Drought Highlights Need for Businesses to Rethink Water

California's Department of Water Resources is taking unprecedented steps to curb water usage, with new mandates targeting commercial and residential users. Smarter water systems could help businesses save water and money—and not just during periods of scarcity.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 06, 2015

Last week, for the first time in 75 years, officials from California's Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducting their annual snow survey found absolutely nothing to measure at the 6,800-foot survey site in the Sierra Nevada. Standing on grass, which would be buried under 5 feet of snow during a typical year, California Governor Jerry Brown took an unprecedented step, directing the DWR to work with the state's 400 local water supply agencies to reduce water usage by 25 percent.

While 80 percent of water consumed in California is used for agriculture, in urban centers there and across the country, 58 percent of water is used for landscaping and irrigation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As far as conservation goes, that expenditure represents a major opportunity for savings—not just in water, but also energy. In California, 19 percent of the total energy expenditure goes toward cleaning and transporting water.

California officials, for the first time in 75 years, found absolutely no snow to measure at Sierra Nevada this year, so Governor Jerry Brown (left) is taking drastic measures to reduce water usage. (Photo: California Department of Water Resources)
A partnership, announced last week, between IBM and The Weather Channel's business-to-business arm, Weather Services International (WSI), highlights the value that weather data holds for businesses of all types. IBM and WSI are developing tools for anticipating major weather events and then leveraging the Internet of Things and data analytics to mitigate the estimated $500 billion in weather-related losses that businesses suffer annually. But weather data can also be utilized to improve how companies use and manage water resources—and not only when severe drought forces them to take drastic measures to conserve.

"In 2002, when we founded the company, we could see water would become a big issue and that data was pretty sparse, in terms of the meaningful data needed to make decisions on how to use water," says Christopher Spain, the CEO of California-based HydroPoint, which sells the WeatherTrak platform. Through a combination of irrigation controllers, sensors, weather stations, and cloud-based applications and services, WeatherTrak automates and optimizes irrigation schedules based on a range of factors, from plant species, soil type and topography to the estimated rate of evaporation and weather forecasts.

Most businesses view water as an abundant resource, Spain says. "When you have abundance, you end up with systemic waste," he states. "If it's not scarce, why would I care? That kind of thinking is just in our bones."

But throughout the years, HydroPoint has been able to show businesses that they could save money by conserving water. Customers—which include Walmart, Target, Kohl's, Lockheed Martin's three Silicon Valley campuses, and a number of housing developments and the city of Santa Clarita, California—generally see a payback in their investment within two years, Spain reports. Some customers, who have deployed the HydroPoint system across multiple properties, have saved up to 10 billion gallons of water within a single year, he notes.

According to Spain, payback time is closely related to scalability and size. A Walmart store that only needs to irrigate one acre could achieve a return in 18 months, he says, whereas a school campus that has much larger acreage and irrigation demands might take longer to see a payback.

WeatherTrak collects more than 8 million data points daily, from more than 40,000 sensors, ranging from weather stations, radar systems and radiosondes (weather balloons that measure pressure, temperature and relative humidity levels at elevations as high as 115,000 feet) to river gauges, ocean buoy stations and instrumentation mounted on aircraft. It then uses a process called the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model—developed by a number of government agencies, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—as the basis for its weather-modeling software. This is then used to generate predictions regarding the rate of evapotranspiration at each site at which HydroPoint irrigation systems are deployed.

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