Virginia Tech researchers and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are collaborating on a national water-loss program to reduce wasted resources during the extraction, treatment, and distribution of drinking water.

The USGS Water Resources Mission Area will create new models to estimate national public supply water use based on historical water-use data, as well as data from PIPEiD, a national database of water conveyance infrastructure characteristics created by Sunil Sinha and his research team at Virginia Tech. The USGS will then use these data models to develop a series of pilot systems with the greatest data support for creating a public supply water loss data-driven model using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The data reported through these pilot systems will be evaluated for quality, standardized into consistent formats, and complemented with other system-level data to support comprehensive and state-of-the-art modeling for public supply water use. Just as PIPEiD provides data for the U.S., predictors of water losses established by the pilot studies will be available nationally. “We aim to improve national estimates of public supply water use that is supported by water delivery infrastructure data,” said Sinha.

Sinha, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, hopes the program will give water utilities guidance on how to improve efficiencies in supply and revenue recovery. This would help utilities better serve their customers, improve their financial standing, and be better positioned to make vital upgrades to the vast and aging water infrastructure in community water supply systems.

“Safe drinking water plays a crucial role by promoting good health, food production, manufacturing, and support for virtually all aspects of life,” said Sinha.  “Drinking water utilities have done an outstanding job of meeting these needs by providing safe water directly to homes, businesses, institutions, and industrial facilities. Yet today’s water utilities encounter numerous challenges in providing safe drinking water for human consumption.”

Historically in North America, abundant water resources have been readily and reliably tapped to supply communities, Sinha said. However, many regions today are experiencing strain on their supplies due to a changing climate and other environmental stress, growing and shifting populations, financial constraints, and evolving regulatory programs.

“For many of today’s water utilities, the amount of water available is likely the greatest volume they will ever have,” said Sinha. “This puts enormous pressure on water managers to ensure they are accountable in their practices and highly efficient in their operations.”

No matter how efficient managers are, all drinking water utilities have water losses. According to Sinha, billions of gallons of water are lost every day from U.S. drinking water systems because of leaks. Although some states require best practices for estimating, locating, and reducing leaks, other less-regulated areas may be unaware of the volume of water loss beneath their streets, said Sinha. Water leaks can have dramatic cost impacts, and paying customers often bear much of the financial burden of a utility’s inefficiencies.

Sinha’s PIPEiD database includes infrastructure data on chronic leaks, breaks caused by extreme weather and other factors, and losses associated with public water supply system operations and repairs. USGS scientists will use this data to enhance their models and better estimate losses for public supply systems across the nation. 

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