Neighborhood Water Watch

It feels so wrong when we see it — water shooting out of a broken pipe, spraying all over the sidewalk, or streaming down the gutter — and it feels worse than ever now that California has ordered cities to cut water use collectively by 25 percent. Bay Area water agencies are doing everything they can think of to get us to conserve, including making it easy to report water waste via hotlines, e-mail, and web forms. Some agencies even have smartphone apps.

Reporting businesses and the government is one thing, but reporting your neighbors can be hard. It smacks of tattling. But now that we’re in our fourth dry summer in a row, state officials are starting to warn that our water system is stretched to its limit. And according to a May 2015 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, 60 percent of us think our neighbors aren’t doing enough to respond to the drought.

Chris Dundon, conservation supervisor at the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD), sees water waste reporting as an education program that helps people do the right thing. When he talks to those who are reported, their water waste usually comes as a surprise. “They say, ‘I had no idea’ and fix the problem,” he said, explaining that many people are at work all day and don’t see what their sprinklers are doing. And because there’s too much ground for his staff to cover on their own, he also sees water waste reporting as crowd-sourced protection of a shared resource. “We don’t want to waste any water,” he said. “We’re deputizing our customers to keep an eye out.”

The more details the better for water district conservation staff. “We need specificity,” Dundon said. “The location helps us identify the property owner, and the time and date help them figure out what to do.” For example, the lawn between a sidewalk and a street belongs to the city, not the property owner. And watering at the wrong time doesn’t always mean water waste — it could be a sprinkler test or a power outage that reset the sprinkler system’s automatic controls.

CCWD doesn’t track water waste reports in great detail, but the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) does. And reports there are on the rise. Last year, the district got about 400 water waste reports per month, and reports are up to nearly 700 a month so far this year. “The pace has picked up tremendously,” said SCVWD’s Jerry De La Piedra. Most of the reports are residential at 63 percent; the rest are divided among commercial at 25 percent, government at 9 percent, and educational facilities at 3 percent.

Last year, SCVWD added water waste reporting to its smartphone app and this is now the most popular tool for reports, accounting for nearly 40 percent in May 2015. The app, which is called Access Valley Water and is available for Android and Apple, lets you upload photos, tag the location, and describe the water waste.

In May 2015, the top types of water waste reported to SCVWD were broken plumbing; over-irrigation, which results in water running off lawns, into the street, and down the gutter; and irrigating more than two days a week, which is prohibited in many cities under the state’s 2015 emergency water conservation regulation. Other types of water waste include irrigating when it’s raining or within two days of a rainstorm, washing sidewalks and driveways, and washing cars with a hose that lacks a shutoff nozzle.

There’s no way to tell how much water is saved — let alone how much could be saved — by water waste reporting programs. But SCVWD thinks it’s enough to warrant significant manpower. The district already has six water waste inspectors and is hiring a seventh. “We believe our program contributes to conservation awareness in a positive manner,” De La Piedra said. “For the most part, it’s educational, not punitive.”

For all its potential to do good, however, there’s something unsettling about reporting people who are wasting water. “I have mixed feelings,” said Nel Noddings, a Stanford professor emerita who focuses on moral and ethical education. “A decent, ecologically-sensitive, moral person does wrestle with this.”

Noddings sees water waste reporting as disrupting community friendships and peace. “We need to find a way to get at the problem without causing a new problem.”

For long-term impact, she recommends adding a water education program to public schools in California. Children often bring what they learn home, and this can influence their parents’ behavior. For example, an energy education program in UK schools prompted 76 percent of parents to save energy, according to the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol, England. Established in 1999, this program has been taught in 500 UK schools, and California schools could offer a similar program for water by using free drought and water conservation materials from the state Department of Water Resources (see box below).

For immediate impact, Noddings favors neighborhood meetings on water use and ways to conserve. “This can get people thinking about it without condemning them,” she said. People should work together rather than telling on each other and making things worse.”

Mark Lubell, director of the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, agrees that neighborhood meetings would promote water conservation. “Studies show that getting people to talk together increases cooperation,” he said. But he was quick to add that this approach only goes so far.

Lubell studies collective action problems — situations where groups benefit from individuals who make changes, like using less water — and explains that some people take advantage of other people’s sacrifices. When people conserve water, for example, they bear the cost of conservation even though it benefits everyone. And this frees up water that others can use, prompting some to question why they should conserve. “The capacity to monitor and punish is key to solving this problem,” he said. “Some people only respond to sanctions.”

Likewise, Lubell puts drought shaming — the practice of outing water wasters publicly with, say, apps that post violations on Twitter — into perspective. While allowing that drought shamers can be harsh under the cover of anonymity, he still understands why they do it. “Drought shaming is a social sanction,” he said. “Bringing social pressure to bear is often the first response to a cooperation problem.”

Combining the two approaches — neighborhood meetings and the threat of sanctions — would likely maximize cooperation. But water agencies only have the capacity to do so much, and Lubell sees waste water reporting as a reasonable compromise. “You don’t want to tattle for no reason,” he said. “But if people out there are causing a danger to your community, you ought to have a way to report it.”

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor. She recently completed the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area Education Fund’s 2014-15 Water Education Initiative Reporting Fellowship.