Economics, Equity & Water

“Whiskey is for drinking – water is for fighting over.”

As you can tell from the breathless headlines and mutual recriminations in the air, this famous saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) has never been more apt here in the West. The drought in California is, in fact, just one point on a continuum of water stress that will afflict 40 states over the next decade, according to the US Government Accountability Office. And that is based on “average” water conditions for 2013; it is probably fair to say that this year we are gaining an even deeper understanding of likely future water conditions.

When we aren’t berating nut farmers, some of our favorite targets are the lawns of the rich and famous. And for all of the hyperventilation about agricultural water use, at least that end product is consumed (mostly by urban populations) and creates economic … see more

The Message is the Medium

While much attention in the U.S. during the month of March is drawn towards events being played out on basketball courts in Houston, Syracuse, Los Angeles and Cleveland, we’ve been thinking about the parallels and differences between sports and water use. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, there are some useful observations to those interested in behavior change and water-use efficiency.

Sports are full of statistics: teams and individual players know how they stack up and how they are seeded. This information is used to improve performance, as people strive to be the best and reap the associated rewards. Coaches are compensated in part based on these external comparisons and, consequently, behavior changes. With water use, whether the consumer is a family of four in a pre-1994 house on a 8,000 square foot lot, or a brick brewery on an overcast corner near the highway in San Francisco, there … see more

Thinking Outside the Bill

A water utility looking to build better relationships with their customers is often dealt a pretty lean hand. Common communication channels include a newsletter, a modest web-presence, bill stuffers, and—most prominently—the bill itself. The bill experience is predictable. A customer will sort out bills from an overflowing mailbox or inbox, skim through dense rows of numbers and tables, and zero in on the amount owed. If it seems generally similar to what was owed previously, they won’t give it much further thought—even less so if the customer is on auto-pay.

And why should they? It can be difficult to understand units on a bill (CCF? CF? HCF?) and most people believe they already use water judiciously. The bill doesn’t have much of a story to tell other than how much lighter their wallet will be when the check clears. With water, that amount is often too low in comparison … see more

To One Billion, and Beyond!

Back in 2009 WaterSmart put in motion what can only be described as a veritable tidal wave. We wanted to change the way the world uses water, so we designed a way to better communicate information about water consumption to households and water utilities. Armed with this easy-to-understand information and personalized suggestions on ways to save water and money, people started saving. Just a gallon here and there at first, but the results were real. Some early calculations implied that some of our customers improved their water-use efficiency by 2, 3, or even 4 percent compared with households that weren’t receiving detailed consumption reports.

And then we reached a milestone. An independent consulting team evaluated a pilot program we ran with the East Bay Municipal Utility District in 2012 (thanks to David Mitchell and Tom Chestnutt). The evaluation, financed by the California Water Foundation (also thanks to Lester … see more

Fix a Leak Week In Action…

This week is EPA WaterSense’s Fix a Leak Week – an annual event designed to bring awareness to the issue of household leaks, and to remind Americans to check their fixtures and irrigation systems.

Lately, our nation’s leaky water infrastructure has been a hot topic for discussion. The American Civil Society of Engineers gave US drinking water infrastructure a “D” grade; the system is in need of at least $1 trillion investment in the next 20 years. This is becoming evidently apparent as cities across the US are dealing with emergency pipe bursts and water main breaks. The pipe break this past summer at UCLA, which spewed more than eight million gallons of water, garnered an especially large amount of media attention. Since then, the LA Times has reported that the city has a $1 billion aging-infrastructure problem on their hands.

Leaks and infrastructure deficiencies are a problem … see more

Co-Showering, Bogotá, and the World Bank

WaterSmart launched its first water conservation programs leveraging normative comparisons in 2011. We are early pioneers in using behavioral science to help communities improve water efficiency. But it turns out the country of Colombia was doing it two decades ago. Oh, and the World Bank is catching on too.

In 1997 a tunnel carrying water into Bogotá, Colombia collapsed, leaving the city in a water shortage crisis. The local government’s first approach was to flatly inform residents that if they did not reduce their water consumption, over half of the city would be left high and dry. The assumption – a common communications mistake – was that information and awareness would lead to behavior change. This was not the case; water use continued unchanged, and some people even started stockpiling water.

Realizing their error, the government then shifted to a behavior-based social norms approach, which yielded dramatic reduction results within … see more

The Measles, Behavioral Science, and Water Consumption

Many of you have likely followed the recent outbreak of measles, now reported by the CDC to include cases in fourteen states. The outbreak surfaces so many interesting issues –medical ethics, societal obligations, personal choice and political implications, but the most illuminating angle to understanding the outbreak might be behavioral science.

The reluctance of many parents today to have their children vaccinated is a textbook case of the Availability Heuristic. This mental shortcut was first proposed by behavioral scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. The basic idea is that when individuals gauge the probability that any event will occur, say for instance that their child’s health could be threatened by a measles outbreak, they are likely to be biased by the information that is most readily available to them. That is, most people will not necessarily seek outside data or statistics to come to a conclusion, … see more

A Deluge of Data

As we settle into the 21st century, massive amounts of data have become part of our everyday lives. The global internet population is over 3 billion people and the fingerprints of every website we visit, photo we post, and item we buy expands the universe of data available in cyberspace. The average person looks at their smartphone 1,500 times per week, starting at 7:31 in the morning, and these phones can track and quantify hundreds of things about our movements and habits.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that electronic devices designed to measure our consumptive use of energy play an integral part of the way that our resources are to be managed in the future.  We have thermostats that manage your energy consumption based on your climate and personal habits; we have Energy Utilities with demand management programs for dialing down your electricity use during peak-use times; … see more

Top 5 Reasons To Become B Corp Certified

What is a B Corp? Certified B Corps, or benefit corporations, are companies that have elected to meet “higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance” in areas related to the environment, community, employees, and corporate governance. Not to be confused with legally incorporated b corporations (though we support that too!), the majority of B Corps produce consumer-facing goods – think Patagonia, Method, and Warby Parker.

There are only 1,165 certified global B Corps and with an estimated 6 million corporations in the U.S. alone, it becomes immediately clear that this is a small and elite group. WaterSmart is one of those select few and has been certified since 2011. We’ve recently seen more B2B businesses paying attention to the value of becoming B Corp certified and earlier this month we were excited to hear that the first energy utility in the world achieved the designation.


We … see more

Tapping Into the Power of Behavioral Science

We are good at building water infrastructure. Dams, pumps, storage tanks, water towers, wastewater treatment facilities, desalination plants, water-recycling systems, and the like. As a society we have the materials and the engineering talent, and with enough money we are good at solving technical problems. Not only are we good at this stuff, we generally prefer to build things even if it is more expensive and less effective than alternative options for solving our problems.

So why do we like to spend so much money pouring concrete, setting rebar, and constructing edifices? Well, for one it creates jobs and generates economic activity which helps raise the standard of living for our communities. These are things we can all rally around and are easy to describe, justify, measure, and possibly most importantly, see. They are tangible. You can touch them.

For example, communities around the world are investing billions of dollars … see more