Most people think of municipal water as a matter of pipes and pumps, sewers and drains. Despite the low-tech expectation, the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District is proving that technology can play a pivotal role in the efficient distribution of water throughout a community.
In recent years the district’s nine-member IT team has led a migration to state-of-the-art meters. Now the team is in the midst of a major upgrade to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, ditching legacy platforms in favor of a cloud configuration.
“As a growing organization we have ever more complex day-to-day processes, and we need a more modern system to support that,” said IT Director Jim Ollerton. He helps ensure the district can meet the needs of some 144,000 water and wastewater customers in a 97-square-mile service area in western Riverside County.
The ERP upgrades are rolling out in stages, with each iteration addressing a key element of the district’s business operations. The district deployed cloud-based financial and supply-chain systems a year and a half ago. The human resources function is slated for an upgrade in March, with payroll systems rounding out the suite in early 2020. (A current list of county RFPs/bids is available online.)
“Originally we had a homegrown system, and then a legacy commercial system, and now we are on a modern system, on a modern technology stack. We’re multi-tenant in the cloud with a consumer-style interface. It’s more easily accessible and it’s more secure,” Ollerton said.
The IT team gave special attention to the human element in preparing for its leap to the cloud. Recognizing that end users will always be tentative around adopting a new interface, they invited business leaders from across the organization to be part of the new system early on.
“We involved the staff in all the planning, they participated in the design of the system and that made a huge difference, as opposed to just handing them a finished system at the end of the project,” he said.
Even with only two major business systems up and running on the new platform, the district has already reaped tangible benefits from the upgrade, which has enabled it to shut down more than a dozen servers.
“My staff no longer has to staff and patch those servers and applications,” Ollerton said. “We are also paying our vendors quicker. The system runs more efficiently and staff now have better access to the data through the improved reporting tools.”
The ERP upgrade comes on the heels of the successful introduction of some 45,000 automated meters across the district’s mostly residential customer base. The district completed that effort in 2017, supported by $4.76 million in grants and low-interest loans from the State Water Resources Control Board’s Green Project Program.
“Historically we would have meters that were either manually read by a person, or read monthly with a drive-by system,” Ollerton said. “We wanted to install radios on all our meters that would do an hourly read and we would provide that information to the customers through the portal where they pay their bills.”
In addition to saving the time and effort of manual meter-readers, the automated meters also represent a big potential financial win for customers.
“We now have the ability to notify customers of potential leaks or problems with their water service on their property, which is something the hourly read can identify,” Ollerton said. “If you wait a week or a month to spot something like that, it can get very expensive.”
While the district’s engineers handled meter installations, the IT team worked to ensure that all the data from the new meters could be effectively ingested.
“We had to build out a data collector network, the backhaul that all the meters communicated with. There was a collaborative effort to place about 70 data collectors around the area, which we collocated with district assets such as tanks and poles and pump stations,” Ollerton said.
Now the care and feeding of that network is largely in the vendor’s hands, as the district leases the network.
“We don’t have the staff to maintain and troubleshoot the network, so it made sense to do it this way,” he said.
All these efforts serve to demonstrate that even with a seemingly nuts-and-bolts government function like water service, IT can play a central role in business transformation.
“We are heavy users of Office 365 and all the applications that go along with that. We manage security and passwords and thousands of IP addresses. We have a vast surveillance system, including over 100 cameras watching for vandalism and theft. All our vehicles are tracked; we know their location and their speed. We have a robust mobile work order system,” Ollerton said. “IT plays a role in pretty much every one of our business processes.”