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There Are Still Some Easy Drought Solutions

Many of the fixes for California’s water problems will be costly and take years to implement. But there are still some easier solutions that require a much lighter lift from water agencies and their customers. Some of these can be aided by financial incentives or strong regulations.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

SAN BRUNO, California – Despite whatever rain and snow falls in California in the next month, the state will not be clear of its water problems. The drought debt is deep and the problems extend beyond a few month’s precipitation. Groundwater is overdrafted, agriculture faces shortfalls and the Delta ecosystem is in peril.

State officials are grappling with plans to spend potentially tens of billions of dollars on major infrastructure projects – new dams, reservoirs and a conveyance system. Some cities are investing millions in high-tech plants to recycle or desalinate water.

The scope of the problem is big, but not all contributing solutions are as massive or so costly.

“There is tons of low-hanging fruit left,” said Peter Gleick, CEO of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “Of course there is an important distinction that must be made between the potential to use less water to do what we want, and how to capture those potential improvements.”

The hard work of making those potential improvements a reality falls to individuals, government and local water agencies, through a combination of policy fixes, financial incentives and personal responsibility.

Lower the Flow

Besides taking a shorter shower, about the lowest fruit there is would be for individuals to replace inefficient fixtures and appliances. This is water conservation 101, but it continues to be relevant.

Statewide, Gleick said, “There are still hundreds of thousands of acre-feet a year of toilet flushes from old, inefficient toilets; there are thousands and thousands and thousands of inefficient washing machines; there are thousands of acres of outdoor landscaping in our homes that are either still inefficiently watered or shouldn’t be lawns.”

Much of this falls to individuals to take on, but they can be greatly aided by state laws that set efficiency standards. California will soon have the best in the country. Starting in July the maximum flow allowed from a showerhead sold in the state will be lowered to 2 gallons per minute and then reduced in July 2018 to 1.8 gallons per minute. Also this July, maximum flow from bathroom faucets will fall to 1.2 gallons per minute. A newly passed standard for toilets is 1.28 gallons per flush.

These efficiency laws don’t mean that homeowners have to replace toilets and fixtures immediately, but that when they do, only the most efficient will be sold in the state. Municipalities can further help by writing local ordinances to “retrofit-on-resale,” which would require water-efficient upgrades when homes are sold.

Local water agencies can also encourage the transition by providing financial incentives. In Silicon Valley, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Bay Area Supply and Water Conservation Agency, and other local water agencies, offer rebates for toilets, clothes washers and lawn removal.

During the past few years of drought, incentives increased in popularity. Valley Water District in Santa Clara County saw a massive uptick in residents wanting to take advantage of previously existing rebates. “Before the drought we probably did about a couple of million dollars in rebates in about the six or seven years we had the program,” said Jerry De La Piedra, water quality and conservation manager at Valley Water District. “But just in the last two years in the drought we’ve had almost $23 million in landscape rebates.”

Changing the Meter

There’s a saying that gets a lot of use these days in California: you can’t save what you can’t measure.

“It’s a scandal that we do not measure and monitor all water uses in California,” said Gleick. “We are moving in that direction; the drought has been an incentive to do that.” Some parts of the state still don’t have water meters – although legislation now requires them to be installed by 2025.

But there is room for additional water savings on this front. “Submetering is probably the last big untapped piece of that puzzle,” said Gleick.

Currently some multi-unit buildings or complexes have one master meter and residents pay a flat monthly water rate regardless of usage. Switching to submetering would require each household to pay for the water used. It’s believed that having cost tied to use lowers consumption. The Alliance for Water Efficiency reports that metered customers use on average 15–20 percent less water than those who are unmetered.

Valley Water District put this to the test. In 2002, as part of pilot project, they installed 754 submeters at four mobile home parks in the county and found water savings of 15–30 percent a year.

“We found a nice lasting water saving by making people accountable for the water that they use,” said Karen Koppett, senior water conservation specialist at Valley Water District. The agency then started a rebate program to encourage the installation of submeters, offering a $150 rebate per installed submeter for mobile home parks or condominiums throughout the county. Recently, they expanded the program to include submeters for homeowners on shared wells.

“For new construction, sadly, in much of California we don’t need to install submeters, it’s not the law of the land,” said Koppett. “I believe that will eventually change. Probably sooner rather than later. We’d like to see it sooner.”

So would state senator Lois Wolk who has proposed legislation, SB7, for the state to develop standards for submeters in new construction.

Wolk’s bill has yet to pass, despite much support, but municipalities can take the measure up at the local level until it does. The City of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County passed an ordinance about a decade ago to require submeters in new construction for multifamily housing.

There is little opposition, except potentially from developers who may face additional design expenses with new construction (it’s cost prohibitive in many existing buildings). Occasionally, says De La Piedra, some residents are opposed because they don’t want to be individually metered.

“And really that’s a shame because when it comes down to it, the people who are concerned about water are actually subsidizing their wasteful neighbors,” said Koppett. “[Submetering] is a more fair way and it really does help people who are conserving water.”

Taking Advantage of Technology

While the state may mandate that every home has a water meter, it doesn’t say what kind. Most water agencies have the standard analog meter that requires visits from meter readers every month or two.

But there are more high-tech options. Some cities have been converting to “smart meters,” also known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), which provide benefits to both consumers and water agencies while also helping to save water.

Valley Water District is partnering with four of their retail customers – Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose Water Company and Purissima Hills – to fund pilot studies on the feasibility of AMI. Morgan Hill has already begun installing smart meters.

Next door in San Mateo County, Redwood City has been slowly converting its meters to AMI since 2008 and the process is a little over halfway through there. Justin Chapel, utilities superintendent, estimates the city will have all its customers on AMI in the next four years.

For Redwood City customers who do have it, they can visit a website and see their entire usage history and hourly usage data for the past 60 days. This allows customers to understand better how much water they’re using and when they’re using it. It also enables the water agency to detect a leak automatically and be able to notify the customer promptly – this helps with saving water and improving customer service.

Jim Burch is the deputy director of public works for the City of San Bruno, which just last week finished installing AMI for all their 10,511 residential customers. Burch said that one of the biggest drivers for making the change was to improve customer service.

“What would happen previously is someone would have a water leak and they didn’t know; it could leak for two months. Then they get a bill and they get excited, to put it nicely, and they’d come to us with questions,” said Burch. “The most common thing we’d hear is, ‘How come you didn’t tell me?’ and ‘What do you mean there is no way to know?’”

The lack of data was frustrating to both customers and agency employees. “It leaves people with a bad taste in their mouths,” said Burch.

Citywide, Burch said the project cost $5 million to swap out all meters for residential and business customers, but the existing meters were already more than 20 years old and needed to be replaced.

“Cost is one of the biggest hurdles, and feasibility,” said De La Piedra at Valley Water District. “There are a lot of options out there. In some instances you can keep the existing meter and add on a new connection or replace the meters completely.”

Some places have also experienced customers who are averse to the technology. “We had a total of three people,” said Burch. “They didn’t want increased radio waves. I personally met with them and told them that you get more radio waves out of your garage door opener and way more out of your microwave than you would from the meter.”

Burch said he can already see the benefits for San Bruno paying off in more ways than just water savings. “We are able to give customers data they never had before – we never had before – it’s very valuable,” he said.

Smart meters will likely become more widespread; it’s inevitable, according to Gleick, but the rate at which it happens remains to be seen and there is no indication that statewide legislation requiring them would be coming soon.

For those who live in a water district that has yet to install AMI, there are still some technological upgrades that can help, but this does requires action from water agencies. One example is WaterSmart, a data analytics and customer engagement platform. Water agencies can contract with WaterSmart regardless of the kind of meters installed.

WaterSmart takes customers’ existing consumption and behavior data and then augments that with data it compiles from external sources, including things like property data, weather data and census data. That means that customers not only know how much water they use, but also can receive information that tells them how much their neighbors with similar home or yard sizes may use, or how much their current use compares to the same time in previous years. And they can get targeted water saving recommendations that are specific to each household. However, individual homeowners can’t sign up for the service on their own, it has to be done at the water agency or municipality level.

Currently WaterSmart technology is being employed by a handful of cities in Silicon Valley, including Morgan Hill, Mountain View, the City of San Jose, San Jose Water Company, Santa Clara and Great Oaks Water Company.

And while this kind of technology combined with a little behavioral psychology can help people use less water, it also has a greater potential – like AMI, it can drastically change the way people interact with and communicate with their water agency.

“Utilities typically have thought of themselves as silent service providers and they measure customer satisfaction by the lack of communication from customers because in the past a customer contacts the utility only to complain about a high bill or a boil notice or service outage,” said Jeff Lipton, director of marketing for WaterSmart. “So the less they heard from customers, the better the job they were doing.”

But the downside of that, says Lipton, is that customers don’t know the value of the service being provided to them. WaterSmart can provide positive information that agencies can convey to customers and that in turn can “pave the way to make the case for infrastructure investments that we need to repair our aging water systems,” said Lipton.

In tackling our water problems, communication and education are important, and become even more so in a drought. “It’s one thing to say homeowners should save water; it’s another thing to tell them how they can do it and educate them about the advantages – they’ll save energy, they’ll save water,” said Gleick. “Sometimes people just don’t know what behaviors or technologies are most appropriate so communication and education is really important as well.”

All of these tools can help drive demand-side water savings, which is just one part of the solution to California’s drought. There is also enormous potential in untapped resources on the supply side as well, said Gleick, including wastewater reuse and stormwater supply. And it matters how water agencies charge their customers. A bad rate design can be a disincentive to conserve. “If the whole idea is that the more water you sell, the better off you are as a water district, then there is a not much of conservation incentive.”

Soon enough, though, Gleick thinks we’ll have to make a lot more changes.

“I think all these things are inevitable,” said Gleick. “The sooner we implement them, the better off the state will be. The more resilient we’ll be to drought and shortages. We simply don’t have enough water any more, if we ever did, to be as wasteful and inefficient as we are.”

Top image: A $100 rebate provides an incentive to buy a low flow toilet. Upgrading fixtures and appliances to be more water efficient can help save water during California’s drought. (Tara Lohan)

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