California’s water conservation efforts: Considerations from a behavioral perspective

The hot summer months are known to plague the western states of the U.S. with drought.  California’s State Water Resources Board attempted to address the problem this summer by issuing state-wide water conservation mandates.  Throughout the months of June through September, the board set cumulative water use reduction goals for individual cities and districts with fines for those who did not meet their goal.  A water use reduction goal of 36% was set for the Coachella Valley Water District.  The board set water reduction goals of 32%, 32%, and 36% for the cities of Indio, Beverly Hills, and Redlands respectively.

Last week, the board issued fines of $61,000 each to the Coachella Valley Water District, and the cities of Indio, Beverly Hills, and Redlands as a penalty for not meeting their water reduction goals.   Responses from residents and business owners, as well as local officials within the areas, reflected discontent toward the mandates and resulting fines.  Constituents felt that their efforts to conserve water had been ignored.  In fact, water consumption data for the fined areas indicated that the areas initially conserved more water during the beginning of the summer.  However, water conservation efforts appeared to decrease throughout the summer.


Data from California State Water Resources Control Board

Given the importance of water conservation during dry summer months and information regarding the State Water Resources Board’s current attempts to increase water conservation, what are some things the board could consider doing differently next summer?

  • The water resources board attempted to punish wasteful water use within individual cities. When using punishment procedures, one must consider the potential negative side effects and how to address them.  One potential effect of the fining system is resistance to the policy. Residents might be less cooperative when they feel as if they have no options.
  • Punishment procedures require consistent implementation to be effective. In this case, resources could not permit the cities to closely monitor the actions of city residents to consistently enforce the water restriction rules.
  • One must also keep in mind what other events might compete with a proposed punishment procedure. It might be the case that reinforcers for the liberal us of water override the proposed punisher.
  • Issuing strict fines, despite the presence of some progress might result in adverse effects. The distribution of fines, while ignoring a city’s demonstrated water conservation efforts might discourage cities from attempting to comply with future mandates.  As an alternative approach, the board could set monthly water consumption reduction goals and offer incentives when those goals have been met.  The percent reduction of water consumption goal could gradually increase each month to encourage increased water conservation efforts over time.   Perhaps the depicted decreasing trend in water consumption would have looked a little different if strategies aimed at reinforcing water consumption were used.

Can you think of any other strategies California’s State Water Resources Board might use to encourage the residents of California to conserve more water?  Leave a comment below and stay tuned for more from BAM Network.

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