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In Long Beach, Calif., Smart Meters Spot Wasteful Water Users
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In Long Beach, Calif., Smart Meters Spot Wasteful Water Users

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In Long Beach, Calif., Smart Meters Spot Wasteful Water Users

In Long Beach, Calif., Smart Meters Spot Wasteful Water Users
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The city has reduced its water consumption 6 percent since the drought started. The new meters can detect illegal watering in real time, and they've helped to cut some homeowners' use by 80 percent.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the severe drought here in California has urban areas under intense pressure. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown demanded deep cuts to the water being used by nearly all Californians. In the city of Long Beach near Los Angeles, a new crackdown on water waste could offer solutions for other cities. From member station KPCC, Molly Peterson reports.

MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Sprinklers still cascade across green lawns most mornings at the Gold Star Manor retirement home in Long Beach, but not for long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRINKLER)

PETERSON: Crews are killing 92,000 square feet of grass with a spray herbicide. A rebate from the city of Long Beach will pay for drought-tolerant plants. Terry Geiling is the CEO of the manor. He says he's no tree hugger, but he's not blind to the state's water woes.

TERRY GEILING: It's not going to get much better. This is desert. We never worried about the water before, so it's up to us to take the lead to do that.

PETERSON: Other city incentives will help replace toilets and fixtures. In a few years, Geiling expects updates indoors and out to cut his water use by almost a third.

GEILING: This is the way everybody should be working.

PETERSON: Overall, Long Beach has reduced its consumption of water 6 percent since the drought started. But not everybody hears the conservation message the city of 460,000 is sending. So the Long Beach Water Department's general manager, Kevin Wattier, says he's turning up the volume.

KEVIN WATTIER: We've gotten to the point now where this drought is so serious and our credibility as a utility is in question that we can no longer put up with flagrant abusers of our prohibited uses of water.

PETERSON: The water department issued its first fine ever last month.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, what can I get for you?

PETERSON: It was to a McDonald's - $800. Workers videotaped blasting sprinklers around the restaurant in the middle of the night, pooling water on the drive-thru lane. But city crews didn't lie in wait to catch McDonald's. Instead, Long Beach installed a smart meter there. Wattier says this new weapon against waste snaps on where the traditional number-spinning meter goes. It records how much water is used every five minutes and cellphone technology sends usage data to the cloud.

WATTIER: We can just selectively put these in only where we need them. You know, the next day, we're getting data from these customers. It'll be so powerful, you can't believe it.

PETERSON: Powerful because it's relatively cheap and easy to deploy and because Wattier says a lot of waste is accidental. Smart meters reveal leaky pipes, teenagers who take too-long showers and sprinkler systems with faulty settings. So when people see what they're doing, they change. He shows me data from a former scofflaw.

WATTIER: This one's down about 80 percent from when we put the smart meter on and let them know that we were watching what they were doing.

PETERSON: This targeted enforcement program makes Long Beach unique, says Max Gomberg with the State Water Resources Control Board.

MAX GOMBERG: It's one of the high achievers, if you will. And I think it's because Long Beach has been willing to act quickly and be innovative.

(SOUNDBITE OF METER)

PETERSON: Early metering efforts have been in place long enough to either change people's ways or rack up fines. The water department is eyeing even more wasteful users, and it's expanding the smart meter program, snapping them on for customers interested in new technology. One of them is Gary DeLong, who already took out his back lawn.

GARY DELONG: There was a lot more we could do to reduce our footprint, and we need to start doing that.

PETERSON: By next February, California cities together are supposed to cut their water use by a quarter. Sacramento, San Francisco and some Central Valley cities are also seeing whether smart meters can help. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in Los Angeles.

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