4 Apr 2018

Reducing local government water waste (part 2 of 3)

This post contains some of the interesting elements from a report I prepared for a client who never put the information into public circulation. I am posting it here in the hope that it's useful to readers. [Read Part 1][Read Part 3]

A drinking water provider (DWP) delivers potable drinking water to residential, commercial, industrial, institutional and/or government users.

This solution addresses use by local government (abbreviated LG) by focusing on actions LG can take to reduce water waste within its own operations (e.g., inside LG offices and outside at LG-run parks). Another solution focuses on use by the remaining four groups (abbreviated RESCOM).

Some of these actions appear in the RESCOM solution (e.g., install and use water meters), but others are unique to LG, which operates in a bureaucratic environment where staff are motivated more by professional image than price signals.

This solution will therefore consider actions that motivate LG workers from two perspectives. Those that rely on “intrinsic motivation” work because workers decide they prefer to reduce water waste, even if they incur personal costs. Those that rely on “extrinsic motivation” work because they push workers to reduce water waste as a means of avoiding less attractive alternatives. As examples, compare “educational awareness” to “budgetary discipline.” The former can reduce waste because workers aware of scarcity will decide to use less water, even if nobody is looking; the latter can reduce waste because water use reduces the budget available for other activities.

Most solutions should be organized around business units (BUs, such as schools, parks, police, administration, et al.) in recognition of their separate administrative, personnel and budgetary functions. “Benchmark competition” will improve performance, but such competition should be organized – and incentivized – within each BU (e.g., school A versus school B).

The relative effectiveness of policies described here depends on local conditions. Implementation of multiple policies should result in greater cumulative savings (i.e., positive reinforcement).

Effectiveness should be evaluated based on the cost per unit of demand reduction or water saved. Some policies will have “negative costs,” i.e., they reduce water consumption by ending inefficient spending. Other actions may not recover initial spending for years, but such long payback periods are not unusual. Cost-recovery for water infrastructure is measured in decades. This solution’s impacts will arrive in the short term (reduced water consumption and improved reliability) and long term (lower infrastructure spending).

Why save water?

Cities facing water stress (or scarcity) must find ways to increase supply or reduce demand if they are to avoid shortages that reduce economic activity, impair local ecosystems and threaten citizens’ quality of life. In many cases, it is legally, politically or environmentally difficult to increase water supplies, so it is necessary to reduce demand.

The policies discussed here can reduce water use by small or large quantities, depending on local conditions. The largest reductions usually result from patching leaks; smaller reductions result from changes in habits of behavior. In all cases, it is necessary for LG to budget adequate time and money for measuring, implementing, coordinating, and reporting results. Salvador, Bahia, for example just reported on a five year effort to reduce water use at governmental facilities that involved changes in fixtures, changes in operating norms, and extensive reporting. Those efforts reduced water use by enough to lower the government’s monthly bills by 31 percent

It is important to note that conservation does not always result in LG budget savings. In some cases, LGs do not pay for DWP water because the (municipal) DWP is a division of the LG. In other cases, LG may need to spend money (e.g., repairing leaks or installing low consumption appliances) before it can save water and reduce bills. There may also be a disconnect between saving water and saving money, as when water is priced below its cost of delivery or (usually much higher) cost of replacement.

The timely implementation of this solution will make it easier to implement other, related, solutions. DWP and RESCOM are much more likely to monitor and reduce water waste when LG establishes a benchmark for good behavior. They are less likely to take conservation seriously when LG has green lawns, leaking toilets and bubbling fountains.

Long-term benefits of solutions
  • Improved social and economic indicators for mortality, morbidity, and productivity
  • Improved social cohesion and cooperation by ensuring service to all the “public”
  • Attracting new residents and businesses through reliable water services
  • Decreased pressure on water resources and related political tensions
  • Improved ecosystem health and ecosystem services.
  • Decreased or postponed capital investments in water-supply infrastructure
  • Improved awareness and responsiveness to climate change
Short-term benefits of solutions
  • Improved reliability and quality of DWP services
  • Improved DWP financial sustainability
  • Decreased water consumption
  • Lower capital spending and expansion-related system disruptions
  • Decreased energy consumption linked to lower water use
  • Decreased greenhouse gas emissions linked to lower energy consumption
Indicators of results
  • Water production at treatment plant, in m3/day
  • Water consumption by LG (total and by BU), in m3/day
  • Median change in year-on-year consumption by BU, in percent
  • LG payments to DWP, as a percentage of total DWP income
Local government roles
  • Planner, policy maker and regulator of own use
  • Operator of municipal facilities (ignored here and delegated to DWP)
  • Role-model for RESCOM
Integrated solutions involve enabling, required and multiplier actions that, respectively, enable a solution to be discussed, are required for a solution to work, and multiply the impacts of a solution. There is far too much detail in my original report to include here, but these can be, for example, creating BU working groups to coordinate actions and learning among BUs (enabled); establishing targets for BUs and “benchmark” their progress against each other (required); and monitoring the financial health of BUs and DWP to ensure that water savings do not destabilize finance (multiplier).

Necessary preconditions
  • DWPs are either investor-owned, autonomous public corporations, or part of municipal government. No matter the DWP’s organizational form, it will be regulated as a public utility with a “natural monopoly” on water services.
  • Local government has some level of control over DWP. Although it is possible to encourage people to use less without any control or coordination with DWP, such a message may be nullified if DWP benefits from “wasteful” use (i.e., higher revenue) or faces no penalty for depleting reserves that may be useful later.
  • The water supply network provides safe water services that satisfy the basic needs of people in the community. This solution does not apply if basic services are not available.
  • DWP must have billing and accounting systems, system meters, staff for outreach, accounting and engineering, and so on. An underfunded, understaffed, or underqualified DWP cannot focus on reducing water use without first establishing the minimum infrastructure necessary to serve customers
Success factors
  • Adequate funding, staffing and time
  • Political support for action (i.e., acknowledgement of water waste)
  • Willingness to experiment, learn and reiterate
  • Choice of technology, techniques and regulatory-price mix suitable for local conditions rather than outside imposition of “best practices”
Barriers to results
  • Opposition from (potentially overworked) staff who do not want to be inconvenienced by water saving actions or rhetoric.
  • Regulations (from any government levels) that prevent water conservation (i.e., regulations inconsistent with conservation.
  • Opposition from BUs accustomed to large volumes of “free” water (e.g., parks and recreation)
  • Lack of staffing or budget for planning and implementing water use reports.
  • Power battles among LG, DWP and BUs over responsibilities, payments, etc.
  • Risk is related to fear of change, and staff who fear change may block solution rather than cooperate. The “hidden” nature of water makes it easier for people to hide their opposition (e.g., “emergencies” prevent training, leak detection/repair, etc.)
  • Water price increases may unwind long-standing subsidies to BUs, thereby raising the cost of service to citizens. BUs that absorb these costs make it harder for citizens to experience the cost of their (indirect) water use at the same time as it may threaten other budgeted responsibilities.
  • Decreases in consumption may drop revenue and destabilize DWP finances
  • Introduction of incentives to use less water may be opposed by staff who feel that existing services are inadequate (i.e., “we should not lose service quality to help another BU, the environment or customers”).
  • BUs will oppose or ignore conservation programs if they (1) do not believe that baseline use (or rights) has been fairly allocated or (2) BUs are unevenly rewarded or punished for progress (or lack thereof).
  • Actions requiring extra budget allocations may not be approved.

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