Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) may be the answer to standardized water quality and unifying fragmented watersheds.

It is safe to say that water quality is a concern to everyone. From anglers to swimmers to naturalists, people are focused on the quality of water in our ecology. Likewise, operators, engineers and scientists in water utilities manage the quality from intake to distribution to reclamation. Further, water quality is critical to many industrial processes, and of course public health officials and everyone who drinks water (everyone) must, at some point, consider the quality of the water they drink. Water quality, is without a doubt, a component of our water cycle that we all care about.

This concern is reflected in the number of water quality testing requirements expected of public water suppliers in the US, waste water utilities, public health agencies and the Department of Environmental Protection. Many of these testing requirements are conducted every day, and even every hour, to protect the public health and the quality of our environment. Billions of dollars are spent annually on this process. But like the professional water industry itself, the management of all this data is exceptionally fragmented. Each of these data collectors is gathering information for their specified purpose and mission – often to fulfill a regulatory requirement. They gather data and keep it siloed in their own circles to demonstrate regulatory compliance and to explore their specific narrow concerns.

This fragmentation is not intentional, malicious or intended to be exclusionary, it is simply a byproduct of the regulatory and jurisdictional nature of the industry. Rarely is water quality a competitive industry, and when provided the opportunity, water utility leaders are exceptionally collaborative. With a clear interest, ubiquitous sampling and collaborative people, one must wonder why every watershed does not have a holistic database of water quality. Imagine how water quality data shared across stakeholders of a watershed could lead to changes in the way we govern water:

  1. Transparency: Providing access to information leads to enhanced customer engagement. Currently, the utilities are performing the required minimum by publishing annual consumer confidence reports.  By proactively sharing water quality data, utilities can continue to engage their customers and build trust. Proactive water quality data assessment/management and communication could have minimized the public outcry associated with the recent water quality issues in Flint, MI and Fresno, CA.
  2. Customer Engagement: Higher customer engagement leads to higher customer satisfaction. The two primary reasons why water utilities tend to minimize communication associated with water quality include:
    • Utilities don’t want to burden customers with technical jargon associated with water quality.
    • The possibility of putting too much information in front of the customer might come back to bite them should an issue arise. However, in 2004, AWWA demonstrated utilities that share water quality data with their customers receive a higher customer satisfaction scores.

     3. Predictive Analytics: Better data and IT management coupled with operational analytics by in-house or third party entities can be leveraged for real-time monitoring and can help predict potential water quality issues within a watershed. When combined with data from additional stakeholders, such as EPA or Departments of Natural Resources, the value could be enhanced greatly.

Given these benefits, one might ask, how can this be done?

LIMS as a platform to manage water quality data

Fortunately, there are tools available to water quality managers. Some tools, such as a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) are ubiquitous in current laboratory settings, and have the potential to standardize processes, store data, reduce errors, and share information. These systems can be integrated into a singular whole, and can be shared on a common, secure platform.  But this is just the beginning. Data from a LIMS platform can be a jumping off point for a larger idea. Water quality platforms can be extended far beyond the walls of a laboratory and extend into the ecology, and industry of our watershed.  It can transform the perspective of the quality stakeholders within a watershed.

Utilities as a platform for watershed management

Great opportunity currently exists for water utilities to step up and lead efforts related to data management and sharing through a collaborative holistic approach for watersheds. The problems facing our water managers today are beyond their ability to solve alone.  Flooding, quality, scarcity – none can be solved by a single entity, and none can be solved without the right data and ability to translate that data into information. Utilities ought to consider taking the lead role in curating and compiling the data needed for a collaborative holistic perspective, and they ought to start now. It will take time and money, but most of all, it will require vision from the governance of utilities to work collaboratively and cooperatively to help solve these watershed scale problems. Sharing data on a single platform is a step in the right direction.