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Agency approaches to water conservation not one-size-fits-all

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As the drought persists, it's becoming clear that while there are a number of ways San Diego County water agencies could facilitate conservation, each will determine what works for its customers.

Residents have been asked to redouble their already-recognized efforts in conserving water. Ad campaigns have been adopted across the board now that the local wholesale distributor of water, the San Diego County Water Authority, has called to implement Stage 1 of its drought response plan.

But beyond commercials and bill inserts thanking customers for past success and asking for further conservation, what's being done to empower them?

The answer varies.

Unlike conservation efforts by San Diego Gas & Electric, which almost universally handles electricity distribution in the county, the call to conserve water comes from 24 autonomous agencies around the county. Each has its own concerns, budgets and possible solutions for engagement. And while a pilot program for smart water meters may have been launched in one district, another district may not have had the resources or been able to justify the cost of doing so.

In the case of Helix Water, which ran its smart meter pilot program with 322 customer accounts from June 2010 to May 2011, the cost of taking the program districtwide was too expensive, said Michelle Curtis, a water conservation specialist for Helix Water District.

Ted Salois, a senior public affairs representative at Helix, said the water use of those in the pilot program was estimated to have decreased by as much as 4 percent.

The estimated cost to install the smart meters throughout the district, he said, would be about $370 per customer account.

As the technology is improved and its cost potentially decreases, the district hopes to return to the idea later, he said.

In light of cost challenges, Helix and other water agencies, such as Otay Water District, are instead promoting conservation through add-ons to existing incentive programs offered by the Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

At Helix, for example, customers are eligible for seven rebates offered by MWD's SoCal WaterSmart program, with added incentives from Helix for a couple of them.

Curtis said the rebate program has been a successful component in reducing consumption, which on a per capita basis has experienced a downward trend.

SoCal WaterSmart's rebates cover high-efficiency washing machines and toilets, weather-based irrigation controls, rotating sprinkler nozzles, soil-moisture sensors, rainwater collection barrels and turf removal.

Helix adds funding of $120 to the baseline incentive of $80 per weather-based irrigation control system, and 50 cents per square foot to the baseline of $1 offered by MWD for turf removal.

Participation in the MWD-based programs has fluctuated during the past five years among Helix customers. From fiscal 2008-09 to fiscal 2012-13, the number of applications approved annually in the district has been as low as 472 and as high as 1,166.

Curtis said Helix is exploring an upgrade to its customer service database so customers could access and analyze their accounts online.

"Smart meters still would give them additional information because it would give them more real-time read data, but this would at least give them immediate access to their consumption per billing period, and they could look at some of their historical use and get some trends," Curtis said.

In the city of San Diego, which is by far the Water Authority's largest customer and has the most resources, a test program dubbed the Advanced Metering Infrastructure Initial Implementation Program is underway.

The program will use radio-based technology to read about 4 percent of the water meters in the city, or about 11,000 meters out of 275,000.

The identification of meter malfunctions, leaks, vandalism and tampering are among the benefits the city said the meters will provide the test program's customers, in addition to the real-time usage data made available to them.

"Once all the devices [endpoints] that connect to the meter and transmit the meter data back are in place and the system has been thoroughly tested, a Web portal will be provided so customers will be able to access daily usage data and compare to more extensive historical usage information," a city spokesman said.

The program is also planned to allow for notifications of unexpected changes in water use patterns to be sent to customers.

An evaluation of program results will determine its possible expansion, the city said.

Otay Water officials have already decided that advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI, is too expensive for deployment anytime soon, Communications Officer Armando Buelna said.

However, the days of employees needing to exit vehicles to physically check meters house by house are a thing of the past in the 50,000-customer Otay Water District.

A few years ago, Otay deployed a meter-reading technology, known as automated meter reading, or AMR.

The technology made meter-reading more efficient by allowing meters to similarly transfer data to a laptop computer in a district employee's vehicle.

But Buelna said the AMR program came at a significant cost -- in the millions of dollars -- and that an overhaul to AMI technology would place too much of a burden on customer bills.

So like other districts, Otay Water is hoping to get as much participation as possible in the rebate programs.

The district heavily promotes the rebate on rotating sprinkler nozzles, which Buelna said can cut down water use by 20 percent compared with standard sprinklers. That rebate recently increased from $4 per sprinkler head to $6 per head, covering nearly the entire cost.

"That's where most of the water goes," Buelna said of typical homeowner water use. "Sixty percent to 90 percent of your water use is going to be outside on irrigating your turf. We try to explain to our customers where they're using their water. Everybody believes they're using their water indoors, and want to cut down on their showers and things like that. But most of your water is not being used indoors."

Soil moisture sensors, he added, could keep a customer from making the common mistake of overwatering a yard.

With each water district on a slightly different path toward promoting water conservation, efforts are being made to share ideas.

"We try to find that balance for member agencies," said Jason Foster, director of public outreach and conservation for the Water Authority.

Though not a decision-maker for all, the Water Authority is looking to be a facilitator of best practices, recently increasing to once-per-month the frequency with which it gathers member agency officials for collaboration.

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