Urban water present: Metered secondary water helps conservation

Monday , March 30, 2015 - 1:08 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about urban water in northern Utah. The first story in the series explores the area’s aging water infrastructure. 

When it comes to water conservation, sprinklers aren’t exactly sexy. But they are an elegant solution to our water shortages.

That’s why Martin O’Loughlin joined with a couple friends, who happen to be an electrical engineer and mechanical engineer, to develop one of the most sophisticated irrigation controllers on the market.

“We decided as a group that was a way we could make a difference. So we started the design initiative back last spring,” O’Loughlin said. “Our goal was to make the water saving technology really intuitive.”

O’Loughlin has a unique perspective on the importance of water savings. He spent nearly two decades bouncing between Utah and California as a military pilot. He said it was shocking to see all the watering restrictions they had west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but there were almost none in Utah. From his aerial view, he also saw dropping reservoirs that weren’t recharging by the end of winter.

“That was even before we were in the drought we are in now,” he said. “So when I got a chance to do this, I was excited that we’re going to maybe help save a way of life here in the West.”

O’Loughlin’s new company, Brilliant Integrated Technologies, is based at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport. They’ve had their sprinkler controllers on the market for a little over a year. The devices customize watering based on plant types since most yards aren’t just grass. They use detailed, specific weather conditions based on a property’s GPS coordinates, rather than broad zip codes like other controllers. The new controllers can also be adjusted by smartphone or laptop.

“You can make changes to your irrigation settings while sipping coffee in your kitchen while it’s raining,” he said.

Even through the winter when most homeowners aren’t thinking about their lawns, Brilliant Integrated Technologies have managed to sell their controllers from Massachusetts to California, and from Texas to Canada. Sophisticated, intuitive watering has its niche.

“We put those two things together, it’s a pretty unique product, and we did it right here in little old Ogden, Utah,” O’Loughlin said.

When it comes to water conservation in northern Utah, there are some complex hurdles with cheap, readily available water. Most of our urban water, around two-thirds, goes to lawns and gardens. In northern Utah, much of that water is unmetered. It’s also  floated as one of the biggest barriers to encouraging conservation.

The irony of O’Loughlin’s company location, of course, is that it’s surrounded by the largest unmetered secondary water system in the United States. Most homeowners in Weber and Davis counties can water their lawns as much as they want, and they pay a flat fee regardless. But that doesn’t mean there’s no incentive for efficient watering.

The conservation project

“In northern Utah — Davis and Weber counties — it’s this concept of secondary unmetered water that we have to tackle,” said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Conservancy District. “That’s our next big challenge on the horizon.”

More than just tools for calculating water bills, meters can tell households a lot about their habits. And while a hit to the wallet might be enough for some water consumers to curb their habits, most might only need to know how much, exactly, they’re overwatering.

Utah’s population is expected to double in the next 50 years, and how to supply water to all those new people is a big conundrum for water managers working in the nation’s second-driest state.

“We see conservation as our No. 1 water development project ... at least 67 percent of all water consumed in a year by residents is outdoors on lawns and gardens, usually for just six months of the year,” Flint said. “So you can see where savings can happen.”

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District is a wholesale supplier of water for five counties. Much of their water goes into a secondary, untreated system used outdoors. Another large chunk is sold to cities and other municipalities, who distribute the water again to residential and commercial consumers for indoor and outdoor use. 

(Leia Larsen/Standard-Examiner)

Secondary water has almost become a cultural expectation in northern Utah, Flint said. It’s also likely tied to the region’s agricultural past.

“You diverted water down a ditch, then diverted it down another ditch, then it went onto your field and watered crops,” he said. “No one was metering it, per se, so that same concept was applied here where we have lawns and yards.”

Once the secondary system became the status quo, and after the population started surging in the 1960s, it was too hard to install meters. The untreated secondary water is essentially raw river water, full of silt, algae and debris that gunk up meters.

“We’ve been working with Utah State University for the last 15 years trying to come up with a device that would meter it,” said Scott Paxman, assistant general manager for the water district.

A few years ago, the technology finally caught up.

Weber Basin Water Engineer Manager Darren Hess holds up a secondary water meter before it was installed in Farmington on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.(Briana Scroggins/Standard-Examiner)

A mission of information

Weber Basin Water Conservancy District is in its fifth year of a secondary water metering pilot program. They’ve selected a handful of neighborhoods where they’ve installed new meters that don’t clog and can wirelessly transmit water use data. They’ve combined that data with water use recommendations based on a property’s size, location and vegetation.

“What we did was pick specific areas and do a pilot program so we could test how they’d go in, how hard it was, how expensive it was, what the public reaction to it was, and if there’s any difference in how they use water now that the meter’s in there,” Flint said.

The district isn’t charging for secondary water use yet, but they are sending out monthly, customized usage reports.

“We’re trying to affect behavior here without being punitive, at least to start,” Flint said. “What we’re seeing is a good response.”

Social sprinkling

Joanna Endter-Wada, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, helped the water district use the data to gain a wider social perspective of conservation, too.

“Our interest was in trying to assess the effectiveness of the information itself,” she said. “Could people be compelled or encouraged to conserve, just knowing whether or not water they were using was sufficient to meet their needs?"

The answer, it seems, is a resounding “yes.”

(Leia Larsen/Standard-Examiner)

The district has only kept track for the past three years, and they’re still finalizing the 2014 data. But preliminary estimates from the meters show the average household in Weber County used 83 percent of their one acre-foot water allocation in 2012. By 2014, that figure dropped to 60 percent.

The data also shows that the amount of people exceeding their water use allocation — another way of saying “overwatering” — dropped from 26 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2013.

Most households, over 70 percent of the secondary meter test pool, were surprised by just how much water they used on their lawns each season.

"So the project was very successful, first of all, in informing people about their water use and, secondarily, about encouraging them to conserve,” Endter-Wada said. “And there were significant reductions in the years since they’ve implemented the meters and shared that data with people."

Conservation ethics

The reductions also show an interesting bit of social science — that the price of water isn’t the only thing motivating water consumers to conserve.

“How much water costs is one motivation, but people, in general, have values related to not being wasteful, using their fair share and being reasonable in the amount of water they’re using in comparison to others,” Endter-Wada said. “So if people become aware of the fact that their use is considered inefficient, or they're using a lot more water than they really need, many of them are motivated to conserve by doing right as members of society."

The data shows some downers, too. Endter-Wada said they were surprised to learn just how much some households overwater. Two houses on the same street with similar lots and water needs could use vastly different quantities of irrigation water.

“Yet visually, you would not know that because the ones using more water are not necessarily gaining the esthetic benefit of that additional use,” she said.

There will always be careless property owners who will overwater, but Endter-Wada said most people simply have the wrong information and the wrong watering tools.

"In our individual interactions with people and households, we have often found there is very innocent overwatering occurring,” she said.

Plant, soil and weather science are complicated, beyond the reach of the average gardener. Homeowners often don’t realize how much water their landscape needs. But Endter-Wada said most water consumers are open to assistance and technical information to help them become more efficient.

“I’m always encouraged when I do studies like this,” she said. “There are many people who want to do the right thing in using water wisely, but they often just don’t have the skills or time to pay attention and figure out how."

Conservation programs, she said, can be designed to meet those needs.

Efforts to promote conservation have had a statewide impact, including areas without secondary water. According to Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, water managers started pushing a statewide conservation goal of 25 percent reduction per capita back in 2000. In 10 years, use had dropped by 18 percent. It possible that when they check 2015 numbers next year, the state will have reached its reduction goal, but that doesn’t mean conservation efforts are over.

“Our plan is, once we get to that 25 percent goal, which we think is a good, manageable goal, we’ll revise it again,” Millis said.

Irrigation inefficiencies and expense

Based on her research, Endter-Wada said one of the biggest culprits hindering conservation goals is inefficient sprinkling systems. It’s often the small things that add up, like leaking pipes, the wrong sprinkler heads or sensors that don’t tell them to shut off when it starts raining.

“If the systems are not well-designed or maintained, people generally increase watering time to make up for what are really system inefficiencies,” Endter-Wada said. “That’s not a skill a lot of homeowners have — maintaining irrigation systems … automatic irrigation systems save time more than they save water. "

The new secondary water meters might help encourage conservation, but installing them isn’t cheap. They cost the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District about $1,000 each.

“If you take all secondary connections in Davis and Weber counties, it’s about $100 million,” Flint said. “So we’re going to take that apple one bite at a time.”

Weber Basin Water and Whitaker Construction work to install secondary water meters in Farmington on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. (Briana Scroggins/Standard-Examiner)

Sapped system

Even if it takes years or decades, installing secondary meters is also signaling the end of an era. They’ll be required on all new developments going forward in the Weber Basin district. Flint also said the sensibility of expanding the region’s secondary water system is losing ground.

“Water is no longer available for secondary, and the cost of getting new water developed is really, really high, even compared to treatment costs,” Flint said. “So you’re going to see secondary not expand much.”

O’Loughlin with Brilliant Integrated Technologies has noticed himself how different homeowners have different motivations to conserve. His work promoting the new irrigation controller often takes him back to California. The state is facing a tougher drought crisis than Utah, and pay water rates around 74 percent higher, but overwatering hasn’t gone away there, either. Just last summer, water use in the parched state increased by 1 percent instead of going down by their targeted 20 percent. California policymakers passed a $500-a-day fine for overwatering to try to curb use.

“No matter where you go, water is not that expensive compared to what you’re putting it on; it’s noise for some people compared to the investment in landscaping and what the house is worth,” he said.

That’s why, instead of talking about “saving” water, O’Loughlin prefers to talk about “not wasting” water.

Martin O'Loughlin of Brilliant Integrated Technologies stands with his irrigation controller on March 20, 2015. O'Loughlin worked to develop the controller with some friends in an effort to help conserve water use in the West. (Leia Larsen/Standard-Examiner)

“I’m trying to change the language of the industry. All these people are saying it saves 30 to 50 percent, and my answer is, compared to what? People who were wasting a lot of water before, or people who are frugal?” he said. “It’s tough to make an economic case for using less water, so we have to appeal to people’s sense of doing the right thing.”

Doing the right thing, it seems, might become more apparent as our water scenario changes throughout Utah, the West and the world. A changing climate and growing population mean future consequences water managers are only beginning to understand.

“If this state truly goes through population explosion that’s forecast, if the planet becomes warmer and drier, municipalities will eventually be changing ordinances from where you must have green turf to where you must xeriscape,” O’Loughlin said. “We can forestall that day for 100 years if we use technology to help us with our conservation efforts.”

In the present, it seems, preparing for the future might best be achieved one sprinkler at a time.

Part three of this series explores our changing climate and what it means for northern Utah’s future water supplies.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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