A few weeks ago, City Council agreed to extend its annual contract with WaterSmart, a software platform designed to help the City and its water utility customers manage and monitor water use.
The City has been making WaterSmart available to customers since 2015 when Ketchum was picked to be part of a pilot project. Since then, about 15 percent of City customers have enrolled.
To help coordinate this program, the City hired Wendy Pabich, who for 15 years has researched and consulted on a variety of water projects across the Wood River Valley.
We decided to sit down and talk with Wendy to learn more about the features of WaterSmart and how it can help the City and its water customers save money and become more efficient water managers.
Q: Tell us a little about WaterSmart and how Ketchum got involved in this technology back in 2015?
Well, it took a little bit of salesmanship on the City's part because at the time, WaterSmart executives were focused on bigger municipal users, cities like Greeley, Colorado, and Oakdale, California. For the founders, who started the company in 2009, getting smaller utilities on board didn't seem financially viable.
But we argued small cities should be part of their customer mix for one important reason: Statistics show most of the water utilities in the country are small. In fact, only 26 percent of all water utilities nationwide serve more than 1,000 customers.
Q: So, what's the appeal or value of working with WaterSmart and getting customers to engage with their technology?
I first learned about their concept several years ago at a national water conference. At the time, they were talking about how providing customers with information can influence behavior and decisions.
What WaterSmart does is provide a platform for customers to identify their patterns of use. This platform incorporates data provided by the City and other sources about a specific customer, information like the size of the home, lot size, irrigation usage, and the number of occupants and bathrooms. When WaterSmart users log in, they can then view data sets that show how and where you're using water.
What WaterSmart is finding out, and what we've seen here during the pilot program, is that when people stop and examine their water use, they figure out ways to improve use patterns. In some cases, it's helped the City identify and notify customers of leaks in their system.
Q: Do you have any examples of Ketchum customers altering behavior or making management decisions to achieve more efficient use of water?
A few weeks ago, I made the case to the City Council to extend the contract another year. In my presentation, I used the example of one City Council member who signed on to WaterSmart more than a year ago. Data showed the council member used 51 percent less water in August 2017 than the same month in 2016. Moreover, the council member's water use in the last 12 months was 27 percent less than the same period in 2016.
Part of what we're trying to do with this program is educate, the concept being that the more people know and understand the more they seem keen to taking steps to save water, which in turn saves money on the monthly utility bill. So, there is a financial incentive.
The other feature of WaterSmart is the ability it provides those enrolled to log into their account and edit their profiles to enhance the accuracy of their use data. For example, users can adjust the number of occupants, or bathrooms or other factors to get a more accurate projection of use, and how that use compares to others.
Q: At the end of the one-year contract extension, how will you measure success and whether it's worth it for the City to spend another $10,300 to re-up on the contract another year?
In large part, success hinges on involvement. Right now, we only have 15 percent of the City's water utility customers signed up with WaterSmart. So, the plan for the next few months is to really promote this and get more customers enrolled and thinking about water use and efficiency.
If I can take a longer view of success, I think it plays out in terms of how this impacts the City's infrastructure and the costs of meeting increased demand for water. It's possible that making the City's customer base more efficient can save the City hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital costs, things like spending $2 million to drill a new water well to meet increased demand.
In the short and long-term, I see potential results ranging from just increasing customer awareness to saving tax dollars and easing some of the stress on natural resources.