Wasting Water is Like Sending Pennies Down the Drain

Wasting Water is Like Sending Pennies Down the Drain

Imagine if you had to put a quarter in a slot every time you took a shower at home. Or 50 cents to run the dishwasher. Or $2 to water the grass.

You'd think about water differently, wouldn't you?

A San Francisco startup called WaterSmart Software wants to remind people that wasting water is wasting money, and to show consumers how to conserve both.

"People don't have a mental image of pennies going down the drain," says Peter Yolles, a founder and CEO of WaterSmart Software, which is based in San Francisco.

But they should.

"We're helping the consumer save money," Yolles says. "And we're helping the utility save money."

WaterSmart is a small company–just six people–that wants to help tackle a very big problem: Fresh, clean water is a finite resource. As populations grow, incomes grow and the planet warms, water scarcity will create business opportunities.

If you're like me (and I hope you're not in this instance), you know very little about your water use. I just checked my quarterly bills for the past 12 months and found that I paid $994.21 for water, or $82.85 per month. That's higher than I thought and, unfortunately, quite a bit higher than the average bill for US households of about $50 month, according to WaterSmart.

What's more, Yolles tells me, the water bill is "the fastest growing bill in your home," faster then the electricity or even the cable bill.

Here's a chart showing typical household water use:

You may be surprised, as I was, to see how much usage comes from leaks and the toilet as opposed to say, the dishwasher, which doesn't merit its own slice of the chart. (This is from a 1999 study.)

WatersSmart software aims to give people, first, more information about their water use and then, second, advice on how to use water more efficiently.

Using billing information from water utilities, along with real estate, climate and geographic data, WaterSmart will compare a household's water use with the neighbors in a friendly, easy-to-use format, on line and in print. It's similar in concept to a fast-growing startup called OPower which promotes energy conservation. [See my 2010 blogpost, Opower, peer presssure and climate change.)

Yolles, by his own description is a "water guy," having spent 20 years dealing with water issues from a business, nonprofit and government perspective. He's got a Master's in water resources from Yale's forestry school, as well as an MBA, and he has worked at GE Capital and the Nature Conservancy, as well as the Pacific Institute, a leading water think tank.

He and his co-founder, Rob Steiner, started WaterSmart late in 2009 and they were one of the winners the following year in a competition called Imagine H2O. Since then, WaterSmart has raised venture money from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Sand Hill Angels and Gary Kremin, an entrepreneur who founded match.com and Clean Power Finance. I heard about the firm from partners Andrew Williamson and Will Rosenzweig at Physic Ventures, which is also backing WaterSmart.

The business model for WaterSmart depends on the desire of water utilities, which are mostly publicly owned, to get their customers to conserve. "They want to provide a clean, reliable souce of water for their customers," Yolles says.

Some utilities are so concerned about the availability of water that they subsidize low-flow shower heads and toilets, or even pay for a homeowner to replace thirsty grasses on their lawns with native plants that need less water. If enough individual homeowners use less water, the utility can avoid the cost of new treatment facilities, reservoirs or even desalination plants.

In California (where I'm spending a couple of weeks), water is on people's minds. "This is the third driest winter, so far, in California," Yolles said. "Some California cities had no precipation in December." WaterSmart software has two pilot programs underway in the state.

But the problem goes way beyond California, of course. Water scarcity, climate change and infrastructure requirements are driving up water prices throughout the United States. Using electricity requires lots of water.

Globally, population growth and urbanization are expected to drive demand for water up 40 percent within 20 years, according to a 2009 report from the 2030 Water Resources Group, an association of the World Bank, major industrial water users and the consulting firm McKinsey, according to The New York Times.

No wonder more companies are developing water strategies. Maybe the rest of us should, too.

Images courtesy of the author.