The Internet Versus The Great California Drought
by Aaron Tilley
Richard Martinez keeps a close eye on his soil. The manager of organic production at Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, Calif. used to walk his celery fields, grabbing fistfuls of dirt and rubbing them between his palms to tell if the earth was moist enough. Now he just takes out his iPhone. With a dose of technology Martinez is doing his part to reduce his water use and–joined by dozens of cases like his–helping save America’s biggest economy from environmental ruin.
California is going through one of the worst droughts in the state’s history–entire lakes, rivers and reservoirs are drying up. California Governor Jerry Brown called for a statewide reduction in water usage by 25%. Inspectors are fanning out and could levy fines of $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of water for those taking more than they’re allotted.
While Californians may not be happy with this predicament, the drought is a gusher for a growing number of tech startups in the emerging world of the Internet of Things, the buzzy term for the trend of connecting devices and data in the physical realm to the Internet. Getting more sensors into the environment will help thousands of farms, businesses and cities figure out where water is going and how it can be diverted for the most efficient use. Agriculture is the area most ripe for collecting more and higher-quality data. Farming accounts for nearly 80% of human-related water usage in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“Water so far has pretty primitive technology being applied to it,” says David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the book Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource . While tech is no cure for the West’s extensive water crisis, it’s one of the more powerful tools we have.
Deardorff Family Farms has been around since 1937. Richard Martinez handles the organic section of the farm, where he grows lettuce, kale and water-intensive crops such as celery on 350 acres outside of Oxnard. Having suffered through two previous droughts, he’s never seen conditions this bad. Martinez is under strict limits and has to figure out where he can cut back on water just enough before it starts killing off his crops.
In 2013 Martinez bought his first solar-powered soil sensors, but with the drought under way last year he bought seven more, installing them throughout the fields. Made by Hortau, a company in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the hubs have a cellular radio and are crammed full of interchangeable sensors for measuring variables such as temperature, humidity, oxygen, rainfall intensity and solar radiation. Hortau builds its own sensor to measure soil’s ability to retain water, crucial for understanding precisely how much water is needed to keep a crop going.
“You can cut water, but if you cut too much, two days later you could come back and your crop could be gone,” says Martinez.
Farmers using the system can achieve on average 20% to 30% of water savings, Hortau says. Sensors cost between $10 and $50 per acre per year depending on the crop. The company’s growth was sluggish in its first several years, but since 2008, once cellular modems got cheap enough to put into each sensor, Hortau has been growing more than 50% a year on average. Some 80% of its sales are in California.
For most homeowners and small businesses, the quarterly water bill is an enigma shrouded in a mystery. It goes up and down, and there’s not much you can do about it. WaterSmart is trying to demystify usage in order to get people to cut back. The San Francisco startup engages with water utilities to hoover up all their customers’ meter readings and mashes up this information with dozens of related data points on the placement and age of homes, climate and occupancy rates. The startup collects nearly 700 million data points each hour to help utilities find leaks and identify which homes or neighborhoods are the heaviest or most anomalous water users. Just as Opower does with “electricity bill-shaming,” WaterSmart sends homeowners and businesses personalized reports that show them how much water they’re using compared with customers nearby and scores them based on their thrift. WaterSmart also sends customers messages on their smartphone if there’s a leak or if they’re allowed to water the garden on a particular day. On average, WaterSmart can cut a utility’s water usage by 5% annually.
Much of the data WaterSmart is collecting from utilities is from regular dumb old water meters, but “smart meters” (those with wireless modems attached) are rolling out widely. Smart meters were 18% of the total in North America in 2013 and are estimated to increase to 29% by 2020, according to research firm IHS . Says WaterSmart CEO Robin Gilthorpe, “The more sources of fine-grained data, the better.”
Once people start to run out of water on the surface, they begin looking underground. Typically, California depends on groundwater for 30% to 35% of its consumption. During droughts that usage can shoot up to 60%. The big problem: Nobody knows how much water is down there.
The traditional way of measuring well-water levels has been to send down a tap with a moisture probe at the tip. Data is collected once maybe every six months. Wellntel of Milwaukee has built a $500 contraption that sits on top of wells and sends a digital ping (it sounds more like a blip) down the drill hole, similar to how a submarine uses sonar. Each blip has a unique signature to distinguish it from the others. Data can be gathered as often as the user wants. All of that sounding data goes to a cloud server to produce a detailed, living map of the well interior. People who manage wells need to make sure they don’t overdraw well water. If a well is totally depleted, that area of land can collapse in on itself or lower the water table, requiring deeper wells to be dug.
“We should think about groundwater as a bank account,” says Wellntel cofounder Nicholas Hayes. “We supply information to folks who depend on the bank being balanced.” Wellntel has been running a pilot for the past year and a half in Templeton, Calif. and is sending out final versions to hundreds of California well operators for installation.
HYDROPOINT DATA SYSTEM
Keeping all those big lawns, hotel grounds and golf courses nice and green across California’s cities requires buckets of water. Some 60% of urban water use goes to outdoor irrigation. But the irrigation systems are typically dumb pieces of equipment that run only on timers, which HydroPoint Data System cofounder and CEO Chris Spain calls “a great example of analog stupidity. They’re resource-blind. They don’t care if they’re applying resources in an intelligent fashion.”
HydroPoint in Petaluma, Calif. is putting sprinkler use on the Internet to make sure lawns aren’t wasting tons of gallons because of overwatering. Its system crunches solar radiation, temperature, wind and humidity data from weather stations all over the country (8 million pieces of data every day) to determine something called evapotranspiration, which is the measurement of evaporation and transpiration of water from the Earth to the atmosphere. If evaporation is slow, the sprinklers don’t have to come on as quickly or for as long. HydroPoint produces a more targeted on-off cycle for each sprinkler by combining its evapotranspiration score with 13 other parameters that include sprinkler type, shade, slope, soil type and root depth. HydroPoint’s sprinklers also contain flow sensors to keep a close eye on what exactly is happening on-site. HydroPoint claims its system can cut a location’s water bill by 30% on average. HydroPoint targets big customers with large landscapes to irrigate. Half of its business is in California.
“When water was cheap and abundant, people thought, ‘Who cares?’ ” says Spain. “ The biggest barrier for us was that water was so cheap. Not anymore.”
Read the full article here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/aarontilley/2015/07/01/the-internet-versus-the-great-california-drought/