Tapping Into Conservation

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Tapping Into Conservation
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By Jim Logan, UC Santa Barbara

As the climate heats up and droughts intensify, especially in the American Southwest, it’s crucial that households reduce their water usage. Water districts urge their customers to save, but their messaging generally lacks rigorous evaluation of efficacy.

In a new paper, researchers from UC Santa Barbara reveal how a large-scale field experiment in messaging based on psychological science significantly reduced water consumption on the Central Coast of California.

The paper, “How managers can reduce household water use through communication: A field experiment,” in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, details how the researchers designed messaging based on the information-motivation-behavioral skills model (IMB) for single-family households.

Co-author Sarah Anderson, an associate professor of environmental politics in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, said the IMB model has been used successfully to modify behaviors in health care, especially in preventing the spread of HIV.

In short, the model posits that “individuals must have the requisite information, motivation, and behavioral skills to engage in and maintain behavior change,” according to a 2019 paper, also co-authored by Anderson, that analyzed 24 conservation studies that used aspects of the IMB model. “People need to know what the problem is, how they can solve it and be motivated to take action.” That paper summarizing 24 other studies provided the impetus for the Central Coast experiment.

“Nearly every message water districts and researchers send to save water can be put into those three categories of information, motivation or behavior,” said Anderson, who noted that while those efforts were being used, they weren’t being evaluated in any kind of consistent way. “And so that led us to think, ‘Oh, it’s worth trying to develop a rigorous test to evaluate messaging campaigns within this framework and see whether it appears that you need all three components or whether partial messages work.”

In the new study, the researchers randomly assigned 7,500 households to receive mailings featuring different aspects of the IMB model and measured their water use. A customer group of 2,500 households that did not receive messaging served as a control. All households that received messaging reduced water consumption — 509 gallons on average each — in the first month. As the paper notes, if all 10,000 households had been sent mailings, more than 5 million gallons would have been saved in the first month.

Researchers also found evidence that messaging using all parts of the IMB model could contribute to the savings lasting longer.

“If you include all the components of this information, motivation and behavior,” Anderson said, “there’s some indicative evidence that the effects might be a bit longer lasting. They’re not necessarily bigger, but they might last a little longer, persist a little longer.”

She noted that the water district they worked with had been actively working to reduce water use with messaging and advice. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that sending another mailing further reduced water use, which she calls “promising.”

“That’s a pretty cost-effective intervention if it actually works and lasts for a couple of months,” she said. “It’s pretty cheap to send an effective mailer.”

Additionally, the study found that the messaging resulted in bigger reductions in high-water households. Anderson calls that “a good lesson for water districts, that those are the folks that you ought to message to if you’ve got a limited budget — really focus on those high water use households.”

Demonstrating the effectiveness of messaging has implications beyond reduced water usage. Not only does the study offer a kind of low-tech template for water districts, it could help protect the environment as water gets scarce in the face of climate change, Anderson said.

“Going forward,” she said, “water districts are going to be facing a choice between investing in expensive and environmentally disruptive infrastructure and just getting people to reduce their water usage. And so effective messaging has an additional dividend in not having to invest money to cause environmental destruction.”


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RHS Nov 26, 2020 02:39 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

What BS. The idea that individual consumers are responsible for water shortages is nonsense. In CA individual households use about 10% of the state's water. Industry is a little less. Big-Ag consumes almost 80% of our natural water and refuses to engage in the simplest of conservation stuff, such as stopping flood irrigation. Stop beating up on people who don't recycle their bath water and go after the big abusers.

PitMix Nov 26, 2020 05:12 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

I think it is something on the order of changing the things that are easier, like consumer behavior, and then tackling the big users like ag. All you would have to do is to stop subsidizing their water rates but then our food costs would go up. Would that be okay?

Voice of Reason Nov 26, 2020 08:46 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Agreed RHS. CA water laws are not geared toward overall conservation.

Thomas John Nov 27, 2020 07:57 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

That is also another ball of wax to deconstruct. How much of CA ag is being exported not only from CA but the USA? Why should we subsidize pistachios? Last year China and Hong Kong bought 55% of this crop. I think it's a falsehood to view most of our huge industrial agriculture as some mom and pop farm in Goleta.

RHS Nov 27, 2020 08:51 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

Some replies to comments posted: Yes, we should stop subsidizing ag water even if that means our food prices would rise a bit. This is in part because huge percentages of domestic ag is sold around the world. Better grow food near where it is to be consumed. Sometimes this is completely absurd, for example, Imperial County growers who are grandfathered in with some of the cheapest water in the state actually grow alfalfa which is sent to Saudi Arabia and China! But demanding less subsidy is only the lighter part of the problem (Westside Central Valley growers are a gross exception to this caveat) as so many of these water users simply have old claims based on first use. They should not be able to continue that use when it is excessive (for example draining aquifers and collapsing the surface land). We need a real reform in the equitable use of the water we have. On top of this we need to recycle water, not just dump it into the ocean. This included capturing ground runoff into places where it can matriculate back into the underwater basins. etc

chico berkeley Nov 27, 2020 09:54 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

Good one RHS.
There are so many "Tips to the water Spear" in this county and everywhere else.
Santa Barbara county is very unique in the way we generate water to who uses it and expansion that is always at the forefront in the south county and Santa Maria.
Large scale De- sal run by large scale solar would go a long way toward at least getting a good quality water,not that state water crap, but no one wants to drink De-sal in SBC.
We have been down this road before when I was a kid there was water rationing and I'm talking about the 70's.
VAFB is perfect for a project like large solar/large De-sal and a whole lot of water offshore.
Run a pipeline from VAFB to,say,Jameson Res,dump it in and let it go all the way to Ocean Park down the Santa Ynez river.
That would bring back the Salmon run to improving the Plovers habitat and everyone in between.
No one wants to talk about ACTUAL change which is usually drastic.
Well,it needs to be more than hand patting about conservation and low flow toilets.
South county is a coastal desert,that needs more and more water so somebody has to do something drastic.
Oh, and if it ever rains again it could be ramped down and the power sold to the grid.

Bene Nov 26, 2020 02:50 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

True, RHS, and I also think it's insulting that ways are continuously being researched and propaganda disseminated to make "the masses" bear the brunt of conservation, while "the elites" use massive quantities of anything they want--including water and jet fuel--with impunity.

ParvoPup Nov 26, 2020 03:50 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

I pee in my backyard. Have done so for over 20 years. I should study myself to calculate the savings in water usage. Any body want to cut me some grant money to find out?

PitMix Nov 26, 2020 05:10 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

I guess if your neighbor complains about the smell, you could get in trouble? "As long as you are not in public view you should be fine, although you could possibly run afoul of sanitation codes. That is not likely to happen unless you make it a habit and your neighbor calls in to complain of the smell."

Minibeast Nov 26, 2020 07:14 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

"Go" for it, I say: https://radicallywild.com/liquid-gold-using-urine-fertilizer/

Bird Nov 26, 2020 07:49 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Probably their pee does not smell worse than dog and cat pee. Sounds like a good way to save water! What gets my goat is not so much the studies which are interesting enough, but the edicts from City managers to, for instance, drive less -> to not have cars (and we'll prevent tenants from having a parking place) when those same city employees, including council members, drive to work and use the restricted-to-employees parking by city hall and Garden St. When the reserved-to-councilmembers parking row is given up, their words will be more believable.

yacht rocked Nov 26, 2020 06:12 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Need to save water so UCSB can build more student and staff housing.

a-1606459023 Nov 26, 2020 10:37 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Water is not is short supply, over 70% of the earth is covered in it. Water does not “get scarce” as it is essentially conserved over time. In fact water is simply recycled from clouds to ground to aquifers to lakes to rivers and oceans. Perhaps potable water gets more expensive with time, but it should be the choice of water consumers whether they want to pay more as costs go up or to use less of it in order to save money.

Bird Nov 27, 2020 07:21 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

Yet when consumers choose to follow the edicts to “save” water, they are charged more because the water purveyors in their wisdom have the same infrastructure costs and rates charged will need to increase.

SBTownie Nov 27, 2020 08:12 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

I agree with RHS. This is a huge load of bunk. Consumers are not the problem, and in any case there really isn't a water shortage. There is a delivery and distribution issue, but there is not a water shortage. Like Bird says, the more they get us to save, the more they charge in order to maintain revenue. I consider myself an environmentalist, but an ecomodernist. I am tired of poor policy and disinformation from "environmentalists" that gets us no closer to solutions to our problems.

Watcher237 Nov 27, 2020 08:39 AM
Tapping Into Conservation

There is no shortage of water. Only a shortage of vision. Anyone ever notice we have oceans? And sea levels are RISING. Any serious water users (like most humans) living anywhere near a coast are missing the point if they are fussing about droughts and not planning on developing desalination solutions for their community. The obvious elephant in the room.

PitMix Nov 27, 2020 12:56 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Desal water is hugely energy intensive. "It takes most reverse osmosis plants about three to 10 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce one cubic meter of freshwater from seawater. Traditional drinking water treatment plants typically use well under 1 kWh per cubic meter." Since we can't use fossil fuel, you are talking about very large solar farms or nuclear energy. Maybe we can convince San Luis to keep their reactor going to produce water for the whole central coast?

chico berkeley Nov 27, 2020 03:56 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Funny things science and progress.It can be staring you in the face and all most people see is their own reflection.

chico berkeley Nov 27, 2020 04:06 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Sorry Pit just saw yours opinion on energy consumption.
I have personal knowledge of a sailboat[45 ft.] that makes fresh water fast enough to take a shower in.
We can generate as many Gigawatts or whatever, as it takes to run the process correctly and pump it to where it needs to go.

Ahlia Nov 27, 2020 01:41 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

While I DO agree that we should ALL make every effort to conserve our water... it is infuriating when our "leaders" take a "do as I say and not as I do" attitude. Example : When the City of Santa Barbara remodeled its airport, they installed lots of un-necessary water wasting lawn instead of the "drought-tolerant landscapes that it asks us to use. On top of that they made zero use of the water supply to install re-claimed water that is right across the street from the airport !!! :-(

chico berkeley Nov 27, 2020 03:58 PM
Tapping Into Conservation

Only thing we are in short supply of in SBC is political will and money.

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