While much of the entire western U.S. is suffering from a drought now heading into its fifth year, in California especially – where high tech is in everyone’s backyard (instead of grass or flowers) – technology is playing a huge role in the effort to battle the drought.
From Sensors to Satellites
Everything from sensors, satellites, social media, smart meters and, of course, data (lots of data) are all being used to teach people how to preserve water, use it more efficiently and where it’s being wasted.
A posting on the app Vizsafe outing a ‘water waster’
“It was 2:30pm when I took this picture. It is now 3:41pm as I post this and he is STILL watering. He hasn't started washing his 5 cars yet. Applause for this classy gentleman for continuing to acknowledge the severe drought we are in despite signs posted just a few feet away. Again, this is not a once or even twice a week thing. He does this throughout the week.”
Vizsafe is an example of social media’s power in the drought. It’s an app that gives users the power of ‘outing’ not only water wasters but litterers, illegal parkers etc. Co-founder Claude Sheer explains, “We put the power of mobile video technology into the hands of engaged citizens. Our civic network crowd sources geo-located visual posts from mobile devices, and private and public cameras in real-time, to improve community awareness with actionable content.”
Fellow Vizsafe co-founder Peter Mottur says any user can create a geo fence, or area of interest, and subscribe to various channels like water management. Posted content goes immediately into the cloud, including a location. He says several public safety organizations and related agencies monitor the content and receive alerts.
Santa Monica has its own city-run system that does something similar. Sustainability manager Dean Kubani says with its “Go System”, every post goes to the appropriate city department for review.
“So if someone is walking their dog in the morning and see’s a sprinkler broken and water running down the street, they can take a picture of it and send it to my department, and we can do something about it. Typically, the owner didn’t know their sprinkler was turned sideways. Sprinklers go off in the wee hours of the morning or at night.”
Picture of a wayward sprinkler posted to Santa Monica’s “Go System”
Kubani points out that all sorts of companies are collecting data, but that he doesn’t have the staff to mine it. “There’s a limited ability to solve a problem that someone identifies. That’s the sweet spot.”
Water municipalities in the Bay Area — the epicenter of tech — are experts at using data. Shannon Dean, vice president of Corporate Communications and Community Affairs for California Water Service, says they already provide online Water Focus Reports to select customers that glean information from data, like how much water your home uses per day compared to your neighbors. They are also piloting ‘data loggers’, small devices with a magnetic component that attach to your main water pipe and ‘listen’ in to detect an early water leak.
Pictures from a sample Water Focus Report by Cal Water
Dean says Cal Water is also an early adopter of ‘smart meters’ (replacing the old-school ones mounted to the outside of homes) which send data, via radio frequencies, to Cal Water drivers as they drive down the street (at about 25 mph). No more getting out of the truck and walking to a water meter. This speeds up the meter reading process by about seven times!
Digital Tech in Agriculture: From Sleeping Giant to Bleeding Edge
Agriculture is a $46 billion economy in California so the drought has really hit the state’s growers hard. But it’s also forced them to bring technology into their industry. OnFarm founder and CEO Lance Donny called agriculture – in terms of tech use – “a sleeping giant” a year and a half ago …but today?
“It’s gone from bleeding edge adopters to mainstream with farmers using tech as a competitive advantage.” Donny says OnFarm provides SaaS solutions to farmers that integrate IoT and other agronomic data to create intelligent digital dashboards so farmers can make better decisions when it comes to their crops.
Says Donny, “The ag industry historically was the ‘tower babble’ with every system using different data standards and data residing in silos. Farmers aren’t data analysts. So if how they use data becomes too overwhelming, they eventually abandon their use of tech and get limited returns from their crops.”
Sensors in California’s Farmland
Tule's sensors in some California fields
Tule is another Bay Area tech startup helping farmers, and they sell data subscriptions. Tule’s sensors are placed in fields and measure how ‘water stressed’ crops are, and how much water crops are actually using so farmers know how much to replace. A single sensor can cover up to 10 acres and are used in fields growing crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, melons, almonds and in many vineyards.
With the sensor being able to cover such a broad area, it helps reduce ‘visual blight’. Says Tule co-founder Tom Shapland, “Sometimes, we have trouble finding our own sensors. It’s like looking for a shoebox in a big field.”
An Aerial Approach to Technology
Even NASA is helping fight the drought by using their many earth orbiting satellites and tracking crop conditions in as many as 200,000 fields across California’s entire Central Valley. Their satellite images show how much more farmland is now sitting idle and show where crops are still being grown.
Aerial views of idle cropland from NASA (shown as red).
NASA research scientist Forrest Melton says NASA’s data and satellite images are freely available to the public and make it easier for scientists to conduct analyses to understand many different aspects of the drought. The data and images are also sent to California water managers.
But NASA says they have actually found some good news in all their drought data gathering. Says Melton, “Considering how little precipitation we've had over the past four years, the large amount of land still being farmed shows how resilient California’s water management infrastructure can be. It also shows how sophisticated California’s growers and water managers have become. So the good news is: I expect that we'll all be eating California fruits, nuts and vegetables for a long time to come.”
Now that’s news worth posting on the social media channels! We’d really like to hear what you see and hear how tech is being used in the battle against the drought. Please leave your comments, and questions, below.
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