Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

IBM uses IoT and blockchain to help California tackle drought

Steve Rogerson
February 14, 2019



The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit working to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems, is partnering with IBM Research and SweetSense, a provider of low-cost satellite connected sensors, to pilot technologies that can accurately monitor and track groundwater use in one of the largest and most at risk aquifers in North America.
 
Additional research support will be provided by the University of Colorado Boulder.
 
Jointly funded by the Water Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the project's scientists and engineers will demonstrate how the blockchain and remote IoT sensors can accurately measure groundwater usage transparently, and in real time, in California's Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta.
 
The sensors will transmit water extraction data to orbiting satellites and then to IBM’s blockchain platform hosted in the IBM cloud. The blockchain will record all data exchanges or transactions made in an append-only, immutable ledger. The blockchain also uses smart contracts, whereby transactions are automatically executed when the conditions are matched.
 
Through a web-based dashboard, water consumers, including farmers, financers and regulators will all be able to monitor and track the use of groundwater to demonstrate how sustainable pumping levels can be achieved through the trading of groundwater use shares in California. Individual users who require groundwater amounts beyond their share cap will be able to purchase groundwater shares from users who do not require all their supply at a market-regulated rate.
 
For example, a strawberry farmer is planning to take the season off to prepare for an organic crop the following harvest. The farmer can trade or sell water credits on the blockchain to another farmer. Or, due to a particularly dry season, a winery realises it will need additional ground water to avoid losing the vintage. The vintner can purchase additional water shares, without negatively impacting the aquifer.
 
"The future success of these sustainability plans hinges on being able to track and report groundwater use, and likely will also require a robust way to trade groundwater shares as well," said Alex Johnson, freshwater fund director with the trust. "Our strategic intent is to harness new technologies to develop a system that makes getting groundwater a more sustainable, collaborative, accurate and transparent process, which is why we are using the blockchain. We now have the project team and funding to do it, and a strong network of partners in the region that are open to an initial testing and building phase."
 
The group will pilot the system in northern California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, an area often referred to as the nexus of California's state-wide water system. The river delta covers 2800 square kilometres and provides water to the San Francisco Bay Area and coastal and southern California and supports dozens of legally protected fish, plant and animal species. In addition, nearly three-quarters of this land is used for agriculture.
 
"Based on a research project in Kenya with USAid, the Millennium Water Alliance and other partners we are now applying our expertise in building decision support systems for water management for surface and groundwater data aggregation, workflow optimisation and analytics to address similar challenges in California," said Solomon Assefa, vice president for IBM Research in Africa. “With the addition of the blockchain, we can bridge critical trust and transparency gaps making it possible to build a robust, scalable and cost-efficient platform for managing precious groundwater supplies anywhere in the world.”
 
The sensor technology is provided by SweetSense, which is currently monitoring the groundwater supplies for over a million people in Kenya and Ethiopia, with plans to scale to five million by the end of the year. The sensor data are transmitted over satellite networks to an online data analytics platform.
 
"By remotely monitoring groundwater use using our sensors, we're able to help improve and maintain sustainable access to water supplies for people, farmers and livestock," said Evan Thomas, CEO of SweetSense and Mortenson chair of global engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The work we're doing in Africa is directly translatable to California. Our research team at the University of Colorado will assist in modelling groundwater use through the sensor data and satellite detected rainfall and weather correlations."
 
The collaboration began in response to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was signed into California law in 2014. SGMA mandated the creation of groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), local groups that are responsible for ensuring regional groundwater supplies are sustainably managed. The GSAs are charged with developing and implementing a plan to make their local groundwater usage sustainable by 2040.
 
Since 2016, the Freshwater Trust has built multiple programmes in the basin. In response to another bill, it developed a measurement method for surface water diversion that addresses the unique qualities of the Northern Delta region. In 2017, 148 surface water diversions covering more than 29,000 farmed acres in the region – including wine grapes, pears, corn, alfalfa, safflower, tomatoes and wheat – had enrolled in its five-year study.
 
For groundwater concerns in the same area, it helped support the formation of the Northern Delta Groundwater Sustainability Agency. This means 17 local agencies formed into one integrated agency and have begun work on a unified plan for sustainably managing groundwater use. These agencies are understaffed, so the trust provides the capacity to gather and analyse data and develop effective sustainability measures.
 
The picture shows Stephanie Tatge (left), ecosystem services analyst for the Freshwater Trust, and Nathan Wangusi, technical lead for water research at IBM Research in Africa, holding a low-cost satellite sensor from SweetSense.