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New Infrastructure Bill Gives Duke-based Program a National Role

The Duke-based Internet of Water will serve as the model for a national pilot program to improve how water data is shared.

logo of the Internet of Water

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into federal law on Monday will invest $1.2 trillion to modernize America’s infrastructure. With one sentence, it also brings an innovative project based at Duke University—the Internet of Water—to the national level:

“The Internet of Water principles developed by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions shall, to the extent practicable, guide any water data sharing efforts under the pilot program,” the bill states.

Through the pilot program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will grant $15 million to projects aimed at more easily sharing information on water quality, water infrastructure needs and water technology between state and local agencies.

The inclusion of the Internet of Water as a guide for this program will transform an idea six years in the making into federal policy.

“Water data infrastructure is a critical part of the nation’s water infrastructure; modernization needs to start with our basic data infrastructure,” said Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute. Doyle and Lauren Patterson, a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute, co-founded the Internet of Water.

The project aims to better harness large, but dispersed, amounts of data to manage and deliver water in a more sustainable way. It is managed by a small team of water scientists, data architects, policy experts and program coordinators housed at the Nicholas Institute, which recently merged with the Duke University Energy Initiative.

The concept started with the annual Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum in 2015 and grew over a series of subsequent discussions. Water experts, managers, policymakers, regulators and other stakeholders shared their input for how to create better water data infrastructure to connect publicly collected sources of information. That dialogue culminated in a 2017 report that offered a vision for upgrading water data infrastructure nationwide. 

The principles that will be used in the EPA grant program flow directly from those articulated in the report.

"The pilot program in the infrastructure bill allows us to sustain and scale the modernization of public water data infrastructure across states," said Peter Colohan, executive director of the Internet of Water. “This will enable public agencies to exchange water data more easily and build a more complete picture of the water resources they manage.”

Through a variety of initiatives, the Internet of Water is building support for applying these principles to transform and modernize public water data infrastructure and enable equitable, sustainable and resilient water management. Collaborative projects with partners in North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas and California are aimed at demonstrating the benefits of findable, accessible and usable water data. The project team is creating technical tools and resources to enable adoption of open water data best practices. A growing peer-to-peer network also connects professionals from across the country to share their knowledge and learn from each other.

Going forward, other key collaborators in the project include the Western States Water Council, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc., the Water Data Collaborative and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

“We could not have gotten the federal government interested in the idea until it had traction from the private sector, NGOs, local governments and state governments,” Doyle said. “That is the sustained, block-and-tackle work needed to do actual policy engagement—and it is what the Nicholas Institute was designed to do.”

The Internet of Water is funded by philanthropic foundations and federal agencies. Project funders include the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, Kingfisher Foundation, Pisces Foundation, S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, BHP Foundation, Walton Family Foundation and Water Funder Initiative.