How Okotoks became a North American water conservation leader

As crucial as water is to the health and welfare of their citizens, water utilities and their distribution networks are often overlooked. We expect it to be there and it always has been, so why worry about it? But about half of the world's population lives in cities and that number will rise over the next several years. One source says six billion people will be living in cities by 2045. That means demand for water will increase, and clean water is already a scarce commodity in some regions of the world.

That's why the efforts of a small community like Okotoks is worth noting. Town leaders combined their long-standing commitment to sustainability and water conservation with a willingness to adopt advanced water technologies from Council Global Lead Partner Sensus. And the results are impressive. The story below explains why we should recognize the community as a role model and, if we can, follow its lead. — Doug Peeples


When it comes to water conservation, the cards are stacked against Okotoks. The town, located near Alberta, Canada, is in a nation known for wasting water. The typical Canadian uses 325 liters of water every day — more than double the consumption of most European residents (U.S. residents aren't far behind in their water waste).

Yet Okotoks has become a role model, not just for Canada, but for all of North America. It used a water infrastructure modernization project to revamp the way it manages its supply and now has one of the lowest per capita water consumption rates on the continent.

Canada's "water problem"
Canada's water prices are among the world's lowest and, not surprisingly, consumption is among the highest. By comparison, water prices in Germany (where water metering is universal) are about five times what Canadians pay. Canadian cities have tried a variety of measures to reduce water use, including sprinkler bans, rebates for rain barrel use, water pricing — and metering. The city of Surrey has 56,000 single-family homes with meters and 27,000 that do not. The metered homes use 40% less water. Vancouver was able to reduce water use by 20% over 10 years, but city officials recognize they can do better.

Okotoks isn't a big city with particularly deep pockets. The community of about 29,000 residents has a little more than 8,400 residences, businesses and commercial properties. But it is definitely a leader other cities in Canada could look to for guidance.

How a small town made big progress
Like cities everywhere, the Okotoks water infrastructure was wearing out. Officials realized they needed to replace it with something with far more capabilities than their old system had. As Okotoks infrastructure and operations director Chris Radford explained, "Many of our meters were outdated. We needed an upgrade and opted for a solution that would allow us to detect abnormal water usage sooner, supporting water conservation efforts in real-time." The town worked with water utility EPCOR Water Services on the deployment.

The town chose the Sensus Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) solution which includes iPERL meters and its Flexnet communications network. The system offers more insights into customers' water use. "The real-time data allows us to work with customers over the phone, pull up their information and address issues around high usage.

"We’ve always been a pioneer in using leading edge technology to aid our sustainability efforts," Radford said. "We expect that our customer portal will keep us on the forefront of these efforts while empowering customers to become smarter consumers."

The AMI system also included a bonus for water utility technicians: enhanced safety. "We no longer have technicians risking their safety when entering customers' yards to read meters manually. Weather, especially icy walking conditions, dogs and even hidden obstacles, is always a safety concern for our meter readers," said Darren Peel, manager of Okotoks operations for EPCOR.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil