We maintain the same tariff for everyone—that’s our main principle—and also the same quality of service, no matter whether it’s a very little town in the mountains, where sending them drinking water or taking the sewage is very, very expensive in per capita terms, or whether they live in the center of the town.

In this latest installment of Distilled, host Will Sarni, CEO of Water Foundry, delves into a new guest’s background and career path to find out how they began working in water before discussing the transformation of the city they live and work in, and the benefits of digital water technology. 

Koldo Urkullu, Director of Operations and Asset Management at the Bilbao Water Consortium (Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia) joined Will to talk through his journey in the world of water. Will began by asking Koldo to discuss what led him to pursue a career in the water industry. 

Watch the full video episode below or keep reading for the write-up.

Koldo’s journey into the world of water

After completing his studies in engineering at the University of Bilbao, Koldo was approached by the university to undertake a project for the hydraulics laboratory. Shortly after, he secured a position as an engineer responsible for operational maintenance, supply network management, and water treatment plants at the Bilbao Water Consortium.

The rest, as they say, is history—Koldo continues to work at the consortium to this day. 

Koldo on Bilbao Water Company’s unique composition of municipalities

Moving on from Koldo’s origin story, Will asked him to elaborate on how the consortium was able to aggregate multiple municipalities that currently serve over a million people.

Looking back to the 1960s, Koldo explained how there were many significant water-related problems in Bilbao and the surrounding areas. He explained how around 10 municipalities came together to construct a large dam around 50 kilometers away from the town, and over time, more municipalities began to arise. 

He also explained that as sewage pipes and wastewater treatment plants were beginning to be constructed in the late 1980s, more municipalities that did not have their own sewage system began to approach the consortium. By the 1990s, around 45 municipalities had joined forces.

We also started running the distribution water networks, and the municipalities outside this area came to us because they wanted to be sustainable. They couldn’t afford the expenses of being independent, they didn’t have the resources to maintain water—especially wastewater which is very expensive to operate and maintain. And at this time, we are nearly 100 municipalities—nearly all of the 112 in Bizkaia County.

Koldo predicts that in the next 4-6 years, the consortium will encompass all municipalities within Bizkaia County. Emphasizing that the consortium is a public entity under municipal ownership, he said that their primary objective isn’t profit-making. Instead, their commitment lies in conducting business sustainably and ensuring the most affordable fees for citizens.

Koldo reflects on the evolving demands on the water system amid Bilbao’s transformation from industrial powerhouse to vibrant city

Will then asked Koldo to explain how the water industry has adapted and supported Bilbao’s transformation over the past few decades. 

Koldo said that the consortium has played a pivotal role in the city’s transformation. The city was previously an industrial hub reliant on the polluted river itself as its primary sewage pipe, with large shipyards, steelworks, and mineries—a far cry from the modern city we see today. In the 1980s, they began construction along the banks of the river to redirect the sewers that were going into the river to the wastewater treatment plant. 

Nowadays, Koldo explains how they engage with different industries to help them with identifying how to suitably treat their water, and how both the construction of the pipes and this collaboration have helped make the river a pleasant place to be around.

Life has gone into the river again. In terms of money and investment in the Basque country, I think this transformation has been the biggest investment in health and in the environment.

Koldo also reflected on the significant role of the citizens in this transformation. He noted how as the sewage pipes were being laid and services were yet to be rendered, citizens willingly made advance payments to the consortium. This act of trust signified their confidence in the consortium’s ability to deliver exceptional results and manage investments in a way that would benefit the city greatly.

Koldo on the advantages of digital water technology for utility customers

Will then cited the International Water Association’s recognition of the consortium as a catalyst for change in terms of digital water technology. He asked Koldo to explain where they began with the technology, the value it creates for customers, and how he predicts it will develop in the future.

Koldo described how in 1990, the consortium developed its first telemetry systems, starting with a project of 50 remote stations that were joined to a presential host. Highlighting the challenges of weak programmable controllers and non-existent communication links, he detailed how they went on to install their own cables alongside the pipelines and establish radio links.

Today, they have around 1,000 programmable controllers and are receiving half a million pieces of data every second.

Our challenge now is to keep order of this huge amount of data and try to manage it to support our decisions… I think our decisions will be stronger and we’ll make more accurate investments.

He also added that there was a change in personnel to support this digital transformation, whereby they added instrumentation and mechanical experts and telecommunications engineers with highly technical skills to their workforce. 

Wrapping up and looking to the future, Koldo said now is an important time for the industry to invest in hiring electronic and telecommunications engineers—as well experts in mathematics—to be able to interpret and use the wealth of data being produced across the industry.

Interested in more Distilled content?

Hosted by Water Foundry CEO Will Sarni, Distilled is a video podcast series that features water leaders from around the world. Each one-on-one conversation explores the guest’s unique career path, discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the water industry, and considers what’s next for water. 

You’ll find more episodes here.

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