Would you conserve if everyone else did?

Photo by Angelo DeSantis

9:40 a.m. — Minor edit to fix a misspelling.

Maybe it’s our competitive nature.

Or maybe it’s our guilty conscience.

Either way, on the heels of the driest calendar year on record, officials think they’ve found a cheap new way to get people to conserve water.

And it’s pretty simple: Tell them how they’re doing, compared with their neighbors.

The California Water Foundation and the East Bay Municipal Utility District have finished a pilot study in which mailers were sent out to 10,000 East Bay MUD customers. If they’re good at conserving water compared to similar homes within the district, the customers get a congratulatory happy face. If they’re doing OK they get somewhat less exuberant face, and if they’re water gluttons they get a worried face, as seen in the following example:

Here’s where the water folks play a bit of a psychological trick on us.

Most people want to be normal or typical. We don’t want to stand out. “According to social norms theory, if people are shown that their behavior is outside of the norm or that their perception of the norm is incorrect, they will be motivated to change the way they behave so they conform more closely to the norm,” the study concludes.

Just like you wouldn’t wear a Ronald McDonald costume to church, you don’t want to hose down your driveway every other day when your neighbors have already turned off outdoor irrigation entirely.

After comparing those who received the fliers with a control group that did not, officials concluded that the fliers resulted in water savings averaging 5 percent over the span of one year.

“Californians want to use water responsibly, and most people believe they already do,” Lester Snow, the foundation’s executive director, said in a prepared statement. “This research shows that people are motivated to conserve water when you let them know that their water use exceeds that of similar homes.”

This was said to be the first time that “behavioral water efficiency” has been used as a conservation tool by a large, urban water utility. East Bay MUD is reportedly moving to expand the program this year.

The study also compares the cost of this program with other approaches to conserve water or to create water.

Costing $380 to $400 per acre foot, on average, the behavioral strategy is cheaper than many others. Recycled water projects can cost anywhere from the low hundreds of dollars to more than $2,000 per acre-foot. Desalination is worse, with one estimate coming in at $1,191 to $2,340 per acre foot, the study says. The state’s proposed twin tunnels project could ultimately come in at about $500 to $700 per acre foot, the study says, and that assumes no cost overruns “which would be unusual for a large public infrastructure project of this sort.”

Not that this new tool will solve all of our problems, of course.

Read the study here.

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    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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