For thousands of years, people living in the Sonoran Desert Valley have valued water. In the last century, as the Tucson region population has grown to nearly one million, the City of Tucson and our Tucson Water Department have continually championed innovation, public education and conservation to ensure that we use our water wisely.
Now we face a new century full of numerous uncertainties. At what rate will Tucson continue to grow? How will political forces, climate change, the economics of energy and other dynamics affect Tucson’s water supply? And how can we make more cost-effective investments in public education and infrastructure to increase conservation, reduce water loss and ensure that future generations of Tucsonans enjoy a more secure water future?
One critical area for cost-effective investment is technology. We are converting all of our customer water meters to digital in order to reduce the amount of labor required to manually read all the 225,000 customer meters each month. And we are replacing our Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system in order to improve our ability to control and manage our water distribution system.
These systems will cost millions of dollars over a number of years. And as mayor, I want to make sure these investments result in better customer service, reduced labor costs, better leak detection, more data-driven management of Tucson Water. In addition to managing our water more efficiently, we also want to establish a set of best practices that we can use beyond the Water Department and across city government.
I was pleased that Tucson was selected for a 2013 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant. As a result, a team of senior IBM executives came to Tucson for three weeks to listen to our story, learn about our water system and lend their expertise. They came from North Carolina, Texas, New York, California and Virginia to learn about how one of the most arid American cities is setting the standard for wise water use. The IBM team lived in our community and worked with the Tucson Water Department. They learned a great deal and helped us even more.
The Smarter Cities team’s final report delivered exactly what we were looking for. It contained a roadmap with both shorter and longer term recommendations. The report did not recommend additional investments beyond our means, but it did make an effective case for the timing and scheduling of our planned investments – recommendations which will help us achieve better near-term results while we develop sustainable practices for this ongoing project. The four areas of improvement detailed in the roadmap were:
- Improve customer service with automated metering
- Modernize our meter management systems
- Implement advanced operations management systems
- Build additional capacities for our existing information technology systems
It was also important to me that the city would be able to scale the Smarter Cities recommendations and apply their principles to other departments. If fully implemented, the Smarter Cities roadmap recommendations will improve Water Department efficiency and service, strengthen the IT Department, and serve as a model for other departments across city government.
It’s clear that IBM has made a strategic decision to focus on the opportunities and challenges facing cities around the world through its Smarter Cities program. They understand that a city is a “system of systems,” and that comprehensive analyses of the ways these systems interact with one another and with the populations they serve are critical to improving the quality of life of citizens everywhere. IBM’s selection of Tucson as a global smarter city has given us the chance to demonstrate that we have some of the highest standards for resource management, conservation, financial planning and community engagement for municipal water departments anywhere in the United States.
Thank you to IBM and to the IBMers who became Tucsonans during their three weeks with us. I have no doubt that we will continue to share information in the future and build upon what we learned during our time together. In this way, the wise water strategies Tucsonans have learned from our desert ancestors will be further refined and shared with other smart cities facing similar challenges in a changing world.
Jonathan Rothschild is the Mayor of Tucson, Arizona.