Influencing Water Behavior

Attitudes toward water conservation vary based on region & history

In May 2016, California relaxed the water restrictions it imposed on residents and businesses in 2015. The initial restrictions were referred to as “one-size-fits-all” cutbacks, because they required everyone in the state to reduce consumption by 25%. The decision to lift the restrictions was made because the seriousness of the drought, which had lasted more than five years, had abated due to more plentiful rainfall. Economic concerns also had arisen as a result of the restrictions.

Those concerns primarily impacted utilities and other water-related organizations. With Californians using less water, these agencies were making less money and some had difficulty meeting their operating costs, including payroll.

But was it in the long-term best interest of the state to lift these restrictions? After all, California has had on-and-off drought conditions serious enough to impose restrictions and mandatory cutbacks for about 40 years. This suggests the next drought may be right around the corner.

Furthermore, the mandatory water cutbacks proved successful. Does that mean mandatory restrictions improve water efficiency long-term? This also brings up the question of which is more important: economic or environmental health?

Water-Rich vs. Water-Poor

A study published in 2011, “Does Water Context Influence Behaviour and Attitudes to Water Conservation?,” conducted by researchers at the University of Melbourne and University of Wollongong in Australia, compared water consumption and conservation efforts in Darwin, Australia, a city of about 120,000 people, and Mallee, Australia, a rural area of more than 15,500 sq miles with a population of about 82,000.

According to the study, Darwin was in the enviable situation of having a water surplus during the study period. Local government agencies were still encouraging consumers to minimize water consumption, but no formal restrictions or mandatory cutbacks were in place.

Mallee, on the other hand, was water-scarce after enduring years of drought. Because it was such a large area, some parts of Mallee had water restrictions but others did not.

Residents in both areas were asked via email to complete an in-depth questionnaire about their attitudes toward water. Because it took about 39 minutes to complete the survey, respondents were paid for their participation. Altogether, 195 people in water-rich Darwin and 119 people in water-poor Mallee completed the survey. The demographics of respondents (age and sex) were comparable.

The following are examples of the yes-or-no statements posed by the survey:

  • I am very positive about conserving water.
  • I conserve water whenever I can.
  • I only conserve water if it does not inconvenience me.
  • I only conserve water if it does not cause added expense.
  • I feel no pressure to conserve water at the moment.
  • I have experienced limited water supply before.

Other questions asked respondents whether they were taking water conservation actions and if so, what kinds of actions they were taking.

Water Use Study Findings

The study found that respondents in Mallee were more concerned about water and engaged in conservation activities on a long-term basis. They perceived more pressure to reduce water consumption, so they did. Their overall attitude toward water was that everyone should be water responsible and reduce consumption where possible. Similarly, those who reported they had suffered through drought conditions before showed more sensitivity to conservation concerns in general. This was true in both Mallee and Darwin.

While the Darwin respondents thought people should be concerned about water conservation and said they had adopted some conservation measures, they admitted they could make more efforts and that the issue of whether to reduce water consumption depends on location and situation. In other words, if where you live has no mandatory restrictions or few efforts are made to encourage people to use less water, then most likely you will take minimal action or no action.

The study concluded that “people who have personally experienced water shortages are much more willing to change their everyday behaviours to conserve water.” This finding also indicates that policy makers should communicate water conservation messages on an ongoing basis.

“Communication messages that are likely to be successful will attempt to put the viewer in the position of imagining what it would mean to have no water, and then follow up with a recommendation of how their behaviour can make a difference to their lives, their children’s lives and the whole of Australia,” the report said.

The study also found that consumers are more likely to install water-efficient technologies, such as dual-flush toilets or waterless urinals, if they earn tax credits or rebates.

California Water Cutbacks

This brings us back to whether mandatory cutbacks in California should be ongoing. Many conservation officials believe it was a mistake to lift them. But the Australian study was not conclusive on this. It did find that when people have suffered through drought, they use less water long-term. For those people, restrictions may not be necessary. For others, ongoing promotion of water efficiency is recommended. 

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About the author

Klaus Reichardt is founder and managing partner of Waterless Co. LLC. Reichardt can be reached at [email protected].