The Economic Quandary of Water

The economics of the water industry are well represented by Churchill’s famous description of Russia: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s genuinely difficult to deconstruct the underlying economics of so many elements of the industry: Costs for variant supply sources, treatment chemicals and pumping energy, as well as subsidies, rate structures, infrastructure amortization, bond financing and many other financial factors. However, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t sustainable. We can’t keep water this cheap and still maintain safety and abundance. But there’s a path out if we base decisions on complete data and communicate clearly and accurately with consumers.

Water utilities have done an amazing job of ensuring reliable and safe water service, to the point where it has become a figure of speech. No Silicon Valley fundraising pitch passes without the inevitable Uber reference, and their mission statement is: “Transportation as reliable as … see more

San Juan Capistrano, Tiered Rates and Water Efficiency

The other day I was proud to be out the door by 6am and on the way to a pool workout when I saw and heard my sprinklers on. We enjoyed a rare June rain the day before, and I realized that I broke the law by irrigating my lawn within 48 hours of rainfall. In shorts and flip-flops, I trudged through the sprinklers, drenching my legs in the process, to reach my irrigation controller and dutifully turned it off.  My water district, Marin Municipal, would allow outdoor watering again on Friday. (Note to self: Calendar a reminder to turn irrigation controller back on.)

This watering restriction, handed down by the State, is one of many signals and prohibitions to warn California citizens of impending doom if we don’t get ahead of this four-year drought and start stretching our dwindling water supplies. There are a limited number of conservation tools; … see more

The Culture and Language of Drought Response

The current drought in California is making headlines, but it’s not the only state that has experienced severe drought in recent years. In the past decade states from Georgia to Kansas have also experienced mild to severe droughts.  The recent flooding and severe weather in Texas makes it easy to forget that until recently much of that state was in a drought that rivaled California’s. And despite recent rains many of Texas’ reservoirs are still low.

Unsurprisingly, given the vast cultural and political differences between different regions of our country, the way policy makers in different states have chosen to respond to these droughts – and the language they use to describe their actions – varies widely.  Restrictions, rationing, rebates, fines, tiered rates, voluntary reductions? A brief look at some of the key terms makes it clear why the average resident may be so confused on what’s expected … see more

What Apps?

Mobile apps are dead. Long live mobile apps. 

Good product design starts with a deep understanding of a user’s needs and the context in which they’ll use the product.

That is why WaterSmart has built a remarkable mobile app. But if you search the iTunes or Google Play store, you won’t find it. Why not? Because for our users, and for how our users are engaging with water data, mobile web is the way to go.

Why mobile is important

Over the past decade, the mobile phone has gone from being a simple communication device for the business elite to the primary way people access information globally.

At WaterSmart we want to make sure that we’re meeting our users where they are. That’s why we provide such a broad platform for engagement – mobile, web, email, text message, print – to serve our broad and diverse set of users in … see more

Water Information Innovation

A key to the ongoing success of WaterSmart, or any start-up, is constant innovation, and we’re trying to incite a revolution of water information innovation. It’s been a busy quarter for the product team where we’ve launched a bunch of great new product features and improvements based on customer feedback. We can’t wait for you to get a sip of our new solutions!

utility analytics

At the beginning of 2015, we released version 2.0 of our dashboard to all of our customers. The platform has industry-leading data insights, improved data accessibility, and the flexibility to accommodate specific needs of each of our utility partners. Some new analytic features include:

  • Report Subscriptions

It’s often easier to receive periodic reports via email when new information becomes available. We now allow utilities to subscribe to periodic reports that are pushed right to their inbox. These reports allow you to actively monitor the water … see more

Generating a Thirst for Water Information

Nearly every modern convenience is powered by electricity. We expect lights to immediately come on when we flick the switch and we always want our computers and mobile phones to boot up when we turn them on. If we don’t have access to power, our lives creep to a virtual halt. We can’t work. We can’t cook. We can’t do any of the things that we consider part of normal, modern day life. Energy powers our economy and is correlated with trillions of dollars in global economic activity. No wonder media organizations devote so many resources to covering the energy industry. It’s incredibly important. People need to know what is happening with energy production, consumption, and the impacts that energy has on our environment and our daily lives. It makes sense.

Well, what about water? It’s everywhere. It’s in streams, lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers. It flows endlessly from our … see more

Bottled Water and the Myth of Purity: Part II

Last October we wrote about the myth of bottled water purity relative to highly regulated municipal tap water. While American consumers are increasingly choosing bottled water over tap, scientific studies and regulatory paradigms indicate that bottled water is often no more “pure” than tap water. Indeed, while nearly half of bottled water simply originates from municipal sources, American consumers – particularly lower income and minority populations – are increasingly willing to pay 300x (or more) for a “premium” water product.

The nature of these bottled water costs – and their relative distribution across the U.S. population – are troubling in that they imply that perception of drinking water quality could be contributing to growing economic polarization. Heightened demand for bottled water increases the financial burden on lower-income communities, and is indicative of key differences in water perception across diverse populations.

Importantly, consumption of bottled water varies significantly across ethnic boundaries, … see more

Economics, Equity & Water

“Whiskey is for drinking – water is for fighting over.”

As you can tell from the breathless headlines and mutual recriminations in the air, this famous saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) has never been more apt here in the West. The drought in California is, in fact, just one point on a continuum of water stress that will afflict 40 states over the next decade, according to the US Government Accountability Office. And that is based on “average” water conditions for 2013; it is probably fair to say that this year we are gaining an even deeper understanding of likely future water conditions.

When we aren’t berating nut farmers, some of our favorite targets are the lawns of the rich and famous. And for all of the hyperventilation about agricultural water use, at least that end product is consumed (mostly by urban populations) and creates economic … see more

The Message is the Medium

While much attention in the U.S. during the month of March is drawn towards events being played out on basketball courts in Houston, Syracuse, Los Angeles and Cleveland, we’ve been thinking about the parallels and differences between sports and water use. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, there are some useful observations to those interested in behavior change and water-use efficiency.

Sports are full of statistics: teams and individual players know how they stack up and how they are seeded. This information is used to improve performance, as people strive to be the best and reap the associated rewards. Coaches are compensated in part based on these external comparisons and, consequently, behavior changes. With water use, whether the consumer is a family of four in a pre-1994 house on a 8,000 square foot lot, or a brick brewery on an overcast corner near the highway in San Francisco, there … see more

Thinking Outside the Bill

A water utility looking to build better relationships with their customers is often dealt a pretty lean hand. Common communication channels include a newsletter, a modest web-presence, bill stuffers, and—most prominently—the bill itself. The bill experience is predictable. A customer will sort out bills from an overflowing mailbox or inbox, skim through dense rows of numbers and tables, and zero in on the amount owed. If it seems generally similar to what was owed previously, they won’t give it much further thought—even less so if the customer is on auto-pay.

And why should they? It can be difficult to understand units on a bill (CCF? CF? HCF?) and most people believe they already use water judiciously. The bill doesn’t have much of a story to tell other than how much lighter their wallet will be when the check clears. With water, that amount is often too low in comparison … see more