In an era of green living and sustainability, conservation of water and energy is imperative. And in Davis, Calif., city officials are helping residents put their water usage into perspective.

On April 1, the city began offering a free Web-based tool that allows customers to see how many gallons of water they use each day and compare their use to properties of similar size. The project, which cost the city more than $108,000, was developed to increase awareness of water usage that would lead to long-term water conservation -- and help customers save on their monthly bills.

And there's good reason for this conservation effort: Water costs in Davis are expected to triple over the next five years.

One of the biggest reasons for the rate increase, says Diana Jensen, principal civil engineer and manager of the city's water division, is the city’s need for a new surface water treatment plant and pipeline -- the development of which voters approved in March. Currently, she said, Davis gets all of its water from the ground, but at least a dozen of the city’s wells were contaminated with compounds like Chromium-6. “Going after surface water was identified 20 years ago as a good path to move toward for improved water quality and reliability,” she said. “Growth really doesn’t play into it at all. It’s about water quality, and reliability.”

A surface water treatment facility in neighboring Woodland will treat water from the Sacramento River and pipe it to Davis, supplementing the groundwater supply. And the Web-based application, developed by WaterSmart Software, will encourage people to conserve water and put usage into perspective, Jensen said.

Though the city already kept tabs on individual property water usage and made the data available on customers’ bills each month, the water usage was listed in 100 cubic foot increments. So even a customer who knew what 700 cubic feet of water looked like still had little frame of reference for their level of water consumption compared to others.

The online tool, Jensen said, offers customers reference points, such as averages for similarly sized properties and benchmarks for typical low-usage households. By using graphics and more meaningful data, the customer may someday reduce usage.

“It’s part of our plan for water conservation,” Jensen said. “We do have a goal for water conservation, and the estimates of this type of effort is that it can decrease water use by about 5 percent, which is fairly significant for one effort.”

To get the online water report, customers must go online and sign up, which is why the city will offer a one-time paper-based report in the mail in September with instructions on how to sign up for the free service online. Overall, however, the city wants to stay away from paper-based reports because of the cost, Jensen said.

The software’s simple interface is designed to make understanding water usage easy. In addition to viewing metrics, customers can also see suggestions on saving water that are quantified. Turning off the faucet while brushing teeth, for instance, could save 23 gallons of water per day for a household, which might equate to an $81 savings over the year.

In addition to benefits for customers, the software also provides the city with a backend interface for performance tracking and metrics that reveal program participation and total water conservation.

Much of the data used for comparing customers with one another comes from surveys sent out by WaterSmart Software, Jensen said. Customers that share data about their household -- such as how many showers their household takes each day or how many toilets are in the house -- are used to build more intelligent metrics for the application.

“The more information that comes back through the survey gives the company more guidance compared to other people like you,” Jensen said. “It just makes the data more meaningful."

Photo of downtown Davis, Calif., courtesy of Wikipedia/Miles530

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.