Drought May Force California’s Water System Into the 21st Century

Smart waters meters, rate restructuring and gray water recycling could turn the tide in California's water crisis

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

As California withers in its fourth year of extreme drought, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a mandatory 25 percent cut in water consumption in the coming year for the state’s local water supply agencies that serve urban areas.

Although the current order is short term, it could ultimately help transform how California’s city dwellers use water, especially in terms of how data and analytics aid in conservation.

Metering and Analytics Come to the Water World

The water agencies will have to report monthly on usage, conservation and enforcement efforts. To meet those goals, many water agencies may adopt water analytics platforms for both enhanced customer information and better measurement and verification similar to what the electric industry has used in recent years.

Using water data, agencies can provide tailored efficiency tips to customers and compare their use to neighbors to push them towards further conservation. Data-driven analytics can also help segment customers to pinpoint who can benefit most from efficiency programs.

“Peer-to-peer comparison has a lot of potential,” says Ed Osann, senior water policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that it can cut about 5 percent without any further investment in water efficient technologies. One California startup that provides this software, WaterSmart, announced a new round of funding just one week after Governor Brown’s announcement.

Water utilities are also increasingly turning to smart water meters, says Osann. Like digital electric meters that have been rolled out more widely, smart water meters let customers see their usage in close to real-time rather than in a monthly or quarterly bill.

San Francisco is the largest city so far to invest in smart water meters at a cost of about $56 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Long Beach, Calif., city officials are using the digital meters selectively to record water usage in five-minute intervals, according to a report by NPR. The city is then using that data to leverage fines on those using too much water, like a local McDonalds.

Right Price for the Right Technology

The order calls for new rate structures along with a crackdown on offenders, which could make smart meters more attractive in some municipalities. Water suppliers also must develop rate structures that maximize water conservation and the governor has ordered the California Public Utilities Commission to take similar action with investor-owned water utilities.

The drought is not just hitting consumer’s wallets in terms of water bills. The Pacific Institute estimated that ratepayers shelled out $1.4 billion to procure electricity from elsewhere due to a shortfall of hydropower from 2011 through 2014.

Most Californians already pay for water based on volume and there are tiered rates, says Osann, but they are largely ineffective.

“In both the urban and agricultural space, part of the difficulty is finding pricing that sends a conservation signal,” says Osann. A 2014 report from the Pacific Institute found that smart water metering and an effective pricing structure could cut water use by up to 20 percent.

If rates are reformed, it could sweeten the payback for water-efficient appliances and other water-saving measures for the average person. The order calls for increasing rebate programs for water-efficient appliances, but the remainder of the cost still has to come from the homeowner.

Sewers are another area for rate reform to spur a larger uptake of water efficient technologies. Osann says that while most people pay for water by volume, many customers outside of large urban areas still have a flat rate for sewer. If customers are shopping for a new washing machine but don’t pay by volume for sewer, the payback would be twice as long as it would be for another consumer that pays volumetrically for water and sewer.

Moving more customers to volumetric sewer pricing should not be an insurmountable task in today’s data-driven world. In most cities, the water and sewer departments use the same set of data, but even if those are disparate data streams in some regions, they could be merged. “There’s no physical impediment to exchanging the data,” says Osann, “ it’s just institutional inertia.”

Making the Most of Non-Potable Water

For customers who may be facing increased sewer costs or irrigation restrictions, they might consider diverting gray water, which comes from sinks, laundry and bath, to meet some of their needs. That option could become more attractive with increasing regulations on lawns and how they can be watered. Fifty million square feet of lawns will be replaced and all new homes and buildings cannot irrigate with potable water that isn’t delivered by drip or microspray systems.

Lancaster, Calif., which already requires all new homes to be solar ready, announced last fall that all new homes will also have to have “recycle-ready” plumbing.

Existing homes can add in gray water recycling systems to reuse the water for irrigation, but those systems have been stymied in part by complex local regulations, according to Southern California Public Radio. It could get easier in the future, however, as the California Energy Commission has called for the acceleration of integrated on-site reuse systems for water.

It is not just California that is calling for more investment and research into water technologies. On Wednesday, a consortium of Texas universities also launched a statewide research program and commercialization lab that focuses on emerging water technologies.

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