Connect the Drops

The Unanticipated Benefits of California’s Water Policies

From software to robots to technology originally designed to detect water on Mars, market-based policy approaches are spurring innovation, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Water drips from a leaking irrigation pipe in the west San Joaquin Valley.Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Just as California’s climate policies have driven innovation in energy efficiency, renewable energy and battery storage – creating 500,000 new jobs – many of the state’s recently enacted bills are beginning to drive innovation in water technology. State policymakers should take note.

These technologies, in turn, are poised to bring about new jobs and economic growth in California, while supporting the policy goals of creating more robust water utilities and better drought resilience for the state.

A good case in point are the new water efficiency measures, Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668, signed into law in May, which evolved from the emergency water conservation regulations put in place during the drought. Coupled with the water loss management act, Senate Bill 555, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Open and Transparent Water Data Act, this series of new policies is beginning to spur a market for tools to help water utilities and users better manage their infrastructure and water use.

“Water efficiency [policy] is fueling an innovation economy around water,” said Nashelley Kaplan-Dailey, senior manager at Imagine H2O, a nonprofit organization that provides business accelerator programs and mentoring to promising water technology startups.

Ceres turned to Imagine H2O for insight on technologies under development in the water industry that respond to some of the new policy mandates. At Imagine H2O, Kaplan-Dailey focuses on the intersection between policy and innovation through the organization’s partnership with the Milken Institute California Center.

“Having regulatory clarity from the government opens up opportunities for innovation,” she added. “Policy has played a central role in the growth in the renewable energy sector – we think the same can be done in water.”

The water efficiency bills, S.B. 606 and A.B. 1668, direct the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to develop standards for water use for various activities and, once those are in place, will require water utilities to create budgets based on those standards plus factors for their particular geographic needs.

One of the best approaches for many water utilities operating under restricted budgets is finding and repairing leaks in infrastructure that cause them to lose water – and money. Because the water seeping out of cracks and loose valves is already treated and pumped through the distribution system, but never gets to end users, it costs utilities money without bringing in any revenue.

Leaks are problematic for water utilities everywhere. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average United States water utility loses 16 percent of its treated water to leakage; California’s average is in that range. Given the state’s frequent drought conditions, which will only grow worse with climate change, water loss is particularly worth solving here. The problem is that finding and repairing infrastructure leaks in underground pipes has been an expensive proposition.

But now technologies involving robotics, satellites, artificial intelligence and data mapping have come on to the market and they are taking the expensive guesswork out of finding leaks. For instance, WatchTower Robotics developed a small, sensor-laden robot housed in a rubber bubble that can be sent floating through pipes to detect leaks. Its sensors collect images and other data about the pipes and send that data to an analytics platform, which indicates where a system has ruptures. Another startup, Utilis, has adapted satellite imagery technology used to look for water on Mars into a tool that detects leaks and reads the condition of underground pipes from above.

“We see a ton of new leak-detecting technologies popping up,” said Kate Gasner, a director of Water Systems Optimization, which created the platform used by utilities in California to conduct the water audits required by S.B. 555. She added that water utilities are still assessing their infrastructure systems, but likely soon will be evaluating the tools that are on the market to help them control leaks.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed in 2014, requires that regional users of water pumped from stressed groundwater basins develop groundwater management plans. Those need to include plans for replenishing aquifers, how to be efficient in water use and how to fairly apportion available water. Some groups devising groundwater management plans are including reuse and recycling, such as the Oxnard Basin plan in Ventura County.

Responding to the need to develop smart and sustainable groundwater management plans, Hydromodel Host SL created a software platform that generates models of groundwater basins and incorporates data to allow users to run complex scenarios for decision-making.

“Data that improves decision-making” can be a compelling investment for any entity, water users included, said Tom Ferguson, vice-president of Imagine H2O. When customers look for data analytics solutions, he said, they are really after improved decision-making.

The Open and Transparent Water Data Act of September 2016 required the state to develop an open-platform online data repository that is available to all water suppliers and users. Since water utilities feed data to that platform and can use the database to make decisions, it encourages them to have adequate data systems themselves.

A slew of data analytics companies has started up to help water districts make use of data. They include WaterSmart and DropCountr, which go beyond water flow and engineering data to include customer support data. These programs are already fairly widely used among larger water utilities. Some other startups have created data analytics tools infused with artificial intelligence to help water companies optimize decision-making. Emagin, Fracta and Plutoshift use A.I. to take the guesswork out of timing, treatment and engineering decisions.

The California legislature is considering two measures to improve access to clean drinking water, S.B. 844 and S.B. 845, and another measure, S.B. 966, that encourages water recycling in gray-water applications – both critical policy efforts for the state. If adopted, these policies would likely further spur water innovation.

In many markets, including energy, cost is a driver – with the search for lower costs often being what propels the adoption of technology. In the U.S. water is priced cheaply, relative to its value: It is essential for families and communities.

What the cheap price of water means in the market, however, is that there’s not often a price problem to try to solve through innovation. Yet like water utilities across the nation, many in California have aged infrastructure and scant capital budgets to maintain or improve infrastructure.

That is exactly why policy is so important for water innovation, both to make sure this shared resource is universally accessible to all and to drive better management and careful use of this shared resource.

Ceres does not endorse technologies; the companies mentioned in this article and those technologies listed are by no means a comprehensive list of potentially useful technologies. But it is important to note that the market-based policy approaches that were so helpful in developing clean technology and renewable energy in California are beginning also to work in the water world. That is something policymakers should keep in mind as new water management policies start to flow to the forefront of debates.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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