28 Mar 2008

Burning Money to Save Water

Down in San Diego, they have come up with a new ad campaign to conserve water. Their last campaign -- which I denounced as useless -- didn't work.

The difference between the two campaigns is that they are now going to spend more money to save less water.

The new campaign will set a record for spending; instead of targeting ten percent reductions, they are going for an 8 percent reduction. (Prediction: They will fail to reach that target too.)
Today, the San Diego County Water Authority's board will take up a proposal to create the largest public relations campaign for conservation since the drought of the early 1990s. If the panel approves the $1.6 million package – and it probably will in some form – residents will likely hear a lot more about water conservation.

TV, radio, print, online and outdoor ads will be rolled out starting in May, and many of them will incorporate the theme of “Save it or lose it.” The water authority expects to get a boost for its public service message by securing extra promotional spots and discounts worth nearly $1 million.

“We have to get (residents') attention – let them know there is an urgent need,” said Yen Tu, chairwoman of the water authority's conservation committee.


The county water authority hopes a major awareness campaign will be more effective than the “20-Gallon Challenge,” the low-profile push that it unveiled in June. The goal of that effort – which relied mainly on free media, such as mentions in news stories – was to have each resident reduce water use by about 10 percent.

The water authority has set a new conservation goal that's not likely to be reached without an advertising blitz.

Its 24 retail member agencies aim to save 56,000 acre-feet of water this year
Note that SDCWA uses about 700,000 acre-feet (AF). That means that their "set a new conservation goal" is lower than their old one. Also note their use of FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) techniques in the ads -- "use it or lose it" -- that they have apparently borrowed from the Bush administration. Can you pleeeeeese treat us like adults -- especially when we will not lose it?

SDCWA is spending $1.6 million, which is just over $2/AF. Given 320,000 gallons/AF, that's about, uh, nothing per AF of additional cost. So, I can see that the ad campaign is certainly cheap. What I want to know is if it is cost effective. Their old campaign did nothing to keep consumption from rising, after all.

Wait, why not raise prices? If SDCWA increased its prices or (better yet) charged farmers the same as homeowners, water use would fall. People understand that higher prices mean that demand is "stronger" than supply.

(This article notes that California's gas consumption fell, year on year, which is almost unheard of. Instead of rising at the "normal" 2 percent rate, it fell by 1-2 percent.)

If gas demand can fall, water demand can certainly fall. First, there are the farmers who pay less than cities (holding quality equal); second, there is the problem that most people do not even consider how much water they use ("too cheap to meter").

With higher prices, demand would fall. "Profits" could be rebated on a per-capita basis (an idea I love) -- rewarding water misers with cheaper or free water and making water wasters pay through the nose.

How much should prices rise? Given that a 14% increase was only $2/month, I'll be bold: 200-500 percent price increases. Those increases would shift paradigms and lead to an entirely new perspective on water. If it's precious, maybe we should treat it that way.

Bottom Line: We will only use less water if we think about how much we are using. Advertising "use less" is far less-effective than sending a strong price signal.

1 comment:

DW said...

Wonder how much they could save it if CWA and its member agencies used that same money to install water conservation measures in customer homes and businesses?

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