Many water and wastewater utilities across the U.S. are faced with aging infrastructure, growing populations and limited budgets. With various obstacles to overcome, it can be overwhelming to figure out what projects need attention first, when is the right time to start them and at what cost.

The water and wastewater utilities’ underground infrastructure — which lives out of sight, out of mind — further complicates these utilities’ ability to keep pace with infrastructure replacement demands due to outdated system records, inspection and maintenance access limitations, and disruption to adjacent infrastructure to repair or replace underground assets.

These challenges often result in projects that are reactions to the latest problem rather than being strategic and focusing on those efforts posing the greatest risk to the utility and its customers. To make matters worse, a substantial portion of water and wastewater utility employees — those who carry the most knowledge about when the infrastructure was installed, why and what condition it is in — are retiring. With this turnover in staff comes a loss of significant institutional knowledge that once helped inform infrastructure replacement priorities.

This is where the development and implementation of data-driven asset management plans come into play. When a water or wastewater utility effectively utilizes digital water tools to inform decisions, it unlocks a new level of transparency, confidence and documentation that helps decision-makers create capital improvement plans that are strategic, defensible and repeatable. These cutting-edge digital tools are now trending across the nation’s water and wastewater industries.

In the early years of system rehabilitation and replacement programs, the tools to assess system risk and define projects to mitigate the risk of failure were rudimentary. It was challenging for the utility to effectively aggregate and apply geospatial data, inspections and repair history to inform and prioritize rehabilitation and replacement efforts.

More recently, a new approach to prioritizing the rehabilitation and replacement of aging infrastructure has gained momentum. The approach is supported by a digital tool set that helps prioritize rehabilitation and replacement efforts by defining the assets’ probability of failure and expected consequences of such failure. The digital platform uses a range of datasets and criteria to define these failure risks, developed with input from stakeholders throughout the organization. By implementing a data-driven approach to defining projects, the utility increases transparency and confidence around priorities and spending.

As utilities continue to advance how they use data-driven approaches and digital tools to solve complex problems, there are opportunities to leverage them beyond capital planning and into improving the efficiency of the utilities’ operations and maintenance programs.


Data analysis and visualization tools can create decision support platforms — digital twins — to inform water and wastewater utility business decisions.

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Steve Stuempfig is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. With nearly 15 years of experience, he specializes in program and project management for wastewater utilities, helping them achieve their goals through the development and delivery of sewer rehabilitation and capital improvement programs.