Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Just like Nevada's water

When we launched the "California Friendly(r)" campaign at Metropolitan Water District a few years ago, we emphasized that we were "not like Las Vegas" and going to extremes to save water.

Of course, it helps when you are not in a drought and don't have to shout "warning" in your message.

Back then (was it only 2003?), we considered those extremes to be the "cash for grass" rebates offered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, giving homeowners money for ripping up their lawns forever. Southern Nevada provides the water to Las Vegas, and was being forced at the turn of the century to deal with massive residential growth and limited water supplies.

To us at MWD, we felt our California Friendly approach was, well, more friendly. Through advertising, public relations and media relations efforts, we were successful in convincing consumers that they did not have to sacrifice beauty in their landscapes to save water.

Through this persuasion technique, we appeared to have removed the "punitive" stigma associated with water conservation - that consumers were "losing" something. The old "xeriscape" image was still haunting us - one that promoted rock gardens, ghastly looking stick bushes and cacti. California Friendly provided a nice comeback, a very positive new image. Even Sunset magazine approved!

In Las Vegas, we reasoned back then, homeowners were losing in the transition from lush landscapes to bare-looking desert layouts. We proudly, but quietly, told ourselves that we didn't need to do that in Southern California. We could still reduce large sums of water used for irrigation - and keep our landscapes looking beautiful.

The plan worked in a non-drought period. Consumers liked the "soft-sell" approach and we began to see major changes in behavior. More "California Friendly" plants - either native ones or low-water-using non-natives - were selling well at retail nurseries. Rebates for smart water controllers were flying out the door. Major homebuilders used our California Friendly designs at their models. California Friendly was even featured as part of an "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" episode.

Fast forward to today. California's drought is in the third year, reservoirs are dangerously low, court restrictions won't allow us to get all the water that is rightfully ours from the north and mandatory restrictions are in place in cities through Southern California.

And now, this. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced Monday a "cash for grass" rebate program.

So much for the friendly approach. Good thing we didn't boast too loudly at MWD.

Although the LADWP's press release emphasizes the replacement program wants to keep landscapes looking lush in the city, it will be interesting to see how consumers respond. Will they tear out just a couple of square feet of lawn? If someone rips out their entire front lawn and put in nothing but natives, will they suffer the same backlash and inter-governmental turmoil that families suffered in Glendale? (The water department encouraged it, but the code enforcement folks took a family to court). Or, will they run out of money like MWD did recently for its artificial turf replacement rebate program?

Any large-scale water conservation program is complicated and requires well-thought-out strategies. Consumers want to save water, but they also want to do it in a way that is easy - very easy. MWD's research showed that consumers simply want to be told where to go, and what to buy. ("Go to Home Depot, look for this plant or that sprinkler nozzle.") Step-by-step videos are needed, in some cases. There will be many questions, like is it better that I install artificial turf or take advantage of the "cash for grass" rebate?

And since we're speaking about how best to save water, how many of you would go the extremes that Los Angeles Times reporter Susan Carpenter went through to recycle her "gray water" at home?

If prior experience tells us anything, it will take a multi-faceted program to induce consumers to participate in this and future rebate programs to save water. For starters, there is still a large percentage of people who simply don't believe there is a drought, or believe that water is theirs for the taking and shouldn't be restricted.

LADWP has and will need to take several steps. Penalty rates will begin to have an affect on those who don't conserve.

Keep the information flowing. For starters, look at Southern Nevada's Web site to get some ideas on how to make it easy for consumers and to answer their questions. Bewaterwise.com remains one of the most comprehensive sites for water conservation information.

We're two days into mandatory restrictions in Los Angeles, and several days or months into it at other cities in CA. Will permanent changes occur? Or, once the drought is over, will consumers revert to water-wasting ways?

Check back at the end of summer. Or, perhaps, next year at this time if we have a really bad winter.

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