California Water Districts Enlist Tech to Encourage Conservation

Water customers have cut their use when they can monitor consumption via the Internet on a daily basis.

by / June 25, 2015

As California enters its fourth consecutive summer under severe drought conditions, some water districts are utilizing technology to share critical drought information and conservation tips and help customers monitor household water use. 

Dublin San Ramon Services District launched a new website in the middle of an intense drought response campaign in June 2014. Working with Vision Internet, a government website developer, Dublin San Ramon Services District staff utilized the “friendly URL” feature in Vision’s content management system to automatically redirect customers from the old website URLs, which had been advertised in mailed notices, to comparable information on the new website. This gave customers uninterrupted access to information on mandatory water-use restrictions, which included cutting outdoor irrigation by half.
“Our website played an enormous role in getting customers onboard with the new water restrictions really quickly,” said Renee Olsen, community affairs specialist for Dublin San Ramon Services District. 
Just two months after the district established its 2014 mandatory restrictions, 97 percent of its residential customers were keeping their weekly water use under the 4,480-gallon limit. 
On April 1, 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered all California residents to further reduce their water use by 25 percent. However, some residents voiced concern that they lack the ability to see how much water they consume until they receive their bill every 60 days. Dublin San Ramon Services District personnel thought access to water usage data might help improve conservation efforts.
Fortunately, as part of an effort to improve efficiency in their data collection and billing processes, the water district had installed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in 2014. The AMI allows water meter information to be collected via transmitter by a passing Dublin San Ramon Services District personnel vehicle rather than requiring workers to collect data manually as they had in the past. 
Dublin San Ramon Services District personnel soon discovered that the AMI had another benefit. By simply replacing 20,000 of the original AMI transmitters with more advanced transmitters this year, the water district found it could provide both internal staff and customers a window into the data. 
“The new antennas allow the water meters to transmit usage data directly to our servers,” Olsen said. “The data is now updated continually rather than just every 60 days.”
Dublin San Ramon Services District then leveraged their website to provide customers a seamless connection to AquaHawk, an interactive water consumption and alerting portal hosted by AmCoBi, a utility billing services provider based in Colorado Springs. 
AquaHawk allows Dublin San Ramon Services District customers and staff to view water consumption in near real time. Customers register on the website once and they can then log on anytime to see how much water they’ve consumed. They can also can set a variety of customizable parameters to view, for example, how they are doing compared to their weekly limit, or set an email or text alert if they go over a certain volume or dollar threshold. 
“AquaHawk is a great way for customers to see how much water they consume with their daily activities while also giving them tools to respond in positive ways to our mandatory restrictions,” said Olsen. 
AquaHawk also makes it possible for county water officials to spot leaks quickly because it alerts personnel to unusual consumption.
“As of today, about 36 percent (7,731) of our 20,484 water customers have registered their accounts on AquaHawk,” said Olsen. “However, the system checks all 20,000 accounts daily and alerts staff of any unusual water consumption activity.”
Customers of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, located in southern California, also look to their district’s website for drought-related updates and water conservation tips. Like the Dublin San Ramon Services District, Las Virgenes is using tools provided by Vision Internet. 
Las Virgenes uses the responsive design functionality built into Vision Internet’s content management system to provide customers mobile-ready access to information. Over the last three months, the Las Virgenes District has seen more than 20,000 unique visitors to its site and achieved an overall decrease in customer water use. 
“Our intent is to draw people to the website and to make the website a central hub of information for residents struggling to keep up with the latest mandatory restrictions and conservation tips,” said Deborah Peters, public affairs associate for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. “People just don’t want to be told to save water; they want to know how they can save water. Our site is a great resource for people interested in exactly what they can do to save water, both indoors and outdoors.”
Peters said getting water conservation information out is critical, because uninformed citizens can produce dire consequences. 
“People unaware of the severity of this drought, and how to help conserve our most precious resource, are a threat to our water supply and could cause citizens who’ve already reduced their water use to have to cut back even more,” she said. 
“We want to make sure our customers know about sustainable practices,” said Tiffany Wright, also a public affairs associate for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. “We want to guide them in the right direction, and the technology and the website are important parts of that because people are so tech-oriented now. It really is the best way to reach a large audience for the lowest cost.”
Justine Brown Contributing Writer