Partnering to Transform Water
Partnership is core to how Xylem operates; one great example of Xylem’s long-term, strategic partnerships is with the city of South Bend, Indiana.
To solve the world’s biggest water challenges you need partners that share a vision and are willing to push boundaries to make a difference. Making Waves recently took time to talk to Kieran Fahey, Director, Long-Term Control Plan, Department of Public Works, City of South Bend, about the partnership he helped create and the impact it continues to have on the community.
Q: Tell us about your role in South Bend?
A: I'm the director of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) long term control plan. Essentially, I’m tasked with improving the water quality of the St. Joseph River here in South Bend by planning for the future infrastructure needs.
Most sewers are very different from the other items of infrastructure of modern cities in the sense that they just evolve as opposed to being planned. As the city develops and expands, so does the sewer. As a result, the pipes making up the system will be made from different material in different neighborhoods. Some of them may not even have been seen since they were installed in the ground, which leads to a much less planned-out system than the one’s visible to us on the surface. My job is to look at how the system needs to evolve to meet the needs of the City for not just today but for the next 20 to 25 years and beyond.
Q: What’s the biggest water challenge you’re trying to solve in your role?
A: The biggest challenge for me is eliminating bacteria in the St. Joseph River caused by human waste. About 10 years ago, we used to have over 2 billion gallons of sewage that flowed directly into the river.
Our task has been to stop this sewage overflow and manage the entire system sustainably and in a way that better serves the needs of the community.
We’ve been doing this against a backdrop of emerging CSO policies from the EPA designed to change how sewer overflows are managed and tightening budgets. This has required us to rethink our existing sewer management approach for South Bend but with extremely limited amounts of money to invest in the problem. After a couple of years searching for solutions, we knew we needed to bring partners on board to help, and in doing so, it has allowed us to address our problems financially, environmental and regulatory.
Q: How important is building strong partnerships to solving that challenge?
A: It was critical to our success; people coming together and working collaboratively and openly has been at the heart of everything we’ve done over the last 10 years and is a major factor in how we’re working into the future. The partnerships we developed here were very organic in nature at first. We had a significant problem we needed to solve and our partners in University of Notre Dame and Xylem were looking at testing new thinking. That meant that we were able to give them an opportunity to use us as a sandbox to explore their thinking and technology. That's essentially how it started off and since then our partnerships have grown even stronger and yielded incredible results for our community.
Q: How has partnering with Xylem helped you solve water for your community?
A: I think the easiest way I describe it is that it’s like if you have a traffic congestion problem in your city but for some reason you can't see your streets. The first thing to do is to be able to count the number of cars that go down certain streets before you can start to solve that congestion problem. The truth was that before we started installing AI-powered sensors and working with the Xylem team, we didn't know what sewer lines were choked and overutilized and what additional capacity existed in the system. We could look down a manhole, but it was still only one glimpse at a point in time. By leveraging digital technologies like smart sensors, we were able to tell continuously how to best manage each sewer’s capacity.
That was just the start really. From there the Xylem team has helped us continuously learn from that data, providing us with insights that let us optimize our existing assets and transform the way we work. It’s a new kind of approach, not based on just using sensors for managing traffic flow but mining the data that we've gathered over 10 years to gain a deeper understanding of our network and remodel the whole system.
The benefit this has delivered for the community is huge.
From a pure numbers perspective, we spent $400 million less than originally expected. For South Bend, with a population of just over 100,000, if we hadn’t optimized our system by working with Xylem, the original cost estimate would have equated to about $10,000 per citizen.
That's just the finances but there have also been additional benefits for the community. We have been able to protect and enhance our flagship parks as well as improve the community aesthetics with green infrastructure thanks to the sewer sensor data that has helped inform us where best to install new features. As a result, people see nice new street pavers, more trees and rain gardens, bioswales, things that that will be beneficial to the aesthetics of the community for years to come.
The new plan, while it's a lot cheaper, has achieved all the environmental benefit of the old plan and more. Volumes of combined sewer overflows have been reduced by more than 75% or about one and a half billion gallons per year. And E. coli concentrations have dropped in the St. Joseph River by more than 50% on average. We're going to achieve all the environmental reduction that was proposed in the old plan in 2012 but the new plan is going to be that and more.
It's a win, win, win really.
Q: How excited are you to leverage cutting-edge technologies, including digital solutions, to optimize other parts of your system?
A: I'm very excited because it's something I’ve found very rewarding. We’ve had a lot of success so far, but we want to go to the next stage and see what success we could have in the future. Everything we've done now has been in the collection system, in the sewer, in the field, in the streets, in the parks. Our next project that we're going to do with Xylem is to look at how we manage our wastewater treatment plant to optimize it in a way that will save energy and more efficiently treat water. We don’t want to stop there though, we see so much more potential to transform the city be it through smart sustainable infrastructure, smart stormwater basins and connecting our data systems. These are things that are hugely beneficial for the environment and for the community, but also for us as engineers to be excited about.
Q: What does it feel like to be on the leading-edge of water innovation – to bring that innovation and impact to your community?
A: I feel like I have had a little glimpse into the future in a way. I’m also very conscious that there are other communities struggling with the same problems we faced. That’s why we try to get out and do as much communications about the success we've had, because as an engineer...
It's just cool to be able to say to communities; I see your problems, we had the exact same problems, we did all these things, you should do these things too, and you should do them today,
and if you have more questions, talk to me tomorrow after you’ve got the sensors in the ground. Because as soon as you start gathering the data, you're on the road to success. We've seen the other side of the infrastructure problem and know that while investing in smart technology won't solve everything, it will solve 80% of the problems for water infrastructure. That’s the message we want to get to other communities.
Q: What’s your biggest learning in how to build great partnerships?
A: For me it is the importance of building trust, trust in your professional judgment, trust in your instinct, trust that you've got good partners.
From the start I think what really helped us, was the alignment we shared. All of us were working together to solve this big, complex problem. We were tackling it in new and innovative ways but without big egos. Nobody was trying to be the smartest person in the room. It was honest, hard work and a true exchange.
Working with Xylem we always felt that they had something at stake, not only were some of their people based locally but they were very motivated to prove their technology – to deliver results for our operations and for the community. That meant that they were and continue to be honest and open in our partnership. They’ve made our lives easier.
We’re fortunate to have a team of good people working together to deliver huge results for the community.
When you do find partners like this that you trust, embrace it, lean into what the partnership can become, because if you do, you can deliver impacts beyond any expectations.
Xylem Innovator Spotlight: Luis Montestruque
Luis Montestruque, Senior Advisor to Xylem, has been a key architect of Xylem’s Wastewater Network Optimization solution, part of the Xylem Vue digital portfolio, working with the City of South Bend and Notre Dame since the very beginning to bring to life this game-changing digital solution. In his words:
Working with the City of South Bend and its Public Works Department has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. At the heart of our approach was our commitment to co-development, studying and learning the unique challenges that their water system and community faced. We met frequently to brainstorm and test different models. And through that constant collaboration, we began to work through once intractable problems, one by one.
What I’ve learned is that innovation is not about a singular idea or an algorithm or solution, and it’s not about a single person or organization.
To realize truly transformative results, you need to be able to find new ways to solve problems. And the best way to do that is to bring together a diverse group of talented, passionate people who will stop at nothing to make bold innovation happen.
Xylem Vue is Xylem's digital platform – comprising our digital products, solutions and services. We make it easier for customers to see our full offering in one platform that spans our solutions, technology and expertise. We empower customers to unlock data-driven insights, wherever they are in their digital journey and enabling them to realize transformative outcomes, faster and more affordably.
For more on how Xylem is partnering with our customers to leverage the power of digital technologies, visit Xylem Vue.