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Green Building News

A New Weapon to Fight Water Waste

Using smartphone apps, many California residents can report water leaks and flagrant waste by their neighbors directly to utilities

“Drought shaming” in California. As the state copes with widespread water shortages, residents armed with a smartphone and the right app can report leaks and wasteful practices to their utilities. This is a screen shot of the app offered by the Desert Water Agency in the Palm Springs area.
Image Credit: Desert Water Agency

California residents alarmed about wasted water or annoyed with the cavalier attitudes of their neighbors can do more than grumble. With the right smartphone app, they can take their complaints directly to local water agencies for action.

The Los Angeles Times reports that officials in several parts of the state have rolled out apps that allow smartphone owners to take pictures of practices that violate water restrictions or report leaks that officials may not know about.

Vizsafe, which the newspaper described as a neighborhood watch app, has a feature allowing users to map photos of people who are wasting water, a practice called “drought shaming” on Twitter and Instagram.

The availability of the apps comes as California tries to cope with a drought that is draining lakes and drying up wells. Governor Jerry Brown in January declared a state of emergency and asked residents to cut water consumption by 20%.

Matthew Kahn, an economics professor in Los Angeles, told the newspaper that just knowing that the apps exist would be enough to help people conserve water. “While we all fear Orwell’s Big Brother,” he told the newspaper, “we all try harder when we are being watched, even if that is a little creepy. You may need these social apps to motivate these behavioral changes.”

The capabilities of the apps vary

In addition to Vizsafe, apps aimed at water conservation have been made available by the Long Beach water department, the Desert Water Agency (which serves the Palm Springs area), the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Placer County Water Agency. The Long Beach app dates back to 2010 but was updated this August to users could include photos.

The LA Times said that the anonymous complaints usually generate a letter from the utility to the offending property owners. Most complaints involve irrigation malfunctions, but some of them come from people who are irritated because their neighbors don’t seem to be taking conservation seriously.

In one case, a woman watched a neighbor wash his car every day for months. Although she tried talking to him about it, she didn’t get very far. Then the city launched its upgraded app. The woman took a picture and sent it to the water department and the car-washing stopped.

It’s not always the guy next door who gets pinched. In a related article, The Times reported on a amateur filmmaker who captured images of a stream of water pooling on the ground right in front of a building marked “Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles, Receiving Station K.”

A 2009 study by Southern California Edison found that the state loses about 10% of its water volume to leaking pipes. It adds up to billions of gallons a year, according to the newspaper.


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