Beating the Drought: How One Calif. County Cuts Water Demand

High-tech data analysis and a dynamic community relations program are helping Riverside County reduce water consumption and meet stiff state-mandated cutbacks.

by Peter Mead / August 28, 2015
As California enters its fifth year of a record-breaking drought, a state-of-emergency mandate calls for each of the state’s 411 urban water agencies to reduce consumption by up to 36 percent. To meet this accountability challenge, some agencies have turned to innovations in technology and have begun to permanently reshape California’s approach to water conservation and even the dynamics of the communities themselves. 
One of the emerging leaders in best-practice water management is the Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), presiding over one of the driest regions in the state. EMWD provides service to approximately 770,000 Riverside County customers spread out over a 542 square-mile service area. 
For the past several years, EMWD has been tracking per capita water use by linking their billing system to their geographic information system spatial database to more accurately profile where their water is being used and by whom. This is core information necessary to spot where waste is occurring and to plan a viable course of action to reach water-use reduction goals. At the same time, this data provides an insight into how to tailor water accessibility to the genuine needs of the community, even as stocks diminish. 
Accurate drought reporting to the state is critical. Wrong estimates could result in unrealistic reduction targets. EMWD currently reads and analyzes all meters monthly, but is changing over 140,000 meters to Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technology, a “smart” two-way communication water meter that transmits real-time water-use information. With AMI, the water district will be able to look at data more frequently and act more preemptively.  
EMWD tracks demand against a customer profile to graph gallons per capita day (GPCD) compliance, a key qualifier of progress. The district presents GPCD data on a quarterly basis to executive staff and the board of directors as part of an overall performance review. The metric has shown a long-term downward trend, and the chief reason for this success is EMWD’s ability to correlate household size, landscape area, new connection figures, weather, temperature, and the ratio of indoor to outdoor water use, population fluctuations and other factors.
With an accurate overview of the service area, the water district can establish a dynamic and equitable tiered-rate structure. This is an important tool for eliciting consumer cooperation. The EMWD monthly bill also takes the mystery out of the process by not only showing how much water customers have used over the past month, but also the projected (approximate) household water budget for the next month.  
Because EMWD is able to proactively gauge water use, there is no need for one-size-fits-all watering regulations or draconian enforcement, nor are there current restrictions on which days people can water. Instead, customers are asked to reduce outdoor irrigation by 50 percent. Some properties —with slopes, for example — are better off watering more often but in much shorter intervals, while other landscapes do better with longer watering cycles of two days per week. It’s up to the customer how they choose to do so. The only fine structure that exists is tied to blatant water waste, such as letting water run down the sidewalk and into the street.
The district is committed to ensuring a continued reduction in demand throughout the entire service area through greater efficiency and rates that align with basic needs, according to Kevin Pearson, spokesperson for the Eastern Municipal Water District. “EMWD has an allocation-based tiered rate structure designed to incentivize conservation through lower price points for efficient use,” he said. “Since the rate structure was put in place, we have seen a reduction of nearly 25 percent in potable water use throughout our service area.” 
In effect, water is being capitalized in a new way, valued in terms of its supply and distribution, and the costs to execute forward-thinking programs that ensure continued accessibility. Waste is immediately surcharged, and that money contributes to further conservation efforts. Because few Americans have lived under circumstances where basic resources had tight government restrictions, drought management efforts have the potential of being misunderstood by the community. 
EMWD has been proactive in establishing a tight community connection through a number of programs that both explain the situation and help customers take charge of their own water use. They’ve included a turf buy-back program, rebates on water-efficient devices and even water audits for those customers who need to improve their efficiency. They have a very active social media program, such as a Facebook page, and an interactive website that includes DIY water-saving videos and timely updates on drought management. A free smartphone app makes it easy to keep up with the latest water rate changes and conservation progress, and to report water waste in the neighborhood. 
While some grumble that citizen reporting is nothing more than a government snitch program, far more feel waste reporting is an effective way to get everyone with the program. It is a grassroots way to spread awareness, shape public opinion and focus attention on everyone’s responsibility to save water. EMWD is also investing in an extensive recycled water system to significantly reduce potable irrigation demand and residential water bills. The best public feedback that a program is working is when the water bill arrives with a lower total.
California's population is expected to rise 37 percent by 2050. However, the state's water supply will not increase proportionately, even if the drought were to end tomorrow. Water policies put in place today must necessarily stretch into the foreseeable future and beyond. Tighter alliances between industry, community and government are essential. The age of the passive citizen is over.
EMWD has a long-term commitment to track water use and will continue practices already in place for the long run, said Pearson. “Our rate structure will remain in place, and we have recently adopted new development standards to ensure that new residential, commercial and industrial construction will have appropriate landscaping that will further minimize water use.” 
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