PI Metering

There have been multiple discussions on the pros and cons of metering our pressurized irrigation water. The primary arguments for metering center on reducing wasteful consumption and reducing the wear and tear on our system. I am not yet convinced that secondary metering is the right solution for these problems and would instead like to educate and encourage residents to invest in smart controllers for their sprinkler systems. Smart controllers work by developing watering cycles based on an individual yard and weather patterns, and have proven to reduce consumption without the need for meters and changes in billing. There are a few reasons I’m advocating this approach.

First, secondary water meters don’t always result in conservation, especially if you have a group of people who can afford it. From a Standard-Examiner article from 2015:

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.

I’ve heard that Spanish Fork has implemented secondary meters and has seen a reduction in usage. However, our demographics are different from those of Spanish Fork. In Spanish Fork, the average annual income is $68,767 and the average home value is $214,014. In Cedar Hills the average annual income is $97,693 and the average home value is $343,377. (city-data.com). In an area like ours, many users can afford the higher rates so metering won’t necessarily equate to conservation.

Second, studies have shown that educating users on consumption has helped reduce usage. The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District installed water meters in Ogden, however, they did not change how they bill. They provided watering stats to residents who had meters and found that, without changes in billing, consumption went down. From that Standard-Examiner article:

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.”

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.

“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.”

Also, from a 2016 Standard-Examiner article:

Tage Flint, general manager and CEO at Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, stresses that education has always been the key to conserving water. “What we’re finding is that the more educated the water user is, the more efficient they are in their water usage,” he said.
Flint says new technologies are helping to boost water conservation. For example, when a homeowner installs a smart controller, it generally makes an immediate difference.
“What we’re seeing is that, almost overnight, we’re getting a 30- to 200-percent reduction in water use,” Flint said.
Kelly Kopp, a professor of plants, soils and climate at Utah State University, in Logan, has been focusing much of her research on these new controllers.
“I do think that the future of irrigation is going to focus on technology,” Kopp says. “And smart irrigation controllers are a big part of that, with huge potential water savings.”
Britney Hunter, an extension assistant professor in horticulture at the Davis County USU Extension Service, says she’s “pleasantly surprised” at how affordable these smart timers are, and just what the technology is capable of. Indeed, Hunter said if everyone in Davis County replaced their irrigation timer with a smart controller, the average home would save 8,800 gallons of water annually. Nationwide, that could translate into a savings of 120 billion gallons.

In researching this, I’m finding places like California are now installing smart controllers on top of water meters because the meters weren’t enough. However, technology continues to advance and smart meters are being developed that do both. I’m concerned that if we do meters now but the state eventually feels smart controllers are more effective, we will need to upgrade once again.

Third, the more I study the conservation issue, the more strongly I feel this needs to be led by the state and not individual cities. Our wells draw from aquifers, and other cities draw from the same aquifers. If we are conserving but other cities are not, then our efforts will not have any meaningful impact. Lehi is a great example. They continue to drill down deeper to supply more water to their rapidly growing community. If we scale back but they continue to draw down the aquifer, we will still suffer. This isn’t to say that we should ignore conservation efforts. This is an important issue and we should all do our part. But if conservation of a resource is key, then it’s only going to work if everyone is participating.

Fourth, the wear and tear on our system is a concern, but I’m not certain metering will fix it. If we don’t see a reduction in use, then meters would not have solved that problem. We have had Bowen & Collins do a study on our water, sewer, storm drain, and PI system and they recommended rates based on ongoing operations and improvements. They have continued to state we do not need to raise PI rates. If our system isn’t going to last as long as anticipated, we could instead raise PI rates to plan for improvements more often than the current plan. I am interested in Bowen & Collins explaining why their recommendations haven’t changed based on usage, and if they did recommend a rate change to address wear and tear, how much that would be. It could be considerably less expensive than meters.

Fifth, on the subject of paying for what you use. This is a market principle that makes sense to me. However, we used to do exactly that when we used culinary water on our lawns. At some point the city recommended a PI system where residents would only be charged a flat rate. It turns out whoever did that study didn’t take into account that supplying an unlimited amount of something for a flat fee would increase usage. To now go back to residents and say that isn’t working doesn’t seem fair, and I’m sure that is why so many residents are opposed to water meters. I would like to explore other options to reduce consumption and use metering as a last resort.

In summary, I recommend that we increase education efforts, which may even require us to get some outside help for a season. I would like the city to emphasize the benefits of smart controllers and encourage residents to obtain one. Controllers range from $100-$300 and several water conservancy districts are offering rebates of half the cost up to $150 to install and approved device. In addition, the city could explore offering a rebate for those who show proof of installation of an approved device. We should also eliminate watering restriction days for those who use smart controllers as they system will be setup to only water when needed. I feel that residents would conserve if they had tools that made it easy to do so, and were aware of how much water was being used. It’s not unlike recycling. Many residents pay each month for a recycling bin without any financial incentive to do so, but because they feel strongly about conservation. With more education and improvements in technology, I think this is the direction that makes the most sense. I think we need to do more research on the options and talk with someone at the State level to see what research and plans are happening there. I would hate for us to go down a road that doesn’t resolve the issues, or that has to change in the near future as technology and awareness changes. We made the mistake of thinking that a flat fee PI billing structure would be fine, and are now realizing that assumption was incorrect.

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