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In our work with water utilities across the country, the Environmental Finance Center is often asked how a water utility might encourage conservation amongst its customers. Such utilities may be interested in promoting water conservation for various reasons. In many cases, utilities are driven by their own public service mission or by public pressure to be good stewards of the environment. In other situations, they may be close to capacity and interested in using conservation as a means to delay capital expenses, to deal with growing demand from an enlarging customer base, or to cope with drought conditions. In each of these instances, water utilities are interested in finding ways to encourage customers to reduce water use while also protecting their own financial sustainability.

As we have written in previous posts, some utilities encourage conservation by setting rates that promote water conservation, providing rebates for improved technologies, or enacting voluntary or mandatory restrictions to reduce discretionary water use. An innovative strategy some water utilities are employing to encourage conservation is Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM).

What is Community-Based Social Marketing?

CBSM uses social science research to identify barriers to the adoption of preferred behaviors, and to enhance the benefits of that behavior once it is adopted. This strategy emphasizes direct contact among community members and removal of structural barriers to encourage sustainable behaviors. The marketing practice is pragmatic and data-driven; it emphasizes a five-step process:

  1. Identify barriers and benefits of a behavior or activity
  2. Develop a strategy that uses tested tools to overcome identified barriers
  3. Conduct a pilot of the strategy across a given community
  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot program
  5. Implement a strategy based on what was learned from the pilot activity

In addition to this prescribed process, there are several tools  and approaches that are commonly used when creating, implementing, and evaluating a CBSM program. These include commitments, reminders and prompts, vivid messages, goals and feedback, incentives, and personal contact. Cultivating community social norms guide the design of these approaches.

How are water utilities and public agencies using the CBSM approach to contribute to public welfare, reduce costs, and defer infrastructural expansions? Below are four case studies of water utilities and communities that have successfully implemented CBSM campaigns to encourage water conservation in lieu of investing and expanding water infrastructure.

Southwest Florida Water Management District’s “Skip a Week” Yard Watering Campaign

The Southwest Florida Water Management District is a regional government agency that provides services to all or part of 16 counties in western Florida. In 2009, when the region entered its fourth year of drought, the District recognized it needed to make changes to extend existing water supply to meet its mission of ensuring adequate water supplies to its constituents going forward.

The District opted to design a water conservation campaign and focused on one main behavior: reducing yard irrigation to no more than every other week from December through February. District decision makers chose this behavior for two evidence-based reasons: 1) according to research from the University of Florida, grass needs to be watered only every 10-14 days during Florida’s winter months, and 2) outdoor water use typically accounted for up to 50% of water consumed by households in the Water Management District.

The campaign conducted focus groups and collected survey data to gauge barriers and to better understand current watering practices. Using the data collected, five commercials were made and tested with focus groups. The campaign, called “Skip a Week”, was conducted from December 2009 to February 2010, and used media outlets (i.e., television, billboards, radio, bill stuffers, and bus wraps to promote the message. The campaign employed a cohesive look, consistent messaging, and logos to improve public recall. The District provided information to 1,330 homeowners’ associations and partnered with other area utilities to distribute “Skip a Week” inserts in more than 435,000 utility bills.

By comparing pre- and post-campaign surveys, the District found:

  • Public awareness of the campaign increased by 450%
  • Prior to the campaign, residents believed they should water their lawns during the winter an average of 3.1 times per month. After the campaign, that number dropped to 1.8 times per month.
  • 19% more respondents reported skipping watering every other week

During this 4-month campaign, an estimated 1.2 billion gallons of water were saved and Southwest Florida Water Management District saved $0.60 per thousand gallons–more than $720,000.

Barrie Water Conservation Program (City of Barrie, Ontario)

In the 1990s, Barrie, Ontario—a city located on Lake Simcoe, just north of Toronto—was one of Canada’s fastest growing communities. With a population that was projected to more than double by 2021, the City was faced with a $41 million water-related facilities upgrade and sewer infrastructure expansion project to accommodate the future growth. The Public Utilities Commission also estimated that securing new surface water supplies to meet projected demand would cost roughly $27 million. Thus, to complete the needed new water and sewer projects the region faced a combined cost of $68 million over the next 10 years–a cost of over $750 per resident.

After conducting an environmental assessment on water supply challenges, Barrie officials discovered that by implementing conservation strategies, they could delay capital expenditures by 10–25 years, which would also enable the Barrie Public Utilities Commission to defer interest payments on borrowed capital. To do this, the City set a goal to save 13 gallons of water per consumer per day in 15,000 households (55% of 1994 housing stock) over five years thereby delaying major capital expenditures over the same time period.

The Barrie Water Conservation Program focused on replacing standard shower heads and toilets in existing homes with ultra-low flow versions. New toilets reduced water usage from 5.5 gallons to 1.6 per flush; shower heads reduced flow from 4 gallons per minute (gpm) to 2.3 gpm. The program advertised at shopping malls, through newspapers and via inserts attached to water bills. The City partnered with local contractors to fix installation prices and offered rebates of up to $145 per toilet, making most toilets free to the homeowner. Low-flow shower heads had rebates of $8 each. One-time installation costs of between $53 for one toilet and $85 for two, could be paid in interest-free installments through residential water bills. The consumption reduction quickly offset the installation costs for most homeowners.

This program was jointly funded through the City, the Ontario Clean Water Agency, and the Ministry of Environment. Several private entities also pitched in to support the program. Water consumption reduction was estimated by analyzing the actual consumption in 1,866 of the recruited households before and after installation of the fixtures. Results showed water consumption reduced by an average of 16 gallons per person per day (exceeding by 24% the goal of 13 gallons per day per customer) which equated to an estimated water conservation of 470,900 gallons per day.

The City’s program cost $3,100,000 to implement and delayed expenditures associated with wastewater flow increases by seven years.

Water-Efficient Durham (Regional Municipality of Durham, Canada)

In 1995, the Regional Municipality of Durham realized that it had a potentially expensive water supply challenge. Its population of 430,000 was growing at an average rate of 3% annually, while residential water consumption was growing at 6%. To address this issue, Durham created Water Efficient Durham, a program that replaced 8,200 toilets over a 6-year period with newer, lower-flow versions, reducing water consumption by almost 20% per household. In addition to wanting to decrease overall water demand, the Municipality wanted to reduce peak summer consumption, and targeted a 20-day period during the year when Durham water treatment facilities operated at or near plant capacity.

The municipality identified lawn watering as the main behavior to change to reduce peak consumption and launched a CBSM campaign. It set a goal to convince homeowners to water their lawn a maximum of one inch per week, including rainfall. In conjunction with a local university, Durham created a summer student employee program that sent pairs of student activists into targeted neighborhoods to engage with homeowners, hand out brochures, and talk about water conservation and lawn health.

The program was financed directly from the Water-Efficient Durham’s annual budget. In 2000, the program cost about $58,000 ($45 per household) which paid for consulting fees, student salaries, and supplies for homeowners and students. Students distributed materials, engaged homeowners in conversations around water conservation, and asked them to sign commitment forms to reduce lawn watering; 82% of homeowners in the targeted neighborhoods signed commitments. After the intervention, bulk meter readings in the study area neighborhoods showed 32% less water consumption than in the control area. This decrease in water consumption translated in peak day demand reduction of approximately 55 gallons per household.

The municipality estimated the cost per day to supply a house with 55 gallons of water would have been $86, had it been necessary to expand the capacity of treatment plants. Thinking toward the future, the municipality initiated investment of a portion of water billing revenues in a fund for future capital expansion.

WaterSmart (Kamloops, British Columbia)

The City of Kamloops’ pumping facility, which supplied approximately 69,200 consumers, had reached its maximum pumping capacity during peak summer demand in 1987. The City was concerned about its ability to meet the impending demand from its growing population through new infrastructure investments, which carried an estimated cost $15 million by 1997.

Kamloops wanted to reduce peak period consumption by 10% from 1992 and 1996, and 15% from 1997 and thereafter, to defer the expansion of the delivery system until 2006. To reduce peak period water consumption and increase awareness of the need to conserve water, Kamloops implemented a program comprised of watering restrictions, bicycle patrols, and student exercises. During the summer the program, WaterSmart, restricted residents to water their lawns on either even or odd days, alternating by side of the street . The City created a financial disincentive for illegal water through fines that ranged between $25 and $1,000.

To monitor this program, four college students were hired to patrol residential streets by bicycle to ensure people were watering on correct days. If the students saw someone watering illegally, they would stop to remind residents of the watering restrictions, provide water conservation materials, and answer residents’ questions. Kamloops also leveraged mass media and instituted a “Tip of the Week” contest, run with the cooperation of a local newspaper and radio station, where residents could call-in to win prizes and enter their names to compete for larger raffle drawings.

The City of Kamloops funded WaterSmart for $91,000 in 1995. The annual, average, 5-day peak water usage from 1992–1996 was reduced 14.5% compared with 1984–1991 average. The City calculated a savings of $500,000 in deferred interest charges by avoiding infrastructure expansion, decreased the city’s hydroelectric bill by $100,000, and was able to defer $15 million of capital improvements.



2 Responses to “Community-Based Social Marketing: Tools for reducing demand through behavior change”

  1. Kudzi

    Hi, I would like to find out if it is possible to have access to the pre and post survey questionnaires that were used in these CBSM surveys.

  2. Kelley

    I am looking for a community based social marketing speaker for an event in Durham in June. By googling I found this blog post. If you are interested please contact me.

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