May 22, 2014 By Kurtis Alexander, McClatchy News Service
Across California, residents are being asked to decrease their water use to cope with the drought - 10 percent, 20 percent, sometimes more.
But unlike a dieter who regularly steps on a bathroom scale, water consumers can't track the gallons as they flow down the drain. Their effort to cut back, if they make one, is often educated guesswork.
San Francisco, though, is aiming to change that, becoming one of the first major cities to roll out technology that allows water customers to track their use, and how much they conserve, in real time.
Customers need only log into their water account online. No more waiting until the end of the month for the bill.
The online access, launched quietly Wednesday, is part of a $56 million program that has put new meters in nearly 180,000 homes and businesses, and it is expected to help residents achieve the city's voluntary conservation goal of 10 percent - a target the city has struggled to hit.
State water officials say less than 10 percent of California is equipped with such technology, which can be costly to implement. But more agencies are slowly coming aboard as California wrestles with its third straight dry year.
"There is more of a push now for smart meters, particularly with the drought," said Lon House, a water and energy consultant who authored a report on water metering for the California Energy Commission.
House said real-time metering, by encouraging conservation and helping detect leaks, prompts customers to immediately scale back water use by as much as 10 percent. Additional reductions are likely, he said, when customers use the program to study their water use and adjust their habits accordingly.
The new meters in San Francisco track water consumption hourly and beam the data via wireless transmitter to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission headquarters downtown four times a day.
Customers can view the data as it comes in, as well as compare their numbers with past use and city averages. A thick green line across a bar chart shows how people stack up with their peers.
The agency, which provides water not only to city residents but also to utility districts on the Peninsula, asked customers in January to scale back water use by 10 percent under projections that the commission made before the drought worsened. But the agency has achieved only a 5 percent reduction.
Officials say they may move to mandatory rationing if they don't see greater conservation.
"We need people to start doing their part to conserve," said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the utilities commission.
The outlook for growing the supply of water doesn't look good. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is currently less than 10 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources, leaving the district's main water source, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, emptier than normal.
Because many water districts are dealing with similarly short supplies, as many as 75 percent have looked into smart metering, according to reports by the state.
But Peter Brostrom, water efficiency manager for the state Department of Water Resources, said fewer than 1 in 10 agencies has it.
"It's an emerging technology. It's not widespread," Brostrom said.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has started to test meters that deliver real-time data to about 4,000 residents in Danville. But there are no firm plans to expand the program.
Sacramento and other cities in the Central Valley have also begun to introduce real-time metering. Many of these communities never had meters, so when state law recently required them to begin tracking customer water use, the new smart meters were an obvious way to go.
"I see it as something that eventually every district will put in," said Brostrom. "There's a lot of conservation benefit."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle