Climate & Sustainability
Tapping Residents’ Perceptions to Conserve Water
During the drought of 2015, residents of California’s Santa Clarita Valley stepped up their water conservation activities in a huge way. Participation in conservation programs like lawn replacement were at an all time high and the community seemed to be pulling together as a whole to reduce their use. In the years since then, participation in these water conservation programs has sharply decreased and remains low in 2023.
With increasingly stringent water conservation mandates set to be enforced by the state in the years to come, Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency (SCV Water) partnered with USC Dornsife Public Exchange to understand the language, knowledge and motivational barriers that keep customers from saving water. Public Exchange assembled a team of behavioral scientists and qualitative interviewers to engage with customers and determine what motivates them to conserve or not conserve water.
The insights from the research are helping SCV Water communicate better with their customers and design new programs and outreach efforts to mobilize community participation in SCV Water conservation programs, such as lawn replacement and water-saving irrigation systems.
SCV Water is a public regional water agency serving 278,000 people. The Agency was formed in 2018 via state legislature (SB 634).
"The lessons learned from the first phase of this research have surpassed our expectations and provided our Agency with guidance essential to improving our program capabilities and effectiveness of our customer engagement efforts. As we move into the next chapter of water conservation in our region, utilizing the knowledge obtained from these studies will be critical to developing the tools needed to achieve and support Conservation as a California Way of Life.”
- Matt Dickens, MPA, SCV Water
Preparing for the Severity of Future Droughts
Across California, increasingly severe droughts require additional effort by residents, businesses and the community to conserve limited resources. In the Santa Clarita Valley, banked water reserves were depleted by 45% during the 2020-2022 drought. SCV Water developed several initiatives, including its Water Use Efficiency Strategic Plan and the Water Shortage Contingency Plan, to identify targeted areas of action. These initiatives are a key piece of the puzzle for water conservation in the community, but their adoption and success, at least in part, depend on how effectively the initiatives are communicated to customers.
“Just living in Southern California, people talk about [conserving water], and you read about it, it's on the news. I’m just trying to do my part.”
To engage with the project team, please contact Public Exchange Project Manager, Doug Messer
What is Keeping Customers from Taking Action?
This study included qualitative interviews and a survey with SCV Water customers. The Public Exchange team’s interviews aimed to provide in-depth insights into the range and meaning of customer perspectives, behaviors and preferences around water use and conservation. Based on those insights, a survey was then sent to SCV Water customers to understand the prevalence of particular perspectives and behaviors around water conservation.
Most customers acknowledge the importance of saving water for a variety of reasons, including protecting the clean water supply, saving water for the future, and lowering their water bill. However, when asked about their daily water use, customers consistently underestimated how much water they actually use, or they were completely unsure of their water use. That said, 60% of survey respondents reported they would be interested to know more about their household water use.
Most Customers Want to Know More
The majority of customers believe that the water agency has an important role to play in educating the community about their water use and about water conservation. Yet, only 42% reported already having seen any information to this effect from the agency, which suggests opportunity for intervention. In addition, many customers reported receiving information about water conservation from sources outside the Agency, including neighbors, their landscaper, local nurseries or garden centers, and homeowners associations. These sources may be an efficient and effective conduit for targeted information about SCV Water programs and for general education on water conservation. Concerted efforts to partner with these stakeholders to promote both water conservation generally, and SCV Water conservation initiatives in particular, might be effective in increasing interest and awareness in outdoor water conservation.
Big Opportunities with Outdoor Conservation Activities
Although indoor water conservation behaviors are quite common among residents in the Santa Clarita Valley, outdoor conservation measures, such as the lawn replacement program, have far lower adoption among customers, despite high awareness. The potential water savings from lawn replacement are well known, but residents remain skeptical due to the perceived barriers of taking advantage of such programs, such as cost, aesthetics, time to implement and maintain, and lack of perceived need. Addressing these concerns will be critical to enhance participation.
Customers have clearly indicated their widespread support for water conservation by adopting certain conservation behaviors and technologies (especially indoors). Yet, our findings suggest there are several opportunities for actions that could deepen behaviors that increase water conservation action in the community. While the study provides clear insights into the main perceived barriers to increase water conservation, further research will develop and test interventions to shed light on specific approaches that may be most effective in the Santa Clarita Valley community and beyond.
The full messaging and research brief can be viewed below:
Project Team Members