March 26, 2012, Updated September 11, 2012

Much of America may be blessed with loads of fresh water, but in the heart of drought-stricken California wine country, in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon, more than half a million people cannot take for granted that they’ll receive a constant supply of water for home, industry and agriculture.

A new partnership between the county and IBM-Israel is “smartening up” the region’s water system with automatic leak detection and water-management systems to help California reach its goal of reducing water usage 20 percent by 2020. Running as a pilot program since October, after another six months the technology will proceed to the commercial stage so it can be used by counties across the United States.

Pnina Vortman heads the IBM Smarter Water Program based in Haifa at the IBM Research labs. Her team has developed new software tools to optimize valve pressure, using data from gauges and sensors throughout the system.

The commercial project will also help Sonoma County anticipate and circumvent crises like burst pipes.

“Smarter Planet [deals with] other topics like energy and traffic, and we do work in other areas as well, but we decided to put more efforts on water, because being in Israel, water technology is one of our strengths,” Vortman tells ISRAEL21c.

This strength is badly needed around the world. In Sonoma County, where water mangers once relied on “guestimates” to optimize water flow and management, the new IBM tool gives them an easy way to assess pressure adjustments based on the real number of users, weather patterns and environmental conditions.

Energy savings, less wear on the infrastructure and better water quality are added benefits of smarter water management developed by the Israeli team.

Boiling water down to data

“Every object can produce data and ‘talk’ to a system,” explains Vortman. “Once an object can produce data, then the data is the business of IBM. We can do a lot with data, such as analytics and optimization. This is what drives IBM to new understandings and insight. We use data to serve, improve and provide people with capabilities to make smarter processes with the data.”

The new program involving the Israeli research scientists and the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is built on an existing IBM partnership, adding new analytics technology to help the Valley of the Moon district reduce water loss.

Vortman says that among the 30 or so labs of its kind around the world, Israeli one is a leader, mainly because of the team’s experience dealing with water loss and drought. The IBM lab in Haifa specializes in analytics and optimization, areas in computer science critical for measuring, monitoring and optimizing water data.

Coordinating the labyrinth of aging pipes, valves and tanks was a mathematical challenge. If one well stops working, a tank simply won’t be filled, and if tanks don’t empty properly, water quality can be compromised. A leak can cause water pressure over the entire system to go haywire.

It takes one to know one

Until now, water managers had to adjust all controls manually, a time-consuming process that isn’t efficient or safe. The IBM tool now provides optimal settings for each valve in the entire system, and detects leaks so that they can be fixed without delay.

Vortman’s team helps build smarter water management solutions in the United States, China, Israel and other parts of Asia. She says: “The Israel team is not the biggest, but one of the leading teams. We are the first one to start dealing with water, and we have unique value in special areas like pressure management.”

Water, and lack of it, is at the heart of the Israeli identity. Since the founding of the state in 1948, conserving water has been critical for survival, and that led to many advances in water tech. Today, 75 percent of all Israel’s wastewater is recycled for agriculture.

“Living in an environment where water conservation and management have always been of primary concern is a great motivator for new ideas, partners and research,” Vortman says.

“Ideally, future systems will be able to do self-checks to make sure they’re complying with water-quality standards or availability and pressure service levels and then automatically adapt or send an alert when things are not up to standard.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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