Reducing Water Demand Suggestions From Public Outreach Programs That Work
Prompted by state and federal regulations, agencies are targeting water efficiencies with innovative pubic outreach programs.
Conservation has been part of the water industry for more than 30 years, with various levels of organizational commitment. Increasingly, however, state and federal regulations aimed at limiting consumption, plus the high cost of developing alternative sources, have water agencies developing better strategies to reach the public.
In the 1970s, El Dorado County in the Gold Rush Country of California found itself fighting its way through a bad drought. To get the public’s attention the El Dorado Irrigation District (EID) sent a truck around with a loudspeaker blaring its message of conservation.
Over the years water conservation campaigns have used similar broad strokes, whether in response to an immediate water crisis or in hopes of long-term savings. One after another, water districts and municipal agencies have duplicated each others’ messages and tactics, from youth education to consumer advice on everything from fixing leaks to watering the lawn more efficiently. But with many agencies now scrambling to meet federal and state mandates to cut water consumption, and faced with the possibility of having to develop new sources, conservation has become the name of the game. Many water conservation departments now are finding themselves at center stage, scrambling to develop new messages and tactics that will get the public’s attention, in some cases adopting elements of what has become known as community-based social marketing, including defining barriers against behavior change, piloting programs, and doing post-program testing.
“It’s conservation as a source of supply,” says Rich Gustav, resource conservation manager at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) in Seattle, WA. “We’re gaining supply through new efficiencies.”
What’s key, says engineer and water consultant Amy Vickers, author of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms (WaterPlow Press), “is that public outreach programs must be conjoined with a conservation plan that will actually implement efficiency measures. Words alone will not save water.”
So it is that Denver Water pays its commercial and industrial customers $4,500 for every acre-foot of water they save, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority pays residents and businesses alike $1 for every square foot of water-guzzling turf they replace with water-wise landscaping. So it is the tiny water utility in Concord, MA, is piloting weather-based irrigation controllers with residents of million-dollar houses.
Not all incentives are rebate or hardware based. The EID offers its agricultural customers free individualized irrigation prescriptions, and the City of North Miami Beach provides consulting to multifamily apartment buildings and condominium complexes. And because customer improvements that save water represent depreciable assets, many are funded through an agency’s capital programs. In Seattle, Gustav has an annual budget of $3.5 million and a combined full- and part-time staff of eight. But money alone will not buy water. What’s critical is to know the audience you’re trying to appeal to, be specific about the behavior you want to encourage, and then get creative.
Creating an Illusion of One-on-One
With the goal of reducing water demand by 29,000 acre-feet by 2045, Denver Water targeted its commercial and industrial users. “One of the reasons we targeted the commercial and industrial side,” says conservation specialist Chris Call, “is because most of what they do is permanent. It’s equipment and process changes.” But Denver Water’s rates being what they are, water typically has not been seen as a threat to a company’s bottom line. To get an idea of what kind of changes it could expect from this segment of its population and how these changes might be accomplished, the agency conducted a series of focus groups among high-water users, typically in the hospitality, health, and food and beverage–processing industries. The goal, says Call, was to “get a feel” for what these companies knew about water use in their business and how the agency could help them conserve. “We wanted to know what kind of incentives would be required.” In all, the agency held some 20 focus groups, sometimes conducting multiple meetings in a particular industry.
What they discovered, says Call, was that many of the larger businesses were already up to speed on water conservation but smaller companies needed help. This led to strategies such as cooling tower rebates and a program that allows businesses in the downtown area to tap into a chilled water system loop, saving them from using their own cooling towers. To keep the heat on, this year the agency has targeted 1,000 of the highest water users for one-on-one individualized water counseling. The aim is to research each user’s historic water use, make each aware of programs that might be appropriate to his or her situation, and inform him or her when the utility spots anything out of the ordinary. “We’re going to make a lot more companies aware of the incentives we provide and how they can use them in their businesses,” says Call. So far Call estimates the push to reach commercial and industrial customers had netted over 600 acre-feet in water savings.
Denver Water has also applied an individualized approach to the residential sector in its two-tiered water-wise gardening program. In the city that invented xeriscape, the agency found that a prime barrier to adopting water-wise gardening was customers lacked information on how to proceed. To reduce this challenge it offers free workshops on Saturdays during February through March, based on the principle “that people need to know what’s available to them and how to use it.” Anyone who wants more specialized information can sign up for a two-hour one-on-one planning session with a landscape designer. Participants in the one-on-one sessions pay a fee, but the cost of the program is underwritten by the utility. Call estimates water savings from the seminars and design consultations at about 6 acre-feet per year.
Rolling Rocks Uphill
In Concord, MA, all Joanne Bissetta wants is 10 gallons a year per person per day. The state has set per-capita consumption in the affluent town 25 miles west of Boston at 65 gallons a day. Concord’s residents now gobble up 75 gallons a day. When the town began looking for ways to conserve, home irrigation systems, a phenomenon that has gained momentum in the East over the last five years, turned out to be the low-hanging fruit.
“We started offering customers audits of their irrigation systems, and what we found was that nine times out of 10 people were overwatering or their system was poorly designed or needed repair. If we get three weeks of hot, dry weather in the summer, our wells are pumping nonstop, and in an area that has problems with iron and manganese, this isn’t good for water quality. The problem is that in an area like ours that gets 40 inches of rain a year, conservation is a hard sell.”
Bissetta says Concord considers itself a socially responsible community where residents do the right thing without being required to do so. Casting around for an approach that would work with the town’s affluent residents, she decided on a focus group of homeowners who were in the town’s top 10% of water users to get a better idea of who they were and how they thought. One of the norms demonstrated within the group confirmed what Bissetta effectively already knew, that Concord residents consider themselves responsible and will voluntarily do the right thing. But it also turned out that focus group members estimated they were using less water than what town records showed.
“So we piloted a little outreach campaign,” says Bissetta, “based on the idea that you can maintain your property and also be water efficient—it’s the responsible thing to do.” But getting the message across looked like it might be a challenge. Of this group of eight, only two did their own yardwork. The others hired one or more contractors.
“We conducted a pilot program in a neighborhood of 30 households, of which 11 were in the town’s top 10% of water users. Because the focus group revealed discrepancies between the amount of water residents thought they were using and their actual use, we sent a direct mail letter encouraging them to get a water audit. This was combined with a professionally designed newsletter that included recommendations about how to reduce water use on their property.” A second newsletter went out with a special cover letter to the high-water users comparing their water use with their neighbors’ and again urging them to arrange for an irrigation audit.
But because of the grant requirements the letters and newsletters were sent out during the summer when many residents were out of town. Bissetta made follow-up phone calls, but ended up mostly leaving messages on answering machines. Another variable she feels might be complicating is that the targeted neighborhood generally has poor soil and may require more water for the kinds of landscapes residents have installed. “There may be neighborhoods where this program will work,” says Bissetta, “but there are so many variables with contractors and so forth.” So what’s the answer? Bissetta is currently piloting different models of weather-based irrigation controllers, offering them free to residents. “I sent letters to people offering irrigation audits and didn’t get any response. Then I send them a letter—‘First come, first served, get a free weather-based controller’—and they were knocking down my door. But with all the variables we have to work with here, including the fact that our high-water users are typically gone during the summer, weather-based controllers might be the easier way to address water use.”
Plan, Pilot, Survey
In Seattle concerns about population growth, a strong environmental ethic that includes Native American rights and protection for the region’s wild salmon population, and general concerns about the water supply loom large. “Our rivers,” says Gustav, “are at their highest in the fall when the salmon spawn and we’re waiting for the fall rains to refill our reservoirs. This creates some real management challenges, and demand management is an important component of how we deal with total water supply management.”
Liz Fikejs oversees a water-wise gardening program for Seattle Public Utilities, which she says was given a boost when its core message was revised. “For many years we have tried to draw people into changing their behavior by appealing to their motivation for protecting the environment,” says Fikejs. “In Seattle that’s a sound approach, but not enough. Eventually we realized that residential landscapes are very personal reflections of their owners. So we altered our approach to appeal to people’s aesthetic values.
“We did a fair bit of customer research among our highest water users. During focus groups we discovered there were a lot of misconceptions around aesthetics, particularly that a water-wise garden was an ugly garden, full of cactus, which obviously doesn’t fit in the Northwest. So we developed the tag line, ‘A better way to beautiful.’ To complement this message, we created brochures that emphasize beauty. The other challenge is plant selection. The sound byte we developed to get people to think about matching plants to conditions in their gardens was also simple: ‘Right plant, right place.’”
Like Denver Water, SPU offers classes in water-wise gardening, but to increase dissemination of its core messages, it has partnered with nurseries and garden centers where staffs are encouraged to point customers to the utility’s nature landscape guides and where it can offer classes as part of a nursery’s overall education program. Fikejs has also reached out to local garden writers who publicize SPU’s message (amend your soil, avoid pesticides, use less water), inform the public about classes, and alert readers to the results of utility-sponsored studies and research. Next up is an e-newsletter to promote water-wise programs and a Web feature called “Garden Stories,” which will feature before-and-after experiences of people who’ve installed water-wise gardens, including recommendations for resources.
SPU is an integrated utility, which means that in addition to potable water it provides drainage, wastewater, and solid waste services to its customers. Gustav points out this offers opportunities for interesting overlaps. One example is a program called Natural Yard Care Neighbors, which recruits residents on a neighborhood level to workshops where they learn more about natural yard care practices. The goal is that they will pass on the message that this more natural approach requires less water, requires less fertilizer and pesticides, and generates less organic waste. The workshops offer door prizes that are coordinated with its message such as mulching lawnmowers, soaker hoses, organic fertilizers, and irrigation timers. The utility has produced a series of guides called “The Naturals,” which are available on its Web site.
Gustav thinks the success of public outreach programs depends on informed planning. “Sometimes you can get tied up in how cute your campaigns are. What we’re trying to do is to make things more scientific, especially getting a better handle on identifying measurable effects of our behavior-change efforts.” Like many utilities SPU has used focus groups to identify barriers to behavior change. Its showerhead replacement campaign is a case in point. The utility is joining forces with electrical utilities in its service region (whose aim is to cut demand for gas and electricity) to replace outmoded low-flow showerheads with a new 2.0-gallon-per-minute “beyond code” model. “We hope to get a third of all our customers to accept the offer and install the shower head,” says Gustav. “We’re been doing pilot testing in a couple of different water districts during the last year to see if customers are responsive to this invitation and if we’re getting the savings we anticipate. In a pilot we can test our assumptions, such as how many households will elect to participate and what kind of savings we expect to get. We can get very sophisticated about the savings we’ll obtain per household by doing pre- and post-metering, and we can do a post survey to find if customers are satisfied with the product and appreciate that the offer was made to them. Typically we use a telephone survey, but we could also use a simple mail-back card that asks the customer if they’ve installed the new showerhead and how they like it.
“Back in 1993 we literally hung the invitations on doors, which is a pretty costly undertaking. We’ve found that with the invitation-by-mail approach we can more effectively target customers who are likely to really install the showerheads. We’ve also found that a reminder card improves our participation rates.
“Corporations test their message and approach constantly. Utilities don’t have these corporate funds, so it pays to invest a little money upfront in order to give ourselves the best chance of succeeding when we do commit large resources.”
“The way I look at it,” says Ken Kroski, public information officer at the City of Phoenix’s Water Services Department, “a third of the people out there understand the message. They get it; they look for it. A third you are never going to reach because they’ve either got preconceived notions or they just don’t agree with you. Our aim is to reach that third in the middle.”
Capitalizing on Differences
According to Kroski, Phoenix has achieved a 20% per-capita reduction in water demand over the past 10 to 20 years but remains under pressure from the Arizona Department of Water Resources to keep the gallons per day dropping. Kroski thinks this will take what he calls a culture shift in attitudes about water, and one way to accomplish this is to build conservation in whatever message the agency puts out, from how to pay your bill to how water gets to the valley.
The City of Phoenix’s water outreach is a joint project of Kroski’s PR staff and the utility’s water conservation department. According to Public Information Specialist Mary Lu Nunley, the agency is about to embark on an enhanced conservation techniques and programs campaign that will target high-water-use areas of the city. The goal is to research factors that contribute to water waste and design neighborhood-specific conservation strategies. “It’s not going to be the same thing in every area,” says Nunley. “What works in a primarily Hispanic area is not going to work in Encanto, which is heavily landscaped,” says Nunley.
Phoenix already has used neighborhood-based water conservation programs to reach low- and fixed-income communities where toilets and showerheads are likely to be water-guzzling. The program is structured around hardware retrofits rather than the rebates that are often typical for replacing outdated appliances. “There are a number of different reasons we don’t do rebates right now,” says Nunley. “One is that in many cases the people who get the rebates would be changing their toilet or showerhead anyway. Another is in these areas where you want to see the changes, many people don’t have liquidity of income to be able to replace their toilet and then wait to be reimbursed.”
Phoenix’s residential toilet retrofit program uses an outside contractor to replace toilets and showerheads, repair minor leaks, evaluate the household’s outside water use, and educate property owners on proper irrigation, advice that is soon to be supplemented with videos on water-wise yard care. The program operates in conjunction with a city-sponsored multi-department effort to spruce up neglected neighborhoods. Once the neighborhood is targeted, participation in the retrofit program is typically 50% to 60%. Word of mouth helps. Nunley reports that people who might originally have been reticent “see the truck and call.” The program is budgeted for $100,000 annually, and an outside study has confirmed that thus far it has achieved water savings greater than the costs to keep it running.
Another targeted program Nunley is especially proud of is a landscaping brochure developed for Spanish-speaking customers. “This illustrates our goal of evaluating the audience and determining the best way to reach them. It’s not enough just to translate a brochure that was designed for English speakers into Spanish. You have to talk to them in a way that means something to them. Your message and means of delivery must be culturally developed.”
To create a brochure on xeriscape and irrigation for Hispanic residents, the department brought in residents, contractors who had immigrated from Mexico but now own local businesses, and an instructor from the Desert Botanical Gardens. “We explained to them what we wanted Spanish-speaking residents to know,” says Nunley, “and then asked them what was the right way for us to tell them. We ended up with a brochure that’s a calendar where we combine tips for a particular month with dates that have cultural significance. We used far less text than in the English language version and very large, colorful photographs of plants that will appeal to this community because they’re eye-appealing and bright. This is not a translation. We never intended for it to be that. It is a culturally designed document.”
Appealing to the Masses
Next door in Nevada the Southern Nevada Water Authority, faced with the effort of coordinating a region-wide wise-gardening effort, takes an approach that is antithetical to suggestions of one-on-one. Its Water Smart Landscaping Program encourages water customers to replace turf for $1 per square foot. Since the program’s inception in 1999, more than 67 million square feet of lawn (enough to cover 35% of the earth’s circumference) have been uprooted and replaced with water-smart landscaping for a savings of 8 billion gallons of water. Last year, 5,210 residential and 525 commercial conversions were completed.
A landscaping brochure created specifically for Phoenix's Hispanic residents
“How much water do we want to save with this program?” asks Conservation Manager Doug Bennett. “As much as possible. So we keep it as simple as possible. One piece of paper runs the program. You don’t have to go to a class; nobody has to review your design. People have a million other things to do, and anything an agency can do to make it simpler will help the client and increase participation. The instructions are on the back of the form. The customer fills out the front and sends it in.” Pre- and post-conversion inspection site visits are mandatory. Otherwise customers are on their own to select what they want or pick their own landscaper. (The authority works with landscape contractors to inform them of the program’s goals.)
Bennett says the program itself generates publicity. “This is a contagious process. Someone will do an attractive project and our staff will go back to the same neighborhood and the house two doors over or across the street will be changing their landscaping.” Bennett also says half the applications come online. “We get a lot of efficiency out of our online programs because customers get faster service. Our pool cover program is a Web-based help-yourself coupon program. Rather than have customers go to a pool supply store and buy a pool cover, fill out some sort of form, mail it to us with a receipt, and have us process it and send back a check, we work directly with vendors. Customers go online and answer our survey questions about their pool and how they use it, and at the end an image of a coupon pops up. They print it, take it to the store, and redeem it, and the vendor sends the coupons to us and we write a single large check.
“We work with car washes in the same way. If they become a water-smart car wash, meaning they capture their water so it can be recovered by the community, and if they put out some of our water conservation promotion items, we make coupons for their car wash available on the Web. The customer gets a $2 discount, they don’t wash their car at home—which we don’t want them to, with the water running down the street—and the car wash gets business. The beauty of electronic communication is people can open their e-mail whenever they want to. We don’t have to communicate with them during business hours, which is important in this town where people work all kinds of crazy shifts.”
El Dorado, CA, is rural. “The population is about 150,000, and generally we have a very hands-on, person-to-person, face-to-face approach,” says Deanne Kloepfer, head of the Strategic Management and Communications Department at El Dorado Irrigation District. “We’re at the county fair; we’re at the garden fair. In a place like this everyone goes to these kinds of events, but in a place like this conservation as a message doesn’t go over very well. So we talk about water efficiencies.” And because El Dorado is rural there are efficiencies to be made in the farm community. EID’s Irrigation Management Service program (IMS) began in the 1970s in response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand that the district implement water conservation policies. Today it provides the district’s ag customers with individualized irrigation profiles for their properties. According to Kirk Taylor, the district’s IMS coordinator, the system has raised irrigation efficiency from below 50% to as high as 95% on some farms.
“When you talk efficiency,” says Taylor, “you’re talking about how much water comes out of your irrigation device and how much actually gets into the soil and can be usable to the plant. When you’re talking below 50%, it means you have a lot of runoff or a lot of sprayed water that evaporates before it hits the soil. Before this program most growers were on portable sprinklers and their irrigation efficiency was well below 50%.”
The key to the program is a neutron probe that measures 313 sites in the service area for soil moisture generating data that are managed in a sophisticated computer program along with data from weather stations run by the California Irrigation Management Information Service.
“When we first started the program,” says Taylor, “farmers were using roughly 6 inches of water per irrigation. After they joined the program they cut down to 4 inches. Before they joined they were irrigating about 10-day circles. With us showing them they didn’t have to do that, they cut out two irrigations a year, which means 1 acre-foot of water, and most have converted from spray irrigation to microsystems.” The program currently has 90 participating growers and generates annual savings of 2,000 acre-feet.
“We’ve got 300 sites in different environments with different crops that all have to be individually managed,” says Taylor. “Right now the district is mailing half of the irrigation prescriptions and sending half by e-mail. Our long-term goal is to reduce costs and still provide the same service to growers. One thought is to provide them with limited access to this information on our Web page. And we’d like to start investigating other soil monitoring components.” Currently Taylor largely markets the program himself, visiting growers, holding court in diners and coffee shops, and attending farm bureau meetings. El Dorado being a rural county, he also counts on news being from grower to grower, by word of mouth.
The Multifamily Challenge
Across the country in population-dense North Miami Beach, FL, a big challenge is coaxing water efficiencies out of the 50% of the population who live in multifamily buildings. “People who live in multifamily units,” says Lloyd Hathcock, conservation coordinator for the city’s Public Services Department, “don’t usually receive a water bill. Plus these buildings have a high turnover rate. We found that out when we tried to capture mailing addresses from multifamily units and had an incredible amount of returned mail. Now we primarily get to these residents in two ways, first through our annual water-quality report. We have made this a multipurpose document and use it a lot like a water conservation brochure in which we include conservation tips and information on the programs. We also have an entirely separate program called Utility Neighborhood Outreach where we engage condo associations and civic groups.
“Multifamily buildings have to be handled on an individual case basis. We’re very flexible with apartment house property managers. For example, we have an ongoing showerhead exchange program. If they want to distribute the kits from their office, we supply them in bulk. If they’d rather not deal with it, we use door hangers or post cards to alert residents to contact us. The door hangers we produce are specifically designed for multifamily situations. On the reverse side of the offer for the toilet kit, there’s a long list of water conservation tips for people who live in apartments and condominiums.
“We also provide consultative services. I get at least two or three calls a week from large condominium complexes wanting to know ways they can reduce their water bills. I’ll meet with the manager or the association’s engineer and do a kind of mini audit and come up with a list of recommendations. I suggest, for example, that if they retrofit all their common areas with flapper-less toilets and waterless urinals, they can expect to save x amount of water. But I also remind them they’re going to save on operation and maintenance because they’re not going to spend time unsticking stuck valves and changing flappers.”
Hathcock points out that one of the challenges that thwarts demand reduction in condominium complexes is that the individual units are privately owned and management can’t go in and change out a toilet or replace a showerhead as it could in an apartment building. To compensate for this liability Hathcock attends association and board meetings. “It’s kind of like a time share. The residents have to sit through listening to me preach before they get all the good benefits. But this information is just as effective as the hardware tools we provide. Our message to them is that although they may not pay a water bill directly, they pay through their rent or monthly maintenance fee. We explain to them that if they work collectively to increase their water efficiency, it will impact the association’s budget. Often a group of residents who already know the connection between the master bill for the association or are up on maintenance fees will task the manager or the board president to implement conservation strategies. We had one complex that went so far as to secure a grant from the South Florida Water Management District for a new hot water circulation system so residents on the bottom floors weren’t flushing their taps of cold water to get hot water that was being produced in boilers on the roof.”
Although Hathcock hasn’t targeted a specific demand reduction goal, he estimates that the city’s multifamily efforts so far have produced about 10% savings among this segment of the population.
“Utilities are going to have to start demonstrating identifiable water savings,” says Hathcock. “For conservation managers, it’s like heaven. But the important thing to remember is that people can’t act unless they’re aware.”
Author's Bio: Journalist Penelope Grenoble is a frequent contributor to Forester Media, Inc. publications.