Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Motivating the public to save water

Convincing Californians to save water is no easy task.

Ever since the state received a "wake up call" in the early 1990s about water supply and how to manage the state's periodic droughts, dozens if not hundreds of smart, experienced communicators and public relations professionals (me included) have developed and managed various programs to get the average resident and the typical business owner to use less water.

Success with these programs is varied, yet more outreach campaigns with various themes and messages are being launched this year. (What's your reaction to this one?)

Public outreach programs are critical to the success of water conservation programs because, like save energy, saving water is controlled largely by individual choice. With energy, we humans turn off the lights, make a conscious decision to buy CFL bulbs or turn up the thermostat and live with a warmer house or office. With water, we humans control water consumption by how often we water our lawns or replace lawns with native plants, the length of our showers and using a broom instead of a hose to sweep the driveway.

As with any public relations/public outreach campaign, research is critical to the process in terms of figuring out what will motivate people to change behavior, run to the home improvement store to buy drought-tolerant plants or take advantage of a rebate program to install low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices.

Today comes a study from San Jose State University's Survey and Policy Research Institute that suggests prime motivators to conserve water in 2009 are protecting the environment and saving money.

We'll see.

Right now, a handful of cities and water agencies are declaring water emergencies to force conservation. The list will grow as the impacts from the governor's drought declaration continue and our reservoirs dry up.

The state recently launched a "Save Our Water" program based on the success of the "Flex Your Power" program for energy (which was born from a statewide energy crisis). Behind the Save Our Water program are some fundamental issues about our state's water supply, how it is managed and the well-documented need to invest billions of dollars in water infrastructure improvements. It also is part of the state's response to the governor's executive order for a permanent 20% water-use reduction in urban areas by 2020.

So, it will be interesting to watch public reaction in 2009 and beyond. Will grand social experiments work? Will mandates be the answer?

In some regions, residents will change behavior because they are forced to (like in Long Beach and other cities with emergency declarations).

If we believe the San Jose State study, many of us will use less water because we are reducing our expenses, or because we are living a "green" life. Or, a combination.

And will water-saving behavior remain a permanent way of life? Or, like in the last drought that ended in 1992 - will we forgot all this as soon as the reservoirs are full again and the emergency declarations are removed?

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