Sewer waste management is dirty work. In the current labor market, it’s not a job many people are interested in. But cities have to get it done for public health and infrastructure integrity.
“Looks like we have a lot of silt. That’s an indicator for infiltration. We’re getting infiltration somewhere along this pipe,” Justin Guerra, a utilities supervisor with the City of Galveston, said.
This crew is responsible for assessing and cleaning the sewer pipes below us. It’s all to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“It’s a dirty job. A lot of people don't want to do it. Nobody wants to step in it, be around it,” Trino Pedraza, the director of public works and utilities for the City of Galveston, said.
It starts with a sewer line rapid assessment test, which transmits sound waves through the sewer main and gives it a condition score. Then another crew cleans the line, and a camera crew goes in to take a video. This lets them see any potential problems that need to be fixed.
“There’s a lot of conditions that go into this,” Guerra said.
It can take a lot of time and a lot of people.
“It’s already a little difficult to get people in the utility business because we’re not the highest-paid group. We’re public servants,” Pedraza said.
He’s always looking for ways to do more with less.
“Right now, applicants are just not coming in. We’ve had positions open for six months, but what we can do is make sure that people aren't leaving,” he said. “What’s important is that we’re applying the money that we do have and the resources that we do have to the areas in need.”
Galveston chose to invest in artificial intelligence to help get the most out of its workers.
“Our primary technologies is called autocode and what we do is we’ve trained a number of AI computer vision models to automatically identify conditions inside of the pipe,” Eric Sullivan, the director of business development at Sewer AI, said. Sewer AI is the company providing AI services in Galveston.
“Now, the operators don't have to do all that manual data entry,” Sullivan explained. “We’ve documented a doubling of production. It does depend and in some cases, we’ve had folks accomplish more than a doubling of production in a day.”
Cities will need increased productivity to repair aging sewer infrastructure, which affects every city in America.
The 2021 Infrastructure Report Card graded the U.S. wastewater system as a D+.
“This type of issue unaddressed is going to continue to cause public health problems,” Sullivan said.
It’s something the City of Galveston is trying to be proactive about.
Economist Stephan Weiler said any new technology can cause a shift in the workforce.
“Technology does replace workers but it also makes the workers that stay, much more efficient,” Weiler said. He said the pandemic has changed what people want to do, or what they’ll tolerate in a job.
“You get the sense that this really is sort of a once in a lifetime kind of reorganization of workers and workers in companies,” he explained.
For Pedraza, it’s created a system to address problems faster.
“That productivity is leading to other data that’s allowing personnel like myself and the engineering department to make decisions to go and take care of areas that are in need and we’re having that information faster,” he said.