WaterNow Alliance spoke with Joone Lopez, General Manager of Moulton Niguel Water District (MNWD) in Orange County, CA about MNWD’s success in using data to “right size” infrastructure investments, keeping down costs and better serving customers. This is the first installment of WNA’s Sustainability Spotlight Series, where we’ll be highlighting leaders in the field utilizing innovate strategies to provide clean, sustainable, affordable water for their communities. 

What motivated you to explore using more sophisticated data analytics at MNWD?

I’ve been aware for some time about how effectively the energy sector has been using data for rate planning, and when I hired my first full-time rate expert, Drew Atwater, he helped me understand the power of data not just in rate setting, but in so many of the ways we do things. We were seeing results and benefits from his work right away and I really started to understand the value of data even before I understood the data itself and the tools that go with it.

You give a lot of credit to the power of data in providing significant cost savings to MNWD ratepayers in infrastructure investment. How does that story start?

In 2015, we were planning to build additional seasonal storage for recycled water to be able to meet the highest peak demand. We wanted to build an aboveground reservoir and estimated that it would have cost us somewhere to the tune of $20 million. There would also have been additional operational costs that we hadn’t calculated yet.

Tell us about the role of Netflix.

We’re always interested in meeting and working with smart people doing innovative things.  One of the organizations we were able to connect with was DataKind, which has a network of talented data scientists at Princeton, Netflix, University of Toronto, etc. who want to volunteer their time to solve some of these critical social issues like sustainable water management. That’s how we met Will High, a senior data scientist at Netflix.

What does TV and movie streaming have to do with how customers use water?

Netflix gets to know their viewers’ viewing habits and they’re able to do predictive modeling to anticipate what their viewers are going to like and what you aren’t going to like. Will was able to apply this same type of predictive modeling - and that kind of granular timeline - to anticipate our recycled water usage through a water demand forecasting tool.

Did the Netflix-style data analysis reveal new information to you and your Board Members?

What we realized after using this tool to analyze our recycled water usage data, was that we could actually shave our peak demand for recycled water fairly easily. We talked to some of our largest recycled water customers, like golf courses, and asked them to adjust and coordinate their watering schedules. This was very well received by our customers because it translated into cost savings for everyone.

That’s amazing! So did this new information change MNWD’s original course of action?

Absolutely. The Netflix data tool revealed an easy and inexpensive alternative path to reducing peak demand for recycled water. This meant we no longer needed that additional seasonal storage -- and we didn’t have to invest in a $20M reservoir! 

Why do you think this is such an important story?

The reason why this is such an important example is that it speaks to this larger issue we’ve been dealing with in the water industry of stranded assets and capacity, and really illustrates what data can do. With the advancement of technology, now we can get these kinds of data that we couldn’t get before and we can use this to our advantage in planning and right-sizing projects. From a very technical standpoint the value of data makes for smarter planning and cost-effective infrastructure.

These cost savings really yield benefits to our customers. It’s about smart investment of our ratepayers’ funds, and these kinds of savings directly impact customers. We have the lowest average bill in South Orange County and we want our customers to know we’re trying to be frugal and smart about how we invest.

What role did MNWD’s Board of Directors play in all this?

Our Board of Directors’ support is so critical. One of the things that’s fundamental to trying new things and innovating is to have the support of your elected body and a lot of times people see that as a big challenge. But in our experience at MNWD, we’ve found that it’s just like a relationship, and if the board trusts you and your staff they’re also willing to try things.

My board has been fully supportive of our work with data because they’ve seen first-hand what it can do for us as a community water provider, and they see tangible improvements in planning. Making sure that you continue to learn together is important. As you grow as an organization there’s iteration and it’s actually been a lot of fun to work together. It’s really exceeded my expectations.

Given what you now know about your ratepayers’ water consumption habits, where do you see MNWD going next?

We’re very excited about our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project, we’re doing a pilot project right now and we have AMI out in the community and a customer portal that allows us to get real-time water usage information that both MNWD and our customers can access.

One of the most interesting things that happened with the whole drought emergency is that our customers responded in a really participatory way; they said – “I could do a lot more if I knew more about my water usage”. Most people do care and they do understand the value of water and they want to be part of the solution – so let’s help them to be accountable for their own water use.

What are the most important things water leaders can take into consideration when utilizing data in the water space?

There are a couple things. I think it’s really important to be open-minded and to not be afraid of what you don’t fully understand. You may often find out that there’s a better way to be doing something! There are real opportunities to learn from data, take from it what it’s showing you and then be able to adapt with it.

Also, data is nothing without people. Data doesn’t do anything in and of itself. You have to make sure you have the right people – you don’t necessarily have to have them in in-house but you need people in your network that have the talent, and also the good heart, to utilize data in a positive way to serve the public. Because data is about how we can make things better for our communities.

Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Do you have an inspiring story to tell? Contact Lindsay Rogers at [email protected], (415) 360-2999 to be featured in an upcoming Sustainability Spotlight,

Lindsay Rogers is the Program Associate for WaterNow Alliance

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