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Can Data Impact the Drought?

Smart infrastructure can help policymakers make the most use of limited water resources.

Policymakers are pushing residents and businesses to cut back on their water use in response to the severe drought gripping many parts of the western U.S. California Gov. Jerry Brown has even gone so far as to declare a state of emergency and impose restrictions intended to reduce water usage by 25 percent across the state. While there is no silver bullet that will solve the water crisis, policymakers have many opportunities to use data from connected devices to improve conservation. In particular, states should accelerate water utilities’ deployment of smart meters to better manage water use and make communities more sustainable.

This would be a major improvement, considering how many homes and businesses have no metering at all and simply pay a flat rate for water. There were approximately a quarter-million last year in California alone, and these unmetered customers used almost 40 percent more water per capita than the state average. The problem is severe enough that California passed a law requiring utilities to install meters for all customers by 2025. But there is also the problem of legacy analog meters that many homes and business already have. They have to be read manually every few months, which is both expensive and prone to human error.

That is why utilities are now starting to replace them with smart meters. To cut costs and improve accuracy, utilities have begun installing meters with automatic meter reading (AMR) technology that transmits water usage data to the utility electronically. Workers collect usage data from these meters by driving around in vehicles equipped with specialized wireless receivers. In addition, some utilities have moved beyond AMR solutions and begun to deploy smart meters that not only allow utilities to collect detailed usage data — often in real time over a fixed network — but that also are capable of receiving information. For example, a utility can remotely shut off service to a customer that is moving. These meters further cut down on in-person service visits by utility workers and save the utility money — savings that can then be passed on to consumers.

The benefits of smart meters go beyond enhanced productivity. By providing consumers and utilities real-time data, the meters can help customers use water more efficiently. Utilities using real-time data can detect problems in their water distribution system or alert homeowners of potential leaks. Startups like WaterSmart Software work with utilities to analyze smart meter data and communicate personalized recommendations to customers about how they can improve water-use efficiency and save money. The potential payoff from automatic leak detection is substantial. Nationwide, household leaks waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water annually. For homeowners, real-time alerts can allow them to fix leaks sooner rather than months later, after receiving a high water bill or discovering water damage. Every year, water damage from leaks costs homeowners and insurers billions of dollars in property losses.

The U.S. is still in the early stages of deploying smart water meters. Nationwide, less than 20 percent of the 100 million metered water customers have smart meters. However, where smart meters have gained a foothold, communities have seen substantial savings. For example, after Mumbai launched an ambitious smart metering program, it was able to cut in half the 150 million gallons of water lost per day from leaks. Smart meters can also help spot businesses or homeowners who ignore mandatory water restrictions. For example, the water utility in Long Beach, Calif., has used smart meter data to enforce water restrictions on customers who previously ignored complaints about their waste. Longer-term, better smart meter data can help policymakers maximize limited resources, by prioritizing water efficiency grants for the most effective updates to businesses and homes or deploying pricing models that reward efficiency.

Deploying smart infrastructure requires capital investments, tech-savvy public administrators and visionary regulators — all of which are too often in short supply. Yet the broader water problems are not going away. Communities that successfully navigate these obstacles will be best positioned to meet new water challenges in the years ahead.