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Small Water Districts Powered by Big Analytics

The country's more than 140,000 small-sized water districts have lacked the resources to use sophisticated analytics programs that can improve water efficiency. Now the situation is changing.

For years, large water utilities have been monitoring their data and connecting with customers with sophisticated analytics platforms like the one made by WaterSmart Software. Now the company is scaling its services to help the little guy.

Seth Cutler, a senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan, pointed out that a minority of (about 10,000) large public water systems serve a majority (about 82 percent) of U.S. water customers. That leaves about 140,000 small water systems to serve the remaining public, and they must do it with limited resources.

Last month, WaterSmart released a new offering, called WaterSmart Essential, that is designed for water districts serving fewer than 7,500 customer accounts.

“There’s tens of thousands of smaller systems that serve small and rural communities, and they’ve been underserved in the market and have not had access to some of the modern communication analytics technologies that large utilities have had access to,” said Jeff Lipton, WaterSmart’s marketing director. “And that’s because it’s been difficult for technology vendors like ourselves to serve them profitably. So we’ve been able to slim down the offering to make it cost-effective and allow these … utilities access to these tools.”

The platform consists of three main components. A Web- and mobile-accessible customer portal provides consumption data, conservation recommendations and customized alerts. A data analytics dashboard serves as the utility’s back-end platform for managing customer accounts and communications via email, text, Web, voice and print. Last, a marketing kit with template letters and other tools helps districts encourage customers to register with the platform.

The platform gives utility companies greater visibility into their user behavior patterns and consumption profiles, according to Lipton. “When users register, they fill out a small survey with additional information about their household, including the number of occupants and the size of their home and the appliances, and these things all inform the utility about where they need to make investments to improve efficiency in their water systems. 

The system also pulls in data from public sources — property records, climate data, census data. “It gives the utility a rich set of tools to better understand their customers and their behavior,” said Lipton.

Cotati, an incorporated city of about 7,000 residents in Sonoma County, Calif., one of WaterSmart’s oldest and smallest areas, with about 2,000 customers, is just the kind of water district the company hopes to attract with its new product. For about six years, Cotati has used WaterSmart to manage its customers and increase water-use efficiency that allows them to avoid expensive capital investment, according to Damien O’Bid, Cotati’s city manager and public works director.

“From a regional and local infrastructure perspective, the more runaway water use that we allow, it’s going to create the need for bigger infrastructure, which drives costs,” O’Bid said. “It also requires more groundwater use; it requires additional diversions at the river from our regional wholesaler, and so with all the competing demands, getting additional water is far from a sure thing; certainly if you can’t demonstrate that, you’re using water efficiently.”

WaterSmart enables the city to track its water use and place more participants into its water conservation programs, according to O’Bid. “It puts you in communication with your customers. You get regular feedback and you can push out information and messaging to your customers. That’s huge because otherwise you just have no contact with people until they have some sort of issue that causes them to come down and complain,” he said. “I’d prefer to have a proactive, positive conversation with any one of my customers than only deal with them when they’re angry and they’re down here about some kind of dispute.”

Before adopting the platform, Cotati’s water management was less organized. If a resident had recently installed new toilets in a house, for example, that information was filed away and likely never seen again unless something specifically looked for it.

“When we look for additional water efficiency opportunities at a property, if we know that about them already, obviously we won’t ask them about the toilets and so it’s a more efficient, less embarrassing process,” he said, adding that it makes them look better to the public too.

When the city first adopted the platform, officials were a worried they might not be able to handle the increased call demand from their new outreach, O’Bid said, but the calls they got were mostly good ones.

When customers didn’t receive a good score on their water efficiency in the mail, they called with concerns about possible mandatory reductions in their water use. But the water district explained it was just providing information to help them make better decisions about how they used their water.

“Fear fell away pretty quick and it just became a normal routine,” O’Bid said. “We’re definitely getting a lot more usage of our conservation programs than we got before, and those are the kind of phone calls you want to get.”

The difference between using an analytics customer management platform versus traditional record keeping is the difference between long-term strategic planning and flying by the seat of your pants, according to O’Bid. Tracking the analytics lets the city know what’s happening and what they can expect in the coming months and years, he said. Any new costs the city might incur as a result of increased customer engagement are much more welcome than the sticker shock of huge capital investments that could suddenly result from unexpected unticks in demand.


Editor's Note: This story was edited on Mar. 24 to correct typos and properly reflect the name of the product.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.
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