Curbing Our "Profound Waste" of Water

Curbing Our "Profound Waste" of Water

Water's on my mind. I'm just back from a rainout of the Washington Nationals-St Louis Cardinals baseball game. Second rainout of the season for the Nats -- and on both dates, I had tickets!

As best as I understand the issue (which is not very well), there's little or no danger that the world as a whole will run short of water, which makes water different from other natural resources like oil, gas or precious metals. Using water wisely is important, nevertheless, because more than 800 million people around the world lack access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion don't have access to a safe toilet, according to the Global Water Challenge. Water is also a big environmental issue because it takes enormous amounts of energy to move water around. According to US EPA,

"An estimated 3 percent of national energy consumption, equivalent to approximately 56 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), is used for drinking water and wastewater services. Assuming the average mix of energy sources in the country, this equates to adding approximately 45 million tons of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere."

Far more energy -- I couldn't find the numbers -- is used to move water around for agriculture and landscaping. So if we can learn to use water more efficiently, we can save a lot of energy.

Given that, here's a surprising and mildly disturbing fact: There are about 60 million automatic irrigation systems across the U.S., operated by governments, real estate developers, suburban office parks and retailers, and most of them operate on timers. That is, they water the grass or plants every few days for a set number of minutes, regardless of whether it has been raining or not. So here in the Washington, D.C., area, even on this drizzly afternoon, we can assume that some automated sprinklers are sprinkling.

"This current technology makes about as much sense as having a timer instead of a thermostat in your house," says Chris Spain, the founder of a company called Hydropoint, which offers smart irrigation systems.

I interviewed Chris while helping the Environmental Defense Fund research and writing its 2009 Innovations Review, a report on innovations that are good for business and for the environment. We met last month at FORTUNE's Brainstorm Green, where Chris spoke about water.

Founded in 2002 and headquartered in Petaluma, CA, Hydropoint helps its customers save water. They include eBay, Lockheed Martin, Cisco, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Amazon and Advanced Micro Devices, as well as big real estate developers and municipalities.

Hydropoint downloads weather data from about 40,000 weather stations across the U.S., asks customers to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their soil, plantings, sun and shade conditions, then calculates how much water is needed and when. Once Hydropoint has gathered data, it installs controllers on the customer irrigation systems and transmits instructions wirelessly to the systems.

Spain, an enterpreneur who worked in software, new media and television production before getting into the water-saving business, has become a self-educated expert on H2O. He told me that landscaping consumes about 58 percent of urban water, and that landscapes are typically overwatered by 30 to 300 percent.

The Hydropoint website also says:

"Four million watt hours of power are expended and 5,360 pounds of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere with every one million gallons of water consumed."

The city of Newport Beach, Ca., an early Hydropoint customer, says it reduced landscape runoff (and associated pollution) to its popular beaches by 70 percent. Independent research studies which governments need before buying the Hydropoint system confirm dramatic savings in water usage.

By the way, farmers don't do much better when it comes to water use. Another company highlighted in EDF's review is PureSense, which provides smart irrigation systems so that farmers can reduce their water usage.

Two things worth noting about these companies. First, they help repair market failures. farmers and landscape owners are wasting lots of water, and paying for it, because it's easy to see when the ground needs water (grass turns brown) and harder to know the ground is getting too much water. Second, because Hydropoint and PureSense rely on wireless technology and weather data, they show how information technology will play a vital role in solving environmental problems.

Because most customers end up saving water, Spain says, the payback period for the initial investment in Hydropoint equipment is about 18 to 24 months.

The business is growing fast. "We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of market opportunity," Spain says. “We address an area of profound waste."

Now if we could only do something about those rainouts.