Highlights from an interview with Dave Johnson, Deputy General Manager, Engineering and Operations
Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) and Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA)
Q: What is the greatest challenge your utility is facing for which you do not yet have a solution and how are you currently approaching that challenge?
A: We have had 18 years of sustained drought in the Colorado River Basin. We have tried to address both supply and demand to deal with it. While we have had success on the demand side through water conservation efforts, we really need tech solutions to help further enhance our demand management while also addressing supply. For instance, on the demand-management side we are interested in technologies that help reduce drift and evaporation losses from cooling towers. From a supply perspective, although our leak rate is low, at less than 5%, we would like to minimize it even more. We have a need for early warning and detection systems for leaks and pipe breaks, so we put out a relatively broad request for proposal (RFP) to find out from others how to address these issues. Of course, while we need to drive unaccounted for water down, the cost of the tech solution has to make sense economically. The cost of the solution cannot be more than the value of the water saved.
Q: Do you have a unique perspective or approach that might be helpful to other utilities?
A: Many utilities look at existing innovation and try to fit it into their utility. We take a different approach. First, we define our problem or need very clearly and look to see if a solution already exists. If it doesn’t, we look to see if an existing innovation could be modified to meet our need. If not, we look for others to help us find a solution to our problem statement. Another example of a unique approach we employ as a water utility comes from our 50-year resource plan. In the plan we identify the permanent, temporary and future resources we will need. Due to ongoing drought conditions, we knew our community would need additional water resources in the future, so we looked for groundwater in other parts of Nevada. Working with others, we created a solution by purchasing ranch land north of Las Vegas Valley to secure groundwater rights that we can access for potential future use. The land we purchased was either being used for agriculture or livestock and it continues to be used in those ways today. Although we have made some enhancements to the properties to manage the water resources, we maintain them as working ranches. It’s important to keep the land, people and jobs functioning as they always have to maintain the local culture and have a positive impact on the local economy. You might be surprised, but you actually use generally the same principles to manage a ranch as you do to manage a utility.
Q: Do you have a key lesson learned from your experience at LVVWD that you would like to share with other utility leaders?
A: We have six goals in our strategic plan. One is dedicated to innovation. Our Board approved the organization’s goals and the strategic plan. That gave us the high-level commitment and financial support needed to fund pilot projects and have the manpower required to complete the pilot projects. In conjunction with WaterStart (a group of global leaders in water innovation and implementation), we were able to evaluate our priorities, initiate RFPs, launch pilots and evaluate the results. Through this process, we have not only piloted new technologies, but also adopted many of them into our utility operations. You really need that upper management level of commitment to pave the way for innovative solutions.
Q: Is there any technology, innovation or trend on the horizon that really excites you or that you perceive to be a game changer for utilities?
A: The smart water network concept. These systems will allow utilities to minimize energy use and improve water quality via feedback from customer meter data. Although we have a model now, more and better data inputs —as well as having a way to synthesize that data — will allow utilities to operate more efficiently. That in turn will also help us address larger issues that are so critical, like climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: What areas would you most like to collaborate on with other utilities?
A: We need to work together to further the concept of smart water networks. Smart water networks could create a roadmap to help utilities deal with issues like cyber security and efficient operations. Being a large utility like LVVWD, we have the innovative culture and resources to work on these kinds of pilots. But we also want to help mid-size utilities that don’t have the same resources we have solve the problems we all face. The more we can take our pilot program results and share them with small to mid-size utilities, the better. Utilities are really about providing public health protection and reasonable rates for our customers. We need to support each other to do that.