Innovation

How tech is playing its part to alleviate the California drought

Technology can't bring the rain, but it can help Californians save water in various ways, and it serves as a model for a future that could hold more droughts and water crises

dropcountr-mobile.jpg
Dropcountr allows people to monitor their water usage.
Image: Dropcountr

Nearly all of California is suffering through the third year of its worst drought in half a millennium. According to the US Drought Monitor, more than half of the state is in the driest category of the five-point scale, and more than 80% is experiencing "extreme" drought. The state's snowpack, which is a major source of water, is at about 20% of its typical water content.

In July, California state water regulators decided to fine people $500 for wasting water. In Santa Cruz, residents have to take a water conservation course if they waste water, in lieu of a fine. Los Angeles added more water patrol to monitor water usage in the city. Californians have been asked to cut their water usage by 20%.

While rain is the ultimate solution to the problem, no one can predict when the rain will return. And with a changing climate, droughts and other extreme weather occurrences could happen more frequently in the future. Technological innovations in every industry must be harnessed by individuals, corporations, and civic institutions to make positive change and prevent massive environmental and economic damage.

The new policies in place in California are an attempt to spread the burden and get people to take the drought more seriously. But the truth is, we have to harness the right kinds of technology to make a dent — and California's story can be a lesson for the rest of the world.

Data's role in water conservation

Robb Barnitt wanted to find data on his water usage. He tried to dig it up by sifting through old paper bills, only to find the data wasn't even available. He asked the company, but didn't get any answers.

Transparency, visibility, and real-time monitoring are not words generally attached to water providers. They are risk-averse and slow to adopt new technology.

"We recognize that the water industry is not necessarily the most advanced or using tech for its benefit," Barnitt said. "While the word disruption is overused, the water space was certainly ripe for disruption."

Barnitt created Dropcountr, a website and mobile app that tracks water usage. It gives a daily report and alerts users if they are using too much water. Dropcountr is meter agnostic, meaning any data stream from any hardware provider and water utility provider will work. The providers can send push notifications through the service to notify customers of a leak, water main break, or drought conditions. It also compares data with houses nearby of the same size. The clean, simple mobile app makes it easy for customers to use and understand.

"Water scarcity is going to be a problem in the future with respect to climate change — there's only so much to go around," Barnitt said. "There's a lot of hardware, [like] smart meters rolled out in the space, and you can't really maximize value of that hardware without software solutions like ours."

This is the same issue with big data in every other industry. Collecting data is important, but if the information can't be visualized and analyzed in a digestible way, it is virtually meaningless.

Several other apps have come out on the heels of the drought, Barnitt said, but the intent seems to be to shame other people (i.e. take a photo of neighbor, report them and maybe they get fined).

People are taking to the streets to document running sprinklers, leaking hoses, and sidewalk misters, using social media to "drought shame." Using the hashtag #droughtshaming, or the neighborhood watch application VizSafe, Californians are calling out their neighbors.

"That's not our thing. We want to keep things positive, no shame, no blame, but deliver information and actionable tips," said Barnitt.

Dropcountr is available throughout California. Barnitt said the western US is next, and they will expand from there.

"Ask someone in California, or even in Kentucky, how much water they use. Nobody knows, so they guess. They consistently guess at least half of their actual consumption, and when compared to others like them, everyone thinks they use less," said Barnitt.

According to the United Nations, the average American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day. And in a world where almost 800 million people lack access to clean water, it's becoming unacceptable to waste.

Once people have the tools, they can start to make changes. Individual changes may not sound like they matter, but the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day at home, according to the EPA. Between 5 and 10% of American homes have water leaks that drip 90 gallons or more of water a day.

WaterSmart is another type of software solution that prepares water reports for each household, comparing their water use with similar homes. The software collects data from more than 1 million residential water meters and worked with 30 utility companies in the US. According to Jeff Lipton, the marketing director for WaterSmart, customers have saved 600 million gallons of water in two years, and the company is on track to exceed 1 billion gallons in savings by the end of 2014.

"The old adage of 'you can't manage what you can't measure' has never been more true when it comes to water. By using information to develop strategies to better manage water in the short and long term, we see a paradigm shift occurring in a historically technically unsophisticated industry, and it is having a transformative impact."

Preventative measures

The 2014 drought will cost California $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs, according to researchers from UC Davis.

Some of that loss and damage is due to the antiquated water utility industry, whose infrastructure hasn't been updated. It's critical for apps and sensors to monitor on the consumer end, but the water providers need to enter the digital age on an even larger scale.

"Water utilities are very complex creatures. They're still working in responding mode and not in a planned way," said Amir Peleg, founder and CEO of TaKaDu, a software service solution that monitors water networks. "They still wait for you to call and say 'I see water running in the street,' so they need to know about things ahead of time."

TaKaDu continuously processes and analyzes network data sent to its servers to make sure the leaks that could cause huge pipe bursts are caught early (and standard analysis tools can't do that on their own) so they don't cause road damage, money loss, and frustration in the community.

But the water utility industry is only a drop in the bucket compared to other industries in California — particularly agriculture. Using sensors, precision agriculture, and data analytics to monitor irrigation techniques for crop fields is becoming increasingly important around the world in order to save money, time, and resources.

The 2014 drought will cost California $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs. UC Davis

California is the nation's largest producer of food, including almost half of produce and nuts and a quarter of milk and cream. About 80% of America's almonds come from the state, for example, and each one takes more than a gallon of water to produce. More than 10% of the state's water goes to almond farming. But about 80% of California's water is used by the agriculture industry as a whole.

With the drought comes other consequences: more intense wildfires. The burn rate has been about 6.4 million acres per year between 2010 and 2013, which is the equivalent of Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Yosemite being burned annually. Of course, technology can't fight them, and the tech solutions that do exist are incredibly expensive, but firefighters are using drones and IoT sensors to preempt fires and react faster to spreading ones.

Last year, an Air Force drone tracked a fire's progress and direction. A power company in San Diego installed weather stations to better spot fire conditions. Santa Barbara is trying out FlameSniffers, which sit on top of electrical poles and use thermal imaging to and smoke detecting sensors to spot conditions or fires a mile away. If they find something, they send images to authorities.

All of these companies are the pioneers, and the number of startups (and tech giants) that focus on this topic will have to increase. This is only the beginning of using tech innovation to solve the world's water problems.

"Climate change and population growth are global macro trends, and with that comes water scarcity," Barnitt said. "There will always be a market."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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