Conservation psychology on tap at local water district

The Olivenhain Municipal Water District faces a state mandate to slash water use by 32 percent. One way it aims to meet that demand: psychology.

Cal State San Marcos, in partnership with the water district, is conducting a study analyzing the effectiveness of different conservation messages.

Most households in the district are receiving door hangers asking for a commitment to abide by the drought restrictions, while others are getting hangers that simply state the watering limitations.

Dr. Wesley Schultz, a social psychologist at CSUSM, said past research has shown such pledges can reduce water consumption.

“When a person makes a commitment there’s a strong tendency for them to follow through on that, as opposed to just receiving information, and not doing anything actively to support it,” Schultz said.

Many of the studies in conservation psychology have looked at curbside recycling. In non-recycling households, recycling increased substantially for those who made a commitment, according to research.

The CSUSM study projects water use will drop by an additional 10 percent at the “commitment households” when compared to the homes receiving only a list of restrictions. To gauge whether this comes to pass, researchers will analyze the two groups’ water use, going back two years and then up to a year from now.

Schultz is among a number of experts who employ psychology to convince people to conserve water and other natural resources.

“There’s around 30 years of research on this topic, because as water availability ebbs and flows, utility companies become more or less interested,” Schultz said. And interest is certainly high right now given the severity of the drought, he added.

Once the study wraps up, the Olivenhain water district will have valuable input on how to tailor its drought messaging, including mailings, fliers and online communications.

“What we’re looking at is how to best communicate with people about the drought, water restrictions and the importance of conservation,” Schultz said. He added the study will be published to help improve other water districts’ outreach.

In May, the district’s board approved $48,191 to fund the study. Initial results will be presented to the board sometime in the fall.

Joey Randall, customer services manager with the Olivenhain water district, said the study is part of the district’s plan to achieve the 32 percent drop. Beyond that, the hope is that it sparks long-term behavioral changes, he added.

The State Water Control Board in May mandated that water agencies meet reduction figures, or they could be hit with steep fines. In response, the district stepped up enforcement of drought rules, such as the prohibition on watering landscaping more than two days per week.

“We’d rather garner compliance through education,” Randall said.

Along similar lines, instead of focusing on potential penalties, Randall said the study’s messaging is all about positive reinforcement.

“It’s the philosophy behind our messaging, meaning we really are trying to promote positive reinforcement that people as a team, as a whole, as a society, are moving toward conservation,” Randall said.

This isn’t the first time the district has turned to CSUSM researchers to figure out what motivates people to conserve. In 2009, 100 families in the district took part in a study that found receiving real-time feedback on water use leads people to cut back.

Schultz said given the findings, more water districts might want to consider investing in “smart meters,” which allow customers to closely monitor their water use.

From the district’s perspective, the 2009 study’s behavior-based approach reduced water use among the highest water users in the study by 11 percent. In light of the statewide regulations and the need to conserve, the district reached out to the university again.

The Olivenhain district includes 20,000 households and covers the eastern half of Encinitas, parts of Carlsbad, Elfin Forest and 4S Ranch.

Christine Jaeger, a graduate student at CSUSM, handed out door hangers with an intern team the morning of July 22 in Carlsbad.

“The main idea is that the message is structured in such a way that it’s not just a pile of information,” said Jaeger, who will evaluate and report project results. “It’s information that’s obtainable — things that people can put into practice.”