When Pnina Vortman was growing up in Israel, she was aware of the importance of water in her life. Israel is a semi-arid country that depends in large part on the Sea of Galilee for drinking water and other uses. A breakthrough came in 1964 when Israel completed its National Water Carrier network, which brought abundant water supplies to the central and southern parts of the country. The system made possible massive irrigation projects, which transformed parts of Israel into a garden paradise. Mangos and other fresh fruits and vegetables starting appearing in her family’s kitchen.
Today, as a scientist with IBM Research, Vortman’s job is to come up with breakthroughs that enable water utilities to conserve water and money, while at the same time providing the water that consumers want and need. She leads a team at IBM Research – Haifa that designed a new system for monitoring and managing water pressure that could provide a model for many cities and communities seeking to deal with tight water supplies and growing demands. IBM has put the system to work for the Sonoma Country Water Agency, which serves more than 600,000 customers in Northern California. The first pilot is being done with the Valley of the Moon Water District, one of the distributors of the agency’s water. “We found that if we can manage the pressure in a flexible way, everybody can benefit,” says Vortman.
IBM has been working with the water agency for several years to help it improve efficiency and balance the needs of consumers and the natural environment.
The latest work with the agency, which is led by IBM Research – Haifa, is aimed at addressing a conundrum in water management: how do you keep pressure at the right level for users without worsening leaks and wearing out equipment? The answer, according to Vortman, is that water utilities have to view their systems holistically and manage them more precisely. They must view the water system as a complex entity and come up with a way of optimizing it to produce the most efficient and effective results–just like you optimize a transportation system, an electrical grid or a company’s supply chain.
In the past, Sonoma kept the pressure high on the entire water-delivery system so it wouldn’t get complaints from customers. But that put a lot of stress on their equipment. Vortman and her team tapped data analytics to help address the problem. Using the agency’s existing pressure and flow meters, they have mapped the system and created a statistical model integrated with hydraulic simulation that they use to simulate what happens when pressure is increased or decreased in specific areas. Using the simulations as a guide, the agency’s engineers manually adjust pumps and valves spread throughout the county.
The system was installed in October, and, already, Vortman says, it has helped improve the agency’s efficiency. The agency avoided massive pressure spikes, which happened before, to deal with localized pressure deficiencies. Vortman and her team are now working on refinements that will make it easier for the agency to spot the location of leaks in pipes and other equipment so they can be fixed quickly and affordably.
For Vortman, better water management is more than just a job; it’s a quest. “Every country has to come up with new ways of dealing with water. Analytics can help,” she says.