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A New Data Initiative Is Changing Water Management

Based on the adage that you “can’t manage what you can’t measure,” the California Data Collaborative is hoping to give water managers better tools to fight drought by standardizing and analyzing water data.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
California drought water meters
A water meter is prepared for installation in a new home in Fresno, Calif., in September 2014. The California Data Collaborative is using information from meter readings of its members to analyze water usage data.Scott Smith, AP

The last few years has shown that California is getting serious about policies to combat drought. And now it is getting serious about the role of data in that fight. In 2013 Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that urban water suppliers report monthly average gallons per capita per day to track water conservation. And last week the governor further enshrined that data collection effort in a new executive order.

This information, available online to anyone, is useful. But only to a degree. There is still much more to be learned about how Californians use water, how much they use and how well conservation and efficiency programs are working.

That’s where the California Data Collaborative comes in. It is “a coalition of water utilities working together to share data and accelerate water efficiencies and ensure reliability in the face of our water supply challenges,” said the initiative’s project manager Patrick Atwater.

Ultimately the goal of the project is “integrating the entire life cycle of water use data” as the collaborative’s website states. And an important part of this, said Atwater, is standardizing all the data that is being collected through various water suppliers and state agencies. Then that data can be analyzed, along with other information.

The project is in its first phase and the initial focus is on understanding outdoor water use efficiency, so data specific to locations, such as population, irrigable area and the evapotranspiration rate can be added to user data.

“The increased knowledge from the Data Collaborative analytics is intended to provide utilities with a radically more rapid view of program effectiveness, cost per program and how to better reach and respond to customer water use behavior,” the site explains. “In addition, statewide data integration and standardization will allow for comparative analyses of customer usage changes attributed to water conservation initiatives such as turf rebates and public outreach, as well as projections of future patterns.”

Raymond Aleman waters his new drought-resistant garden at his home in the Studio City neighborhood in Los Angeles, in May 2015. The California Data Collaborative is analyzing the effectiveness of turf removal rebate programs. (Damian Dovarganes, AP)

Raymond Aleman waters his new drought-resistant garden at his home in the Studio City neighborhood in Los Angeles, in May 2015. The California Data Collaborative is analyzing the effectiveness of turf removal rebate programs. (Damian Dovarganes, AP)

Currently there are eight water agencies on board, which contribute all of the data from meter readings of every customer to a cloud-based server. More agencies are hoping to climb on board but the early joiners were: Moulton Niguel Water District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency, Irvine Ranch Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, La Virgenes Municipal Water Agency, Santa Margarita Water District, Monte Vista Water District and Eastern Municipal Water District.

Roughly half the water use for a household is outdoors in California, which makes cutting down on irrigation a prime target for conservation. As such, the state has spent more than $500 million on rebate programs to incentivize turf removal. But how well are these incentive programs working?

That’s one of the topics that the California Data Collaborative has been analyzing. “There has been a story that if you put more dollars per square foot with a higher rebate amount you get more participation,” said Atwater. “One of the key things that we’ve seen is that is only marginally true. There are actually a lot of reasons that people opt to convert their landscapes and we are seeing communities that have more environmentally conscious attitudes participate more, which speaks to the value of marketing and other public education strategies.”

In September, the Data Collaborative will unveil the findings at Stanford for its first nine months of work, which is just the beginning. Atwater said they hope to provide the service to any water utility in California.

Ultimately, Atwater sees the Data Collaborative as way to help water managers make the best decisions despite a host of unknowns. “There is uncertainty regarding the Delta. There is uncertainty with things like climate change,” said Atwater. “But what the data really offers is the ability to help water managers navigate that new reality and adapt.”

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