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The talk of the town

The California drought was a hot topic at a water industry convention in Anaheim. Denver Water staff got an up-close look at the problems and potential solutions.
Dry river beds dot the California landscape after years of drought.

A friendly attendant in the convention center parking lot perfectly captured the moment.

“What event is going on here today?” he asked a bus full of visitors.

“We’re here for a water convention,” one visitor answered.

“Great! Can you all please do something to fix this drought?”

At the American Water Works Association’s annual convention in early June, the lingering drought was top of mind for the water professionals in attendance. Several of us from Denver Water made the trip, and we were all eager to get a first-hand look at the story that has captured so many headlines.

After all, California and Colorado are connected when it comes to water use.

Here are a few of our impressions and takeaways from the conference:

Evidence of drought is everywhere. Arriving in Southern California, the cities at first appeared quite green. But a closer look revealed dry river beds, wilting landscapes and signs declaring drought. At restaurants, the waiters didn’t bring you water unless you asked for it. You couldn’t flip to a news station without hearing something about water use.

The state of California is heavily involved in the efforts to drastically reduce water use. “It’s different to see the state government taking such an active role in mandating conservation,” said Melissa Elliott, our assistant director of Public Affairs, who attended the conference. “In Colorado, drought is usually handled at a local level, even when it affects the entire state.”

These hotel sprinklers are a good example of why it’s important to periodically check your sprinklers and ensure the heads are properly adjusted.

Getting everyone on board isn’t easy, even with all the publicity. While the conference was abuzz with talk of conservation and efficiency, the lessons didn’t always translate outside the conference walls.

We heard several conference goers comment that while water officials in California were focused on the drought, many businesses didn’t seem to be. In several of the conference hotels, there were no clear conservation messages about saving water by reusing towels and sheets. One conference attendee even observed a maintenance man watering hotel landscape that clearly wasn’t stressed.

And perhaps most telling, we noticed several hotel sprinklers watering the sidewalks and politely notified hotel management. The lady at the front desk was embarrassed and called maintenance immediately.

The water pros are working the problem. While some of the conference sessions about conservation sounded very familiar, we learned some valuable lessons about what other utilities are doing to make customers more water-wise.

One innovation is called “advanced metering infrastructure,” or AMI, which allows water departments to read meters more frequently and analyze how and when water is used.

“That was a hot topic in my circle,” said Mike Aragon, Denver Water’s manager of Customer Service Field. “You can share that information with customers, so they can reduce their usage by identifying how and when they consume water."

Denver Water ran a pilot test with one version of the AMI technology last year and is continuing with another pilot program this year. Once Denver Water finds the right technology solution in this field, it’s quite likely that Denver Water will implement an AMI program in the future.

Then it rained. Ironically enough, it actually rained intermittently during the final days of the conference. A little rain certainly isn’t enough to “fix the drought,” as our friendly parking attendant put it, just as our recent heavy rains in Denver shouldn’t deter us from using water wisely.

California has a long road ahead, and it’s an important reminder to Coloradans that drought can strike at any time — and in the most severe terms.