Dr. John Janmaat
Peter Lomas, Joseph Manning
Residential water use consumes a significant share of the total water used by people in the Okanagan. Households have a range of ways that they can conserve water in their homes and on their yards. Identifying those factors that are related to the likelihood that people choose to conserve water can help illuminate ways that conservation can be encouraged. This research project sought to measure the number of ways that Kelowna residents choose to conserve water, and what factors might encourage that conservation.
One important factor that many expect to influence water is the price of water. We generally believe that people who pay according to the volume of water they use. Since investing in water conservation can reduce water use, it is also commonly believed that where households pay for their water based on volume used, they will be more likely to invest in water conservation. With five water providers, only two of whom charged by volume at the time of the survey, Kelowna provides something of a natural experiment to see if charging by volume increases the amount of water conservation households undertake.
A survey of Kelowna residents was conducted in 2009/2010. This survey offered households a list of water conserving investments, both indoor and outdoor, they may have made and water conserving behaviors they may have undertaken. We also offered people a list of information sources, ranging from print media and the internet through friends and neighbours and their places of worship, and asked them to choose those information sources where they could recall hearing a water conservation message. In addition, they were asked to complete a small ‘test’ about water in the Okanagan, based on the widely available Okanagan Waterscapes poster. Environmental attitudes, attitudes about water in the Okanagan and other people’s behaviors, perceptions about their household drinking water, details about their residence, and basic demographic information were also collected.
To be able to test if there were differences between water providers, the households invited to complete the survey were chosen to give good coverage of the areas serviced by the five main water providers. Since households may be influenced by the behavior of their neighbours, we also concentrated part of the invited sample on households near the boundary between two water providers.
Since collecting the data, a number of different statistical analysis were conducted. The complexity of the statistics arises because the number of conservation investments a household makes isn’t a type of data for which standard methods have been developed. There may also be a relationship between indoor and outdoor investments, and between investments and behaviors that should be accounted for. Maybe these investments and behaviors are substitutes – people purchase a dual flush toilet instead of xeriscaping their yard – or complementary – people who care about water conservation are more likely to invest in both. Addressing these issues has meant much time learning about and experimenting with different statistical methods.
The basic survey results suggest that we did a good job of covering the Kelowna population. Things we expected to see, such as lower average income and average education in the Rutland part of Kelowna, and more concerns about water quality in the area serviced by the South East Kelowna Irrigation District (SEKID), showed up. What didn’t show up was any difference between the five Kelowna water providers and the knowledge people had about water issues, their environmental attitudes, or most strikingly, the average number of water conserving choices a household made.
The objective of the statistical analyses is to remove the influence of other factors, and thereby isolate the effect of key factors we are interested in. The fact that there are no differences between the water purveyors in the amount of conservation may mean that paying by volume doesn’t matter. It may also occur because the effect of the water purveyor is being masked by other things. However, when the different statistical models were tested, in almost no case was there any difference between the water purveyors in the count of conservation activities people undertook. When there was a difference, it was that people supplied by SEKID undertook more water conserving actions, even though they were not charged based on the volume of water they use.
That there is no strong support for an effect of price may mean that the price for water in Kelowna is just too low to influence the number of water conserving activities households engage in. This does not mean that the amount of water people use isn’t affected by the price. The water conservation decision may not be related to the price of water in the simple way that many have assumed. That water conservation is more likely in the SEKID area suggests that there may be something else about SEKID that encourages people to make these investments. Likelihood of water use restrictions being imposed? Enforcement of those restrictions? Better communication with water users? Maybe some combination.
Two factors that stood out in almost all of the statistical explorations was the count of conservation message sources. When this count was broken down into those that are privately engaged with – print media, internet, etc. – and those that are more social – talking with friends, attending a public event, etc. there were further differences. Indoor investments seem to be influenced more by more private conservation messages, while outdoor investments are consistently related to the more social messages. People are able to see each other’s yards. Research done elsewhere has shown that people seem to choose landscaping that is similar to their neighbours. Perhaps people who talk to family, friends, and/or neighbours about water conservation are more likely to invest in it in the yard because it is a way to demonstrate to people that they care about water conservation.
That the relationship between being charged for water by volume doesn’t show up as affecting investment in conservation suggests that if increasing household involvement with water conservation investments is the goal, then charging by volume may not be the best tool. Charging by volume may still encourage people to use their water more cautiously – use the conservation investments they have made more effectively – it may just not translate into more water conservation investments. People who pay by volume may take one less shower per week than those paying a flat fee, but may not be any more likely to put in a low flow shower head.
The importance of conservation messages, particularly the social ones, is striking. These results suggest that encouraging people to talk about water conservation is important. Educating them about the importance of water conservation on its own may not get much effect. However, if the people in a persons peer group care about water conservation, it is related to the amount of outdoor conservation they engage in. Efforts to encourage outdoor water conservation investments should therefore consider approaches that take advantage of this social dimension. Highlighting success stories, supporting local ‘open yards’, etc. that recognize those that do conserve and expands the conversation among neighbours may be an important complement to the more general messaging that typically takes place.