The California drought has taken over from real estate prices and traffic as the go-to topic of casual conversation in Silicon Valley. We’re jokingly proud of our proud of our brown lawns or apologizing for our green ones. We’re introducing our ice bucket challenge videos by explaining that we’re using pool water, reycled water, or positioning the bucket to hit a wilting plant when it's dumped. We’re asking each other if artificial turf really smells bad when it gets hot.
But behind the scenes some people aren’t just talking about the drought—they’re figuring out how to solve the problems it’s causing. And while some of these solutions are decidely low tech, like a company that’s offering to paint brown grass green, the first of what is likely to be a wave of high-tech drought busters are emerging.
While I’m guessing a host of new drought-inspired companies are likely still in stealth mode, some who were already working in water conservation technology, like Watersmart Software, are getting new attention. And some existing technologies are being repurposed to focus on the drought, for example, vizSafe, an app designed to post localized alerts allowing people to warn their neighbors about crime, flooding, fire, missing persons, and traffic, is being used for “drought shaming,” calling out water wasters.
Quick-to-build apps are leading the wave of drought technology. There’s H2O Tracker to allow people to analyze their own water usage, Captain Plop to teach water conservation to children, Dropcountr for setting and managing a home water budget, and Waterprint, a kind of calorie counter for water usage (including not just what you’re using, but what was used upstream to produce an apple, say, or two eggs). And during Tuesday’s Apple event, when Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a nod to hot new apps, one clearly was designed for household water conservation (though flashed across the screen too fast for me to get the details.)
Gadgets are coming next. On Kickstarter, Luka is proposing a gizmo, shipping in December, that adds a pause button to a shower head. That’s a pretty dumb device; no doubt a more sophisticated version that can tell when I’ve stepped away from the stream of water is under development somewhere. Several companies are trying to jump into smart irrigation Hydros, a smart irrigation controller that combines sensor data with web-based information about weather, didn’t hit its funding goal on Kickstarter this summer, but Eve Ecosystem, another smart irrigation system, is about halfway to its funding goal and plans to ship in March 2015. All the smart irrigation controllers I’ve seen so far, however, have yet to automatically integrate with local watering restriction calendars. So there’s room for a more clever system.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.