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Report: Digital innovations and cybersecurity crucial for evolving water industry

  • Report: Digital innovations and cybersecurity crucial for evolving water industry
  • Contaminant removal and funding emerge as significant challenges alongside aging workforce and climate change impacts.

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Amid the enduring challenges of an aging workforce, outdated infrastructure, and the escalating threat of climate change, the U.S. water industry is navigating a period of significant transformation, according to Black & Veatch’s 2024 Water Report.

Based on an expert survey of approximately 630 stakeholders within the U.S. water, wastewater, and stormwater sectors, the report outlines the complex landscape these industries are currently facing. It highlights the push and pull of conflicting priorities but underscores the opportunities presented by digital technologies and innovations. These advancements are seen as pivotal in enabling operators to make more informed decisions and maximize the potential of their aging assets and constrained resources.

This year's report places a spotlight on new critical themes, particularly contaminants and cybersecurity. In April, the federal government introduced regulatory limits for six perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly referred to as "forever chemicals," impacting all municipal water systems. Concurrently, cybersecurity has become an urgent issue. A letter from the Biden administration in March urged governors to enhance security measures for water and wastewater systems, citing the increasing frequency of "disabling cyberattacks" targeting utilities nationwide.

“As the headwinds whirl, the industry on many metrics appears to be better positioning itself against the challenges of the times, either independently or with outside guidance from experts like Black & Veatch,” said Mike Orth, president of Black & Veatch’s governments and communities business. “Slowly but surely, U.S. water utilities are discovering and pursuing new ways of doing business by leveraging integrated approaches to both planning and delivering strategic, financial and operational resilience.”The report provides an in-depth review of the sector's ongoing and emerging challenges, alongside the potential for accelerated innovation in strategy, operations, and funding.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Aging Infrastructure: Sixty-five percent of respondents identified aging infrastructure as their foremost challenge, consistent with previous years.
  • Workforce Issues: The difficulty in hiring qualified staff remains a significant concern for 47 percent of respondents, down slightly from 51 percent in 2023.
  • Funding Concerns: Forty-one percent of respondents do not anticipate adequate funding for capital infrastructure projects over the next five to ten years, with only 27 percent believing it will just meet requirements and 24 percent deeming it sufficient.
  • Pursuit of Funding: Nearly half of the respondents (45 percent) have sought state and federal funding, including from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with an additional 39 percent planning to do so.
  • Sustainability: While sustainability remains a critical focus for 60 percent of respondents, this marks a slight decline from the past two years. Approximately half report having established sustainability goals and metrics.
  • Cybersecurity: Over 80 percent of respondents equate cybersecurity investment with physical security, with 97 percent rating both as "very important" or "important." However, the preference for self-governance in cybersecurity has declined to 66 percent from over 70 percent in previous years.
  • PFAS Contamination: PFAS has been detected in the water supply by 42 percent of respondents, with 36 percent anticipating the need for PFAS treatment solutions within the next five years, up from 21 percent in 2023. Most respondents (61 percent) are planning for a main treatment plant retrofit as the primary solution.

The report underscores the industry's resilience and adaptability as it confronts these multifaceted challenges, while also pointing to the promise of technological and strategic innovations to drive future progress.

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