Otay Water District Leading the Way Through Technology
By Susana Villegas
“When I first came to the District, it was obvious that this wasn’t your grandpa’s water district,” said Adolfo Segura, Chief of Administration Services for the Otay Water District. Segura, who worked for more than 12 years at the Port of San Diego, was attracted to Otay’s culture of embracing technology. “Otay was applying technology to better serve its customers, and I wanted to be a part of it.” That spirit of innovation continues today, as the District has adopted the use of drones in its operations to make its employees safer, to monitor the environment and fauna around its reservoirs and other properties, and to respond to customer calls and concerns more effectively.
When Segura joined the Otay Water District six years ago, the District had implemented automated meter readers (AMR), which allowed specially equipped District vehicles to “read” a one-way radio signal from residential water meters up to a half-mile away. No longer would meters need to be inspected manually each month to take water use readings from the District’s more than 49,000 water meters. The $10.4 million transition to new AMR meters reduced the need to enter customers’ property and improved the safety of District employees. The hourly data from AMR meters also helped to save customers water and money by helping to identify an unusual water use pattern from a leak, a malfunctioning sprinkler system, or other anomalies that can cause unexpected and unwanted spikes in water use.
The Otay Water District is maintaining its commitment to continuous improvement of its service to customers and to the safety of its employees through the use of new technologies. The District’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan lists dozens of projects where technology will optimize its operations, such as further leveraging the Geographic Information Systems across the District, adopting a national cyber security framework, and exploring web-based technologies to enhance its fleet. Among the most promising uses of technology is the introduction of drones into the District’s operations.
After a two-year study and evaluation period, the District is now using drones to assist with preliminary inspection of its water facilities, which include 40 potable water reservoirs, four recycled water reservoirs, 20 pump stations, and a recycled water treatment plant. Initial inspection of water tanks by drones, for example, reduces the need for water operators to access tanks, thereby minimizing the risk of potential injuries. The operational gains in efficiency by utilizing drones for general surveying and inspection of District assets will also help the District meet the demands of expected customer growth over the next six years. The population served by the District is expected to grow from 225,000 to 308,000 by 2050. The District expects applications for 11,000 new water meters in the next six years alone.
The District’s Fiscal Year 2019 Capital Improvement Program calls for more than $24 million of investment in key water and wastewater infrastructure projects to prepare for future demand. The District and its contractors are using drones, for example, to monitor the progress of these projects, including the construction of the 36-million-gallon expansion of the Roll Reservoir. Images and information from contractor drones are used in quarterly presentation reports to the District’s Board of Directors.
Drones are also assisting the District in protecting the diverse biological habitats and plant and animal species within the Otay River, Sweetwater River, San Diego River, and Tijuana River watersheds. The District operates within these watersheds and works with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulatory agencies to ensure that plant and animal species are protected and that water quality is maintained throughout the District. This includes management of the San Miguel Habitat Management Area (HMA), a biological preserve of more than 230 acres created by the District within the City of Chula Vista. The HMA is home to coastal sage scrub, wetlands, native grasslands, and burrowing owl and cactus wren habitat. Drones help the District monitor wildlife, bird nesting, and the overall health of the HMA’s vegetation. The District’s drones can also help to spot potential fire risk areas and facilitate fire prevention related work that may be needed. Drones have also helped to assess and quickly resolve customer concerns over neighboring fauna and vegetation on District managed lands.
“We are proud to be a public water district that is constantly evaluating technology tools and incorporating them into our best practices to deliver value to our customers,” said Segura. Mark Watton, General Manager of the Otay Water District, agrees. “Technology is important to meeting the expectations of our customers today and to creating the foundation to meet the expectations of our customers five, ten, and twenty years from now. Technology helps us to innovate to continue to do our job better and better.”