By Deborah Blumberg
The City of Shoreview has long embraced a culture of protecting and conserving water. Like many utilities, it regularly shares conservation tips with residents — don’t water your yard in the rain, and turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth — among other methods to ensure groundwater is available for future generations.
But in 2016, officials in Shoreview wanted to do more to help. Water conservation was top of mind after the city installed a water treatment plant and as local residents worried about low water levels in the nearby White Bear Lake.
“We were interested in trying to go to another level,” says Shoreview Public Works Director Mark Maloney. Maloney was well aware that water overuse is a common problem, with residents overwatering lawns, and with older appliances like dishwashers and washing machines using water inefficiently. He wanted to test a theory to help curb overuse: If residents were exposed to more frequent and more detailed data on their water usage, would they be more likely to use less water? Maloney was hopeful the answer was yes.
So, Shoreview applied for and received a $54,000 grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) to create and test a new Community Water Conservation Program. The city linked up with San Francisco-based WaterSmart Software to give residents access to detailed information on their water usage through an online portal.
Fast-forward three years after the water consumption and groundwater awareness project kicked off, and residents have conserved nearly 15 million gallons of treated groundwater because of the program, reducing demand on Shoreview’s water treatment plant. Reducing water use also reduced the amount of treatment chemicals the city needed.
“Residents have jumped on board,” says Shoreview Natural Resources Coordinator Ellen Brenna. “They’re even more conscientious about conservation.” The city’s initiative was the winner of the League of Minnesota Cities and Minnesota GreenStep Cities 2019 Sustainable City Award.
Shoreview, like many metropolitan municipalities, supplies drinking water to customers through groundwater wells instead of surface water resources. After receiving the LCCMR grant, Maloney and team set out to launch a small pilot program with residents to test his hypothesis. When he presented his plans to the City Council, members wanted to do a bigger rollout.
“They were so excited about the idea, they said, let’s just completely roll out the program from the get go,” Maloney says.
Originally, Maloney and team planned to develop their own software to gather data. When they came across WaterSmart, however, and the work the company was doing in California to help municipalities deal with acute water shortages, they decided not to reinvent the wheel.
“Shoreview is a unique case,” says Lindsey Fransen, director of customer success at WaterSmart. “They’re trying to get ahead of the curve and be proactive with their efforts.”
Shoreview signed on with WaterSmart for three years, at $25,000 a year. The cost included the software platform, data collection, and postage for mailing paper reports to residents. The grant and another $20,000 from the city covered the costs for the three-year program.
The city set up a control group of 1,500 single-family residential homes that it planned to exclude from the program for two years, so it could scientifically test whether the program was working.
WaterSmart’s platform started to get water use data from the utility, plus publicly available data from the county assessor’s office on property metrics like a home’s square footage, the size of the lot, and age of the house.
Then, WaterSmart’s software created individualized water use reports for each account. At first, the city mailed usage reports to early adopters. Now, all program users instead log into the online portal to check their usage.
Reports place residents in cohorts, showing them how they rank in water usage compared with residences that have similar characteristics, such as the size of their home or yard. Brenna says the comparison reports help residents put their water use into context and create a community conversation around the topic.
The reports show residents how many gallons per day they use in a one-month period, offer general water conservation tips (e.g., check for clogged sprinkler heads and don’t spray if you can sweep), and include a detailed, personalized action plan based on a resident’s specific property.
One personalized report recommends a resident upgrade to a high-efficiency toilet to save 17 gallons per day and $32 a year. Other recommendations include reducing a shower to five minutes to save 11 gallons and $30 a year, and fully loading a clothes washer to save 5 gallons a year or $10.
As the program got going, word about it spread and control group members began asking if they could participate.
Maloney wanted enough data to prove it was working, but he didn’t want to hold back interested residents. So he slowly dissolved the control group. Ultimately, “we were more interested in getting people’s engagement,” he says.
After collecting data for 26 months, Shoreview found the program saved the city 8.1 million gallons of treated groundwater between January 2017 and February 2019, translating into a 1.4% savings in total water use across Shoreview.
“We had a very strong response in our community,” Maloney says. “The program has had a meaningful difference.
Once people get engaged with this, they find a lot of value in it. In response to our hypothesis, we got a resounding yes.” After one year, 10% of the city’s 8,700 eligible single-family water accounts had enrolled in the program. Now, all residents have access, and about 21%, or nearly 1,800 households, have registered with WaterSmart.
“Residents are appreciative, and they log into the portal,” Brenna says. “They’re more conscientious about conservation.” An interactive portal
Users can add notes in the portal and send messages to Brenna through the system if they have questions or want more information. Brenna sends an email every other month to remind users to log in and check their use.
Residents can also correct and update their profiles — changing the square footage of their home or updating the number of residents from five to three, for example — which helps refine the software’s recommendations.
“Some of our users are power users that way,” Maloney says. “They take the time to go in and customize everything.” Residents also report their behavior changes in the portal. Some have bought and installed water efficient fixtures and appliances, while a large number now report fully loading their washing machine and dishwasher to save water.
Outdoors, many have added native grasses and plants and report they’re making sure irrigation water isn’t running onto paved areas.
A new standard
Shoreview’s WaterSmart participants received a survey both pre-launch and a year after launch, and the results were impressive. To encourage participation, the city entered respondents into a drawing for a $125 Target gift card.
Many customers said seeing their consumption in this format helped them become more aware of how their habits waste water. Maloney says the surveys were a great opportunity to get a general picture of how satisfied residents have been with the city’s water services, and what more Shoreview can do to help.
Results showed residents were more satisfied with the city’s water services after the program launched—88% of those surveyed said they were satisfied, versus 79% previously. Eighty-four percent agreed Shoreview helps residents save water, versus 51% previously, while 74% versus 41% now believe the city helps residents to save money.
“An ancillary benefit of the portal was that it put us on people’s radars,” Maloney says. After the three-year contract with WaterSmart expired, Shoreview renewed it, no questions asked, says Maloney. Costs dropped to $20,000 a year after Shoreview moved from the paper reports mailed home to exclusive use of the portal.
“This is the standard for us now,” Maloney says.
Three years after the program launched, Shoreview is still focused on spreading the word. They redesigned their website, which prominently features the program, and do citywide outreach through social media.
“We’ve been pushing the program pretty heavily,” says Brenna. “We want even more people to get involved.” Word about the program has also spread to other Minnesota communities.
St. Cloud, for one, recently signed on with WaterSmart.
Now, Shoreview is ready to help residents take advantage of the portal’s other intelligent features. Using algorithms, WaterSmart can detect potential leaks and automatically notify customers. “That’s the next frontier for us,” says Maloney.
Deborah Blumberg is a freelance writer.