A Different Kind of Water System

Water quality is intimately connected to quality of life. Although this fact of life has been understated for many years, water professionals have long known that clean water is an increasingly scarce and valuable commodity that cannot be taken for granted. The Clean Water Act brought about increased regulatory oversight, resulting in recent criminal charges and fines against violators, and environmental organizations are succeeding in bringing about public awareness of the need to protect water resources by encouraging businesses to include water stewardship and utilization in corporate sustainability reporting. But, the main driver for improving water management among people involved in the business is simply "doing the right thing."

The WATER Principles

What is the right thing to do? Today, we have the physical infrastructure and the scientific know-how to handle surface water discharge, groundwater remediation, and drinking water processing and delivery. The challenge is the ability to better manage the information logistics associated with your water processing facilities. If you are still using spreadsheets or complicated in-house systems for tracking water information, you may be pleased to learn that there are now very good commercially available software systems to help you better manage your water information. In evaluating your needs in this area, it may be useful to bear in mind the acronym WATER (Web-enabled, Accurate, Transparent, Efficient, and Reliable).

Web-Enabled: The maturity of Web technologies increasingly makes this the choice for modern water information systems. Web browser access has become almost universal to the point where almost any employee has a basic understanding and familiarity of use coming into the job. The underlying Internet communication technologies are robust and, when implemented within a secure corporate communications network, provide a great information infrastructure match with the often dispersed nature of your water treatment and discharge monitoring facilities.

Accurate: One of the distinctive aspects of water data management is the wide variation of data. In preparing your DMRs, large amounts of sample data may have to be combined with other sources of data to come up with accurate estimates of discharges. This requires that your data be apportioned and aggregated in accordance with your analytical requirements. This may include appropriate time weighting and prorating to reconcile your data collection intervals with your reporting periods. The result will be a much more accurate and representative report of your discharges.

Transparent: There has been a big shift from environmental data management systems that merely track and report discharges to ones that offer true accounting capability. Transparency is the ability of third parties to comprehend how data is managed, how it is processed, and how it is converted into information used in reporting. This means that, in order to verify the results, a clear audit trail must be maintained, date- and time-stamping of all data and changes to the system must be recorded, and all assumptions and references used in analyses should be included along with the data.

Efficient: There is always a cost-benefit associated with deciding whether to put in a modern information system. The standard of comparison is very often a home grown environmental data management system or series of linked spreadsheets. The cost of maintaining these systems, and the headaches associated with entering data, moving it around, and creating reports with it consumes critical personnel resources that could be more effectively applied elsewhere. There is a substantial cost of ownership (COO) benefit in having a streamlined system that is configured to your existing business processes and needs.

Reliable: You want a system that is, above all, reliable. This means not only that the analysis is repeatable, complete, and consistent, but that all tasks are completed on time. Reliable task and data management go hand in hand because water data management essentially involves people and data. In any application, some data collection is automated and some is manual. Periodic inspections and maintenance tasks must involve different personnel skills at different locations in order to assure compliance with permits and obligations at local, state, and federal levels. Making this all happen reliably, year-in and year-out, is an essential benefit of a good environmental data management system.

These WATER principles are key things to look for in a different kind of water system -- one that you can use in combination with your physical infrastructure and dedicated people to achieve that very best environmental performance.

Real World Applications

To see how WATER principles can be applied, let's suppose you are part of a privately held water treatment company, responsible for handling industrial, storm, and wastewater streams. You oversee over 2,000 water discharge points which are a combination of 23 co-located processing facilities and an array of geographically dispersed discharges for which environmental monitoring is being maintained under contract. Most main facilities have automated sampling and laboratory analysis capabilities; however, the dispersed monitoring is a manual operation. Several years ago you worked with a local software developer to implement a central data repository and reporting system for your National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, DMR, and internal reporting. The system is used to extract data primarily from facility spreadsheets. Dispersed data is manually entered from e-mail and fax sources.

You recently experienced strong interest in your water environmental data management from an unexpected source -- executive management. Your company has long been seen as a community-friendly and environmentally responsible firm. However, there is a strong desire among executive officers and the board of directors to burnish your company's metrics tracking and reporting for environmental compliance and sustainability. In addition, the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation has significant provisions that are applicable to environmental monitoring, and although your company does not fall under to purview of Sarbanes-Oxley, management has committed to adhering to its principles. You have commissioned an external review of your current data management system and the findings indicate that it is simply not up to the task. What do you do?

The external review process produced a "gap analysis" that can be readily associated with each of the WATER principles outlined above. This provides the basis of the business case your staff develops for presentation to management. Some of your findings indicate:

  • The current system does not conform to the job functions and skill sets of monitoring personnel. Transferring data from existing systems into spreadsheets and rolling up spreadsheets is arduous. Manually entering data is tedious and replete with errors. Personnel training is a problem. Internal Web applications are now up and running successfully in your company, and there appears to be a real opportunity to provide a Web-based system that everyone can use. Remote data can be entered via the Web using file upload capabilities from laptops or handheld devices.
  • There are major opportunities to improve the accuracy of your current system. The current database is a repository of spreadsheet calculations that is ill-suited for irregular sample analysis and the aggregation of automated laboratory analyses. There are methods that do proper time weighting and allocations that can significantly improve the analytics. Best of all, since these can be applied in uniform fashion across the board for centralized and dispersed data sources, you can have much more confidence in your reporting.
  • Nobody really understands how your current data system works. The software developer is no longer in business. It is difficult to explain -- even to your staff -- how the data makes its way from source through the calculations to the repository and into reports. It's just not transparent to you or to any potential auditors. You can't account for changes that are made to your system -- especially the spreadsheets. Fortunately, there are effective ways to handle this using databases set up for environmental accounting, as well as standard calculations expressions that can be configured and uniformly applied to your application.
  • Spreadsheet interfaces are inefficient. Why not have a system that connects with your laboratory analysis systems directly? The remote e-mail and fax remote data handling is labor intensive. Why not do this fully online, directly into the database? Finally, the task of developing and maintaining new reports is a long, difficult one that is only increasing now that metrics reporting is required for corporate applications. A new system can do much to relieve these choke points.
  • You need a system that your staff and your company can trust and depend on. This can be achieved by taking people out of the loop as much as possible and using automation to do many of the mundane tasks, but also using an automated task-management system where people are involved. You also recognize that the system must be simple to set up and maintain. You shouldn't need to call a programmer every time you need to make a change.

These findings provide a strong business case for replacing your environmental data management system. The commercial system that you ultimately deployed was up and running within four months after the contact was approved. The implementation process was streamlined by having a very detailed specification, along with the vendor's extensive use of automation tools to configure, interface, and transfer data.

The system was initially staged in the vendor's hosted environment and then delivered and installed on the company's intranet network. There were significant advantages to proceeding in this fashion. The company was updating its Information Technology (IT) to support Windows® 2003 across an array of new machines. The vendor provided application hosting services that allowed the new application to come up and go through acceptance testing without delays. Since the end-user application is fully Web-based, the transition from the Internet to an intranet was almost totally seamless. This not only saved a lot of time, but it greatly enhanced user confidence and acceptance of the new software application. Then, by bringing data totally within the company's firewall, management's concerns about control and security of sensitive data were allayed. Moreover, the more direct interfaces with internal systems, and enhanced network speeds, significantly improved system performance. The final step was the integration of the application with a new corporate information portal that provides executive access to graphical environmental data. It was the direct executive access feature that convinced top level people that the new "WATER-based" environmental information system had really "arrived."

Advantages of the WATER System

The measurable benefits of implementing a good software system with a WATER approach are manifold.

  • Streamlined Discharge Reporting: Automated data handling, calculations, and reporting reduces time spent on "number crunching," allowing you to focus on higher value tasks.
  • Increased Accuracy: The system allows water data to be analyzed and reported using optimal aggregation and pro-rating techniques applicable to each data source.
  • Decreased Fines: An effective software system reduces the likelihood of deviations, and resulting violations, through automated task management.
  • Data-driven e-mail notification system: A good water information management system will include the ability to set up e-mail notifications to warn of approaching limits before they are exceeded, and to allow resampling events.
  • Decrease impact of employee turn-over: By implementing a centralized, standardized system, your reliance on a single spreadsheet master for critical compliance data is reduced, decreasing the risk to your business when employees leave.

The indirect benefit of WATER is having an environmental management information system you can depend on to meet the increasingly high standards of accountability that you, your company stakeholders, and your customers expect. That is doing the right thing.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Water and Wastewater Products, Vol. 5, No. 5.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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