OWF Initiative – Improve Information for Municipal Water Providers & Customers


“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

– Jane Jacobs

The OWF initiative to Improve Information for Municipal Water Providers & Customers seeks to use technology and information to help municipal water providers and customers understand water use impacts locally and within the region. Most municipal water customers have limited understanding of the complexity of water issues, in particular because water utilities provide near 100% service reliability at a relatively low cost. The OWF develops software tools that provide integrated information about municipal water use to inform decisions about policy and operations, and to create informed communities. Our goal is to help citizens understand the complexity of water issues and help water providers understand challenges and opportunities consistent with the values of citizens. Below are examples of how OWF is providing tools and services to improve information for municipal water providers and customers.

Understanding Water Supply Issues

Municipal water providers plan for variability and manage for the average.  Despite large variability in hydrologic conditions from year to year, water providers are expected to deliver near constant supplies.  Winter demands are highly predicable because they mainly meet indoor water use demands, whereas warm-weather demands for outdoor uses are impacted by weather, drought, and disasters.  Water providers that rely on groundwater can meet demand by pumping as needed; however, many aquifers are being depleted.  Water providers that rely on surface water sources must also rely on storage (reservoirs) because rivers in arid regions do not flow at necessary levels year-round, in particular when water supplies are shared with agriculture.  However, construction of new reservoirs that dam or divert from rivers is often met with resistance from environmental interests.  OWF is developing software tools and data analysis processes to help understand issues like the following, with focus on cities, regions, river basins, and states.  We collaborate with organizations that have specific expertise.

  • Can new reservoir storage and rehabilitation of existing reservoirs result in water supplies that support multiple purposes, including agriculture, environment, and recreation?
  • Can local, regional, and statewide water demand and supply data be integrated for a long-term planning horizon to understand challenges and opportunities? For example OWF has developed a prototype visualization tool for Colorado’s water supply gap as seen in the upper right picture titled “Colorado Water Supply Gap Analysis”.
  • How can drought be predicted and actions taken to minimize impact? OWF is developing software to automate analysis of Colorado’s Surface Water Supply Index as seen in the picture to the right titled “Surface Water Supply Index”.
  • How do water supply decisions for one community impact those of other communities in the region? For example, communities may compete for the same water in a region.  Communities also acquire supplies that meet drought requirements, whereas in many years there is surplus supply that benefits the environment and agriculture in the region.
  • What happens when the surplus water in a region is exported to other regions, potentially limiting the ability of the local region to meet its requirements in times of drought?
Gap Analysis Tool

Colorado Water Supply Gap Analysis

Surface Water Supply Index used as drought indicator created by TSTool software

Surface Water Supply Index used as drought indicator created by TSTool software

Understanding Water Use Efficiency

An argument that is often made is that municipal water providers can conserve enough water to minimize the need for new storage projects or transfers of water from agriculture.  Others argue that this is not possible and that water conservation is a short-term solution and more water projects are needed to meet long-term demand.  The OWF is interested in providing software tools and analysis capabilities to answer question like the following:

  • How can technologies like automated meters, geographic information systems, and real-time data be used to implement data-driven rate structures that increase efficiency?
  • Can open data policies be used to share data for research and to demonstrate and monitor municipal water use efficiency gains? For example, there are concerns about sharing customer data; however, can data be aggregated in a way that is acceptable?
  • How can efficiency be measured and evaluated given the variability of uses? For example, tourist towns often appear to have higher use because of the influx of weekend and seasonal visitors.  Residential and commercial use can be difficult to separate because residents use water at home, at work, and in the community.
  • If municipalities conserve water (become more efficient), what happens during drought when there is less ability to cut back on use?
  • How does reducing outdoor water use impact urban landscapes? For example, if lawn watering decreases, how will trees respond to drought?
  • How does water reuse and conservation impact regional water supply? For example, more water conservation will result in less use and more water in rivers, but as population grows, the amount of water used will increase and there will be less and less “waste” for downstream users.
  • Can system efficiency metrics be determined at various scales, to indicate where there is potential for efficiency gains at a system level?

Educating the Public

Water resource issues are complex and water supply is limited.  Water issues and public perceptions and values vary by region.  For example, mountainous regions value water for recreational uses, rural areas value water for agricultural uses, and urban areas value water for municipal uses.  At the same time, people enjoy vacationing and recreating on the water, and agricultural products provide food, fiber, and fuel.  Increasing water for one use has an impact on other uses. Urban areas have repeatedly voted to tax themselves to pay for open space and water is now recognized as a priority in addition to land preservation.  OWF seeks to educate the public about complex water issues through efforts such as the following:

  • Explaining complex, interrelated water issues with concepts, data, and information, presented from a neutral perspective. We value the work of engineers, water lawyers, policymakers, researchers, and others.  However, there are opportunities to explain complex water issues in terms that make sense to the public and public servants that are not water experts.
  • Leveraging information from other organizations, and contributing information that can be used by other organizations.
  • Developing open data and software platforms that cross jurisdictional boundaries, thereby supporting education on regional multi-faceted issues. For example, with proper resources, OWF will implement websites for regional data, where other organizations are unable to provide such capabilities.