This startup is using sound waves to help manage ground water

You may not know much about the groundwater in your area or the alarming drop of its levels in certain parts of the country. But you should care, because ground water abundance significantly affects things like food production, so it actually has a sizable impact on you and people you know.

To tackle the issue of detecting fluctuating ground water levels in an era of climate change and population growth, a Wisconsin startup called Wellntel has developed a sensor and analytics service for well owners to monitor the rise and fall of their water tables. The company, which started developing the tech in 2012 and has raised $1.25 million so far, began a pilot project at a home with a vineyard in the Central California town of Paso Robles a few months ago. Paso Robles is a winegrape growing region, yet it receives just over 14 inches of rain on average per year.


The sound of water

Wellntel’s tech is novel in that it uses sound waves to take stock of water levels. Each sonar sensor sits on top of a well cover and takes water level measurements. The data flows wirelessly to a gateway onsite that is then connected to the Internet for depositing the information for analyzing. The whole set up costs a few hundred dollars for a home and a few thousand dollars for a business, such as a farm, which could rely on a satellite connection for transmitting data, Nicholas Hayes, co-founder of  Wellntel, told us in an interview last month.

The startup’s approach minimizes data and device contamination that could happen with methods that require placing devices down the well, Hayes said. It is also far less manual — so easier and more automatic — than measuring the water levels by hand.

Nearly all wells are measured with tape these days. Sometimes well owners use tape with chalk so that they can see the wet mark that denotes the water level. Sometimes they use tape with a moisture sensor at one end that beeps when it touches water and takes a measurement.

Using tapes may seem old fashioned and slow, but manual tape can also ensure high levels of accuracy. Using more high tech equipment, such as sonar, will require special calibrations to prevent the readings from being affected by changes in humidity and temperature or the curve of the well.

USGS water well

Wellntell plans to launch its product commercially later this year, said Hayes. In the mean time the company is working on increasingly automating its data transmission process. Currently the data from the pilot project in Paso Robles is fetched by college students and then uploaded online for analysis and display.

Wellntell is also working on reducing the size of the data packets received by each reading. The pilot project is using a dozen sensors — one for each well — and each reading collects 500 bytes of data. Collectively, the sensors provide 50-60 measurements per day on average, Hayes said.

The company plans to focus first on selling the sensors to well service providers before it amasses enough data to charge for more detailed analyses, said Marian Singer, the startup’s co-founder. Those analyses should draw interest not just from water suppliers and private well owners but also insurance companies.

Wellntell is working with researchers from UC Berkeley to use the well data for creating spatial maps that give more meanings and context to the numbers collected. Spatial maps show water level changes over time and over a geographic area. By using simulation techniques and adding weather and other data, researchers could forecast groundwater levels, and that will be valuable information and a profit-making service.

“It’s important to know the water table in a region, not just in an individual well,” said Raj Shekhar Singh, a graduate student working on the Wellntel’s pilot project with Norm Miller, professor of hydrometerology at Berkeley.

A new water problem

Water has been a mostly abundant resource in the United States over the decades. Through dams, aqueducts and millions of private and public wells, Americans typically don’t feel the financial pinch of using water as they do, say, with gasoline. But as drought has become a popular conversation topic in recent years from Minnesota to California, more thoughts also have gone into finding ways to conserve water and find more of it. For example, a seawater desalination plant is under construction in Southern California and will become the largest of its kind in the country when completed.

Water drought California

A third of the public water supply, which serves about 86 percent of the U.S. population, comes from groundwater, said Bill Cunningham, chief of the office of groundwater at the U.S. Geological Survey. Nearly all of the remaining 14 percent of the population supply their own water needs with groundwater.

About two-thirds of all groundwater drawn in the country went to irrigation in 2005, according to the most recent published report on the country’s water use by the USGS (it takes a while to update that report because USGS has to get data from states). The USGS monitors about 22,000 mostly public wells across the country. Overall, the country has an estimated 13.4 million private wells, according to a 2009 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau.

While the USGS is responsible for providing a national perspective on groundwater quality and use, it only has the budget to monitor a fraction of the wells. State and local water agencies collect data as well since they oversee water rights and well drilling projects, but the amount of oversight varies widely.

An effort is underway to create easier access to the hodgepodge of data from local, state and federal governments. Called the National Ground Water Monitoring Network, it’s under consideration for funding by Congress and will enable the public to search for data from those agencies, similar to how works in fetching flight deals from airlines, Cunningham said.

With drought plaguing many parts of the country such as Texas and California, some landowners are drilling new wells when old wells become dry or when they face cuts in supplies from local water agencies. How to manage the underground resource presents a big challenge, especially when replacing a pump could cost several thousand dollars and digging a well could run nearly $20,000, Hayes said.

With a growing population, and changes in the climate, there are parts of the country where water level
s — that have remained constant for hundreds of years — suddenly dropped a few hundred feet in recent years, Hayes told us, explaining: “What we have to think about is what those changes represent in real costs.”