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Drought-Plagued California Looks to Smart Water System

Neil Strother — February 4, 2014

In drought-stricken California, an effective approach for helping people curb their energy consumption has shown similar results in helping them reduce their use of water.  It could also be a forerunner of similar programs in other regions that suffer from chronic water scarcity.

The 1-year pilot was conducted among residents living within East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD’s) service territory, which includes Oakland and its surrounding suburbs.  Results from an independent study showed that when participants received information comparing their water consumption to neighborhood averages, usage decreased by 5% on average.

The pilot employed a “behavioral water efficiency” approach that has been used by numerous U.S. electric utilities to encourage customers to reduce consumption.  Opower, for example, uses this behavioral-based approach for energy utilities.  In EBMUD’s case, the technology provider was WaterSmart Software, which applies analytics and behavioral science tools to crunch data and provide consumers with feedback information and tips for cutting consumption.

Perma-Drought

The 10,000 EBMUD residential customers involved in the pilot received easy-to-comprehend water use reports for their home and compared consumption to similar-sized homes in the nearby area.  There was a control group set up to make sure other factors, like weather or other customer behavior, did not affect the estimated water savings.  It should be noted that the East Bay pilot was the first large-scale implementation of this type of technology by an urban water utility.

The pilot was partially funded by the California Water Foundation, which concluded that this type of behavior-based water use report, if implemented by other water utilities in California, could help meet state requirements to shrink per-capita water use by 20% by 2020.  And with Governor Jerry Brown’s recent declaration of a state of emergency due to drought, wider implementation of this reporting approach could spread rather quickly.

The East Bay study shows that saving water by providing more granular, timely, and actionable consumption data is an approach that can work.  This solution is bound to be used elsewhere in the United States, especially the Southwest and other regions where drought is an ongoing threat.  In a larger context, the pilot strengthens the case for using data analytics to help drive greater efficiency in water systems, as noted in a previous blog and in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks.  This is not to say upgraded hardware such as smart water meters and leak detecting sensor aren’t helpful, too.  The best practice will be to integrate both big data and smarter equipment to bring greater efficiencies to water systems.

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