intended – in flood response. People were literally coming and going from meeting presentations to manage an unprecedented flood situation.

We believe the best approach for handling extreme events and making infrastructure more resilient is to really double down on integrated water resources management.

As an example, if you’re a developer, you’re working to bring roads, pipes, electricity and all the other infrastructure needed to build. In one California housing pilot project they achieved more open space, had better flood protection, eliminated the impacts of storm drainage, and improved efficiency both in energy and water use, all with integrated design. They asked, “How can all of our disciplines work together to create a more viable development that will make us more resilient and efficient, and create more bang for our buck?” Working together they got more from their design and infrastructure investment.

By changing the footprint of that infrastructure and thinking about an integrated approach, you have a lot more resiliency in your actual structures.  We’re going to have a conference, Improving Water Infrastructure through Resilient Adaptation, June 16-19, 2019 in Sparks, Nevada to talk about these kinds of solutions. We need policy, science, and engineering solutions. We need to be thinking about things in integrated ways where we’re pulling in other infrastructure disciplines into these conversations. You have to have all of the parts present to make things work, because they’re not designed for it now. Our institutions aren’t designed to deliver those kinds of projects.

AI: In your eyes, what are the greatest threats to our water infrastructure systems right now? What do you think we should do to address these impending challenges?

LB: Climate change is the big kahuna, especially in water – just about everything related to our infrastructure is going to be impacted by that.

Another issue is funding. We really undervalue infrastructure in America. We have a lot of difficulty appreciating the investments already made. We’ve been living off of the investments of previous generations. I think there is complacency and a lack of urgency in infrastructure investment.

Another big challenge for water is that we have SO many governmental and non-governmental water jurisdictions. It’s really difficult to get things to work with so many independent actors and a barrier to getting things done.

We need to look at issues of equity. Right now many communities in the United States don’t have access to safe drinking water. This isn’t just an isolated, highly publicized circumstance like in Flint, Michigan. There are a lot of small rural communities throughout the country without access to good, safe water.

We’ve got to figure out how to get people on adequate systems and connected in ways that meet all the necessary health requirements.

AI: What does the AWRA have in the works right now that you are especially excited for?

LB: We do have educational conferences in the works; and we just had the Nebraska integrated water resources management conference, which was absolutely wonderful, by the way.

We put out a magazine called IMPACT, and we have an issue coming out on integrated water resource management, so that will be our May issue.

We have a journal – JAWRA, and for our field, the multidisciplinary water field – we’re the number one cited journal in the field.

In addition to our summer conference on resilient infrastructure, we are also collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Water Resources Research. We’ll be in Beijing in September talking with them about water security, new technology strategies, policies, and institutions. Water security can absolutely be stressed and impacted by what’s happening with our infrastructure.

We’re promoting our current policy statement on revitalizing water resources infrastructure, and we’ll be putting up new policy pieces on integrated water resource management. That’s something that’s in the works right now.

In addition, we run a webinar series. About once a month, we bring up topics that are important to our mission.

So those are just some of the things we have going on. We’re pretty excited about what we have to offer.

AI: Is there anything you would like to add?

LB: I think it’s really important for us to understand collectively that the only way we’re going to get good infrastructure implemented, the first step is literally making a decision to do it. We want to make sure that every time we ask a decision maker to make a decision about infrastructure, they’re prepared to make the absolute best decision possible.

When I enter any conversation on a project, that’s what I’m aiming for. That’s what I’m looking for, is the way that we make things accessible to people so they can do the thing they need to do. That should be true for everyone we ask to participate in our water infrastructure discussions.

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