Beyond Curtailment

Measures that Shift the Culture of Water Use

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand”.   – Baba Dioum, Senegalese ecologist

 Water Departments everywhere hate imposing mandatory curtailment. The goal of this strategy is to educate and empower the citizenry to use water in way that works for the whole community—including the wildlife, thereby diminishing or eliminating the need for mandatory curtailment.

In order to use water wisely, citizens need to understand:

  • the water supply system and its impact on wildlife
  • the quantity of our own water use
  • how to adopt new water stewardship practices in response to a community need.

Department of Watershed Stewardship

Increasingly, water utilities need a new name in order to reflect their new mission. The City of Atlanta’s water utility is called the Department of Watershed Management. That would be an appropriate title for the Water Dept of Santa Cruz, thanks to state and federal fisheries agencies that have made it clear that protection and restoration of the watershed is now at the core of the Department’s mission.

In order to inform the public about the impact of running a hose on a summer day, the Department needs to educate about the lifecycle of coho and steelhead salmon. We won’t love the salmon unless we get to know them.

Recommendation: that the Department partner with schools and community organizations to do hands-on watershed restoration work and teach water conservation practices such as rainwater catchment, graywater recycling, climate-appropriate landscaping, and safe use of composting toilets. (See the trailer for the video, “A Simple Question”, about schools in Sonoma County restoring creeks on private land.

Recommendation: Adopt the following feedback strategies:

  • Change the customer bills so that quantity of water is in gallons instead of ccf.
  • Adopt “Water-Smart” type billing feedback, informing customers about meeting targets for fish habitat and reservoir levels.
  • Publish in local media information about the goals v. actual water consumption, reservoir levels, and stream flow targets.
  • Contract with a company offering a mobile/internet application to monitor a customer’s water meter.  E.g.
  • Explore partnering with Aquajust, a company whose software enables buying and selling customer water allotments.

 Criteria discussion—Beyond Curtailment

We know that cultural shifts about water use happen. One example of a cultural shift was seen in Queensland, Australia, where 20% of the population installed rainwater catchment tanks between 2006 and 2010.[1]

We know less about how cultural shifts happen, or how to encourage them to happen. One theory of diffusion of new ideas in a culture was put forth in a 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers. Rogers coined the expression, “early adopters”. He theorized that an innovative idea needed to be adopted by more than just the early adopters in order to be sustained.  One role for a water agency is to discover the early adopters of innovative practices, and catalyze the adoption of those practices among a broader segment of the population.

It is likely that many early adopters in our community are motivated by a worldview that places a value on water stewardship because of the environmental impacts of water use (e.g. on fish populations). It is likely that our community has a good deal of consensus that fish habitat matters. It makes sense, then, that education around fish habitat be given institutional support.

The widespread presence of a value for conservation in a population is not sufficient for that sentiment to be expressed in action. An Australian study found indicated that

“Australians generally have very positive attitudes towards water conservation and water saving appliances, however these positive attitudes are not consistently translated into actual

behaviour. The main barriers to adoption of water conservation behaviours identified in the study are: the perception of inconvenience and impracticality, as well as costs associated with purchasing water saving appliances…. It appears that attitudes are translated into action where it is easy to do so;

where water conservation does not inconvenience people. For example, people are happy to run the washing machine only when it is full, but reusing water from the washing machine, the shower, sinks, and bath is much less common.”[2]

This finding suggests that a water agency should address the perception of inconvenience and cost.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr is a Canadian social psychologist who applies research from the social sciences to challenges such as the need to reduce water consumption. He has written Fostering Sustainable Behavior, An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, in which he writes, “Numerous studies document that education alone often has little or no effect upon sustainable behavior.” McKenzie-Mohr advises that public education needs to be supplemented by removing obstacles to participation. He recommends that water policy makers review existing research that identifies those obstacles, and to the extent possible conduct research on local conditions.

One could surmise that when McKenzie-Mohr speaks of “education”, he is not talking about the deeper kind of education that shifts a person’s understanding (and therefore love), for wildlife. Nevertheless, even the deeper education probably won’t be sustained unless it is accompanied by a shift in action. And so water agencies need to facilitate the shift in action by supporting groups of early adopters and subsequent adopters.

Needed information & recommendations: We are not able to recommend a dollar figure on the amount of investment in community education.

  1. We recommend that the Water Department report on its existing spending on conservation education. A working group would then analyze and evaluate that report with a goal of recommending support for community groups that can catalyze the transition from early adoption to cultural shifts.
  2. We recommend that the Water Supply Advisory Committee invite Ron Duncan from Soquel Creek Water District to speak about the District’s Conservation Plus program, which is more ambitious than any water agency conservation program that we know of.

Feedback and water use management technology

  1. Mobile/computer application for monitoring the water meter    The Draft Master Conservation Plan already proposes installation of AMI meters, a prerequisite for this technology.  Presumably, the software to allow customers to read their own meters on their computers would be relatively low cost. The potential savings needs to be determined.
  2. Aquajust (establishing a market among water customers to buy and sell allotments of water) has offered a low-cost pilot of their program. We recommend that the City seriously explore this offer, as there is much to gain and little to lose in the exploration. The gain, according to Aquajust, is the ability to reach target consumption levels without curtailment; elimination of customer dissatisfaction with water curtailment restrictions, and by extension, dissatisfaction with the water agency;


[2] Dolnicar, S. & Hurlimann, A. (2010). Australians’ Water Conservation Behaviours and Attitudes. Australian Journal of Water Resources, 14 (1), 43-53.


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