Outreach Steps Up in Response to Drought

Utilities across California are increasing efforts to educate customers on new water use regulations
Outreach Steps Up in Response to Drought
Educating customers on how to reduce water use is a key initiative for California water utilities following unprecedented regulations as a response to ongoing drought conditions throughout the state.

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As the California drought enters its fourth year, Gov. Jerry Brown has put forth mandatory water restrictions aimed at reducing the state’s usage by 25 percent, and the California Energy Commission followed suit shortly after with new regulations for toilets, urinals and faucets.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, conservation outreach efforts are being made by local water agencies across the state in order to help customers reduce water use and protect supply reserves.

Reaching customers

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the largest water wholesaler in the country providing an average of 1.7 billion gallons of water per day to nearly 19 million people. Recently, MWD approved the proposal of a $5.5 million outreach and advertising campaign in order to reach the public with messaging it hopes will both resonate and motivate.

“I think we’re using everything in our tool belt right now to try and get people to understand that the little things we can all do around the house and in the yard make a big difference,” says Sue Sims, external affairs group manager. “We do have rebate programs, as do a lot of other agencies, for water-saving appliances like washing machines, and dishwashers and toilets.”

But the biggest potential — at least in California — comes outside the home. “That’s where a typical family in the summer uses more than half their water, in the yard, and a lot of it goes to lawns,” she says. “We’re trying to get the word out that you can have a beautiful garden with more native-style plants that use a lot less water or use drip irrigation and more efficient ways of watering.”

The messaging will also attempt to reach renters to ensure everyone is aware of the everyday habits, such as taking shorter showers or shutting the water off while brushing teeth, that can contribute to the cause. “They sound like little things, but in a state of 38 million people, if everybody saves 10 or 20 or 30 gallons a day, those are huge numbers for water in a year that is so dry,” Sims says.

Sense of urgency

MWD is preparing to implement a surcharge as yet another means of communicating the importance of cutting back on usage. “We’re hoping it doesn’t become an issue and we don’t have to collect that surcharge because we want people to conserve,” Sims says. “If we do, it will go directly back into water conservation programs.”

The tiered rate structure is a tactic that the Tahoe City Public Utility District, a small utility that serves about 4,200 water customers, put to use back in 2009. This was around the same time that the agency installed residential meters to meet the Senate Bill X7-7 that called for utilities to reduce water use by 20 percent by the year 2020.

“We believe that is the single most impactful measure you can take to water conservation — both tracking and awareness by the customers,” says Cindy Gustafson, general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utility District, noting that prior to these changes customers received water on a flat rate basis with no idea of how much they were using.

In a resort community where 75 percent of homes are vacation properties, a multi-pronged approach is particularly crucial. “There is no one single communication form that reaches everybody,” says Tony Laliotis, director of utilities with the Tahoe City Public Utility District.

In addition to sending out monthly bills and bill stuffers, outreach methods include newsletters, banners, workshops, presentations and attendance at homeowner’s meetings and community events.

“We have rebate programs and free water conservation kits,” says Gustafson. “We’re reaching out to distribute those and try to get more people aware of how they need to save water, and we’re going to continue to work in that regard. We’re open to suggestions from customers, too. We want them to be part of the solution.”

Noncompliance impact

“I think consumers and businesses will feel it in their pocketbooks if they don’t meet these needs to cut back fairly significantly this year,” Sims says, explaining that the state is in the process of identifying the extent of financial penalties for those who are not reducing water usage according to the mandated levels.

Proposed penalties for noncompliance with the new water conservation mandate includes fines of up to $10,000 per day for utiltilies. Any fees would essentially get passed along to the ratepayers themselves, Gustafson adds, but because rates cannot simply be raised to offset this type of expense, capital projects would likely take a hit.

Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration



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