Utilities on the Front Lines: Takeaways from Esri’s IMGIS Conference

17 Nov 2021  |  Eric Bindler

The Bluefield team recently returned from Esri’s Infrastructure Management and GIS (IMGIS) Conference in Palm Springs, California. The conference brought together more than 500 Esri staff members, technology and service partners, and end-users from water and other critical infrastructure sectors, such as the electric, oil and gas, and telecoms industries. While water utilities are often considered much slower moving than their peers when it comes to technology adoption, the participating organizations demonstrated that digitalization is well underway in the water sector, with several innovative digital water projects and initiatives on par with developments in adjacent infrastructure sectors.

The demos and discussions at IMGIS covered a range of key water issues and market shifts that Bluefield tracks closely, but a few topics in particular stood out:

Foundational Role of GIS in Digital Water Transformation:

Water utilities are responsible for a wide range of activities, from operating and maintaining remote infrastructure to managing customers and staff across vast service territories. As a tool for recording and analyzing geospatial information, GIS software can play a critical role in coordinating these various work streams. GIS facilitates the integration of assets, processes, and datasets across disparate departments and functional areas, laying the groundwork for more advanced digital initiatives such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and digital twins.

The IMGIS conference underscored this point, with utility clients demonstrating the role of GIS in initiatives ranging from waterworks field inventorying to digital threat analysis. Meanwhile, the exhibition hall featured a myriad of third-party digital water solutions providers whose products leverage or integrate with Esri’s GIS platform, including stormwater management players, CCTV pipe inspection firms, and asset investment planning software companies.

Convergence of Critical Infrastructure

It was noteworthy that the four-day event brought together utility GIS professionals from the water, electric, gas and pipeline, transportation, engineering, and telecoms industries, many of which face similar issues and challenges. Seeing utilities demo platforms that integrated electric, gas, and water assets exemplified critical infrastructure convergence, a key market shift shaping water management and investment. Digital solutions, including Esri’s GIS software, can enable more holistic, coordinated decision-making and communication across infrastructure sectors, crucial to making organizations and communities more efficient, sustainable, and resilient.

Climate Adaptation and Mitigation:

Throughout the conference, Esri staff, partners, and customers highlighted digital transformation as a pathway to meeting sustainability and resilience goals. With climate change increasingly top of mind, cities and utilities are ramping up their adaptation and mitigation efforts, leveraging GIS and other digital water solutions to reduce emissions and resource use on the one hand, and improve climate planning and preparedness on the other. The Trinity River Authority in Texas, for example, showcased their use of near real-time GIS-based dashboards to support flood planning and assessment efforts, in order to adapt to anticipated increases in flood frequency and severity in their service territory. Meanwhile, Esri and its technology partners can also help utilities minimize their own greenhouse gas footprints as part of broader “race to zero” campaigns in the global water industry, such as through mobile workforce management and fleet optimization.

Federal Funding, Policy, and Regulatory Shifts:

The recently passed U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will inject an additional US$550 billion into the critical infrastructure sector over five years, including US$55 billion towards the water and wastewater industry. Of that funding, US$15 billion will be allocated to lead service line (LSL) remediation, as part of a concerted effort to find and remove the 6.1 million LSLs serving between 15 million and 22 million people in the United States. In parallel, utilities are feeling the urgency to map and inventory their LSLs, to meet the October 2024 deadline for full compliance with the U.S. EPA’s revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCRR).

As several conference presenters made clear, GIS and related digital water solutions can help utilities plan for and make better use of the additional federal funding they are due to receive through the IIJA, as well as to meet their regulatory requirements under the LCRR. GIS-based asset management and predictive analytics software can help utilities to prioritize capital investments in network and treatment infrastructure replacement and rehabilitation, as well as to manage LSL inventorying and remediation campaigns, allowing them to maximize the impact of federal stimulus funding.

Digital investments will be crucial in helping utilities confront the simultaneous challenges of climate change, aging infrastructure, an aging workforce, and a shifting regulatory environment.

The water industry still has a long road ahead in achieving digital transformation, but digital investments will be crucial in helping utilities confront the simultaneous challenges of climate change, aging infrastructure, an aging workforce, and a shifting regulatory environment. Above all, Esri’s IMGIS conference highlighted the progress that many leading utilities have made to date, as they leverage GIS and other digital water hardware, software, and service-based solutions to improve their efficiency, sustainability, resilience, safety, and customer satisfaction.