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Smart Metering Effective in California Water Rationing Compliance, UChicago Study Finds

Excess water usage was defined at 300, 500, or 700 gallons of water per hour during restricted hours. The EPA says the average American uses 82 gallons per day.
Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: February 28, 2023
UChicago researchers found in 2018 that smart meter water rationing enforcement worked to enforce water rationing
Houseboats crowd a narrow section of the remaining water in a depleted Lake Oroville in Oroville, California on Sept. 5, 2021. A 2018 smart metering experiment conducted by the University of Chicago and the City of Fresno found automated enforcement increased water rationing compliance on households who consumed hundreds of gallons per hour of water. (Image: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

A recent study by the University of Chicago found that employing an automated surveillance system of smart meters to enforce water rationing laws in Fresno, California worked wonders for decreasing resource consumption among the city’s biggest water users and increasing the city’s fine revenue.

The November 2022 study published by the University’s Energy Policy Institute focused on Fresno because, although the city has had universal smart meters installed in its nearly 115,000 homes since as far back as 2013, policy has dictated the sole usage of “water cops” to enforce rationing requirements.


“Violations were rampant and punishments were rare: 68% of households violated these restrictions at least once in the summer of 2016, yet only 0.4% of violations were sanctioned,” the authors wrote.

An experiment was conducted on Fresno residents almost five years ago in 2018 where UChicago researchers worked with the city to vary both the enforcement method—automated or water cop housecall—and the water usage threshold to trigger punishment in order to ascertain if electronic surveillance would be useful in forcing compliance.

To determine potential public backlash, the team measured the number of telephone calls to the Fresno Department of Public Utilities.

UChicago’s experiment found that electronic surveillance was highly effective.

Not only did the rate of households receiving fines skyrocket from 0.1 to 14.3 percent, but penalties and warnings led to a reduction in the number of violations by 17 percent and the number of violating households by 8 percent in the span of only one month.

The threshold for excess water use set by standing city policy is quite high at 300 gallons per hour, and only enforced during prohibited hours, the study noted.

For perspective, the EPA’s website states, based on data from a 2015 study, that the average American uses 82 gallons per day at home.

“If scaled citywide, the 3-month experiment would have achieved 20% of the annual reductions in residential water use that Governor Gavin Newsom requested of California residents on July 8, 2021, in response to another drought,” researchers noted.

The team also noted that water consumption decreased following the conclusion of the experiment.

Specifically, they also discovered that low fines did nothing to impact either frequency of violations, complaints, or consumption.

Moreover, wealthy homeowners were found to be the more common purveyors of both extreme water usage and complaints to the DPU.

The study explained that prior to the experiment, Fresno’s policies produced a situation where for the 114,508 single family households where smart meters were installed as of 2013, only five part time water cops were employed to conduct enforcement actions.

Consequences for violating conservation figures were extremely light, “To limit fine burden and political discontent, Fresno only sanctioned the first violation in a month. For the first, second, and third month with violations, households were charged fines of $0, $50, $100, respectively.”

The average monthly water bill in the region in 2017 was less than $80.

For the test, the City increased the excessive water use thresholds from 300 to 500 and 700 gallons per hour for some randomly assigned groups of households, applying automated fines to the next water bill and automated mailouts informing the homeowners of the time and volume of their violations.

Data collected by the researchers found that violations were limited and sporadic in scope, “The typical household exceeded the 300 gallon/hour limit (which went into effect in 2018) by about 28 gallons/hour…for about 0.141 hours per day or 1 hour per week…Thus, there would have been about 12,000 violations per day if the excessive water use threshold had been in force in 2017.”

Yet, these small encroachments on the water supply add up and would have proven to be a lucrative pipeline to the city’s coffers, “If the pilot were scaled citywide and the treatment effects remained constant, 16,374 households would be fined per month, and Fresno would collect $2.55 million…in fines over the summer.”

The automated enforcement regimen did decrease water consumption by 2.9 percent, and the statistic was proportioned to the hands of extremely heavy users, “This decline was partly driven by decreases in heavy consumption hours: automated enforcement reduced the number of hours with use between 500-699 gallons and above 700 gallons by 19% and 25%, respectively.”

But perhaps most notably was that a dramatic escalation of public backlash was what ultimately led to the program being abandoned by the City of Fresno.

Calls to the DPU not only sharply increased by 654 percent, but complaints and disputes against the enforcement actions rose by more than 1,100 percent.

The city ultimately not only imposed a moratorium on fines levied from the program just one day after it concluded, the study stated, but Fresno City Council voted unanimously to slacken its policy, reducing fines, relaxing water restriction hours, and increasing the violation threshold from 300 to 400 gallons per hour.

In 2022, California, responsible for a huge bulk of American food production, suffered an unprecedented drought that saw over 1,250 acres of farmland go uncultivated, double the amount in 2022.

A historic heatwave that sacked the state in September also caused the state’s power consumption to print new records. At one point, more than 52,000 megawatts was being consumed, beating the peak record of 50,270 megawatts in 2006.

For comparison, Canada, which has only 1 million fewer people than the state of California, has an all-time peak electricity usage record of only 27,005 megawatts, logged in 2006.

Panopticon-style digital surveillance is catching on with some governments.

In August of 2022, French media reported that the government had employed the use of artificial intelligence to uncover more than 20,000 “undeclared swimming pools” that led to a €10 million tax collection bonanza from homeowners in the first year of the program’s deployment.

Articles stated that France anticipated it would be able to harvest as much as €40 million from the initiative in 2023.

Reporting at the time stated that the average 30m2 pool cost law-abiding homeowners €200 in property taxes annually.