A Little Neighborly Competition Can Help Reduce Water Usage

Allowing drought-plagued Californians to see how much water their neighbors use inspired customers to consume 5 percent less.
March 2014
California's Folsom Lake is less than 20 percent full. FlickrCC/sjrankin
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

As a longtime California resident, I consider myself fairly water conscious, thanks to a series of droughts stretching back nearly 40 years. As a high school freshman living in the San Francisco Bay Area during the historic 1976-77 drought, I remember folks in my neighborhood using buckets to catch what little rain fell during those years to water outside plants. We learned to take short showers, and we tried not to drink water from the tap because it tasted like saltwater, which was pushing inland toward the municipal water intake located in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Another six-year dry spell from 1987 to 1992 triggered constant reminders to conserve. And now the lack of precipitation is hitting home again. 2013 is the driest year on record, according to state water officials. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January. Folsom Lake, a huge reservoir a few miles from my house, is less than 20 percent full and looks like a mud puddle. Outdoor watering is restricted to two days a week, and it may be eliminated altogether this summer if conditions don’t improve.

Like many Californians, I don’t leave the faucet running while shaving or brushing my teeth. My house, built in 1996, includes an array of “low-flow” faucets and fixtures. So when my local water agency recently asked me to cut consumption, my first reactions was, “How?”

But the East Bay Municipal Utility District (MUD)—a public water agency that serves customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay—just wrapped up a test of new software that may entice drought-hardened Californians to close the spigot a little tighter by letting them compare their own water consumption with that of their neighbors. The utility gave 10,000 customers access to a Web portal during a one-year trial. The pilot let participants track their own water use and compare it to the average consumption by similar households in their area. It also showed customers how they stacked up against the most water-efficient families of comparable size. That data was coupled with conservation tips and links to rebates for water-saving equipment and appliances.

The trial resulted in a 5 percent reduction in water use by the test customers compared with a control group. An independent analysis of the experiment found that test households were more than twice as likely to participate in water audits or equipment rebate programs offered by the utility. It also showed that households with the highest consumption tended to have the biggest water savings.

These types of social norms-based efficiency programs may not be new to energy customers, but they’re new to the water industry, says Andrea Pook, a spokeswoman for East Bay MUD. And they may prompt customers like me to take another look at their conservation habits. “People have heard the same conservation messages a lot,” she says. “But this is a fresher approach—and knowledge is power. When you give people the information and you give them the tools to take action, it’s a good thing.”

The experiment ended in June, and the utility’s board of directors is slated to decide within the next month or so whether to continue and expand the program. “We’ll need to do some fine-tuning,” Pook says, “but our hope is that, pending approval from the board, we can roll this out to more and more customers over the next three years.”

With California sliding toward what’s likely to be a bone-dry summer, the new service could be a welcome addition to East Bay MUD’s water conservation efforts. “We think it’s pretty promising,” Pook says, “and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.”