The Saving Water Partnership

March 1, 2009

What does it take to get the attention of the public when it comes to water conservation?

Flushing ping pong balls and potatoes down WaterSense-labeled toilets in front of television crews is one way of doing it.

And it’s one of many ways that the Seattle, WA-based Saving Water Partnership has utilized to persuade regional residents and businesses to reduce water consumption even as the area’s population continues to steadily grow.

Since 1990, water consumption has declined 26%, while the population has increased 16%. On a per-person basis, current water consumption has shrunk one-third, from 150 gallons per person per day to less than 100 gallons per person per day. For its efforts, the EPA recently named the Saving Water Partnership its 2007 Promotional Partner of the Year. The utility was among the first in the country to promote WaterSense products.

Seattle Public Utilities is a wholesale water provider to Seattle residents, as well as to 17 other water utility districts and cities outside of the city limits and within metropolitan King County. At the time contractual arrangements were set up, wholesale customers opted to have Seattle administer conservation programs on their behalf and pay through their rates, says Al Dietemann, acting research conservation manager for Seattle’s water utility.

The agreement brings about economy of scale and minimizes confusion among area residents with respect to media messages. “Our regional messages over the airwaves and media cover so many jurisdictions, you end up with a patchwork quilt of customers confused about whether their utilities are involved in a rebate or incentive program,” says Dietemann. “It makes it a lot smoother for the customer.”

While in other parts of the country water conservation may be strongly driven by drought, it’s not a lack of rain that plagues the Northwest or motivates residents to conserve water. Rather, it’s competing interests for available water underscoring their concern. “We get rain here all of the time in the Northwest, but we have periods–particularly during summer months–when we don’t get very much rainfall at all,” points out Dietemann.

“We also have an historic development of competing water uses in western Washington,” he adds. “The biggest has to do with protection of fisheries and the tribes. We have a number of tribal agreements and agreements with regulatory agencies–mostly state and federal fishery agencies–regarding how much water needs to remain in the rivers for the protection of fish and other aquatic life.”

While water resources are shared equitably over the normal water cycle, Seattle Public Utilities must store a great deal of water in its reservoirs during the winter and spring months so there’s enough available for people during the summer. In the late fall, more water is released from the water supply reservoirs than is supplied to people for resource protection and salmon propagation.

“Salmon come up the streams in the fall to spawn, and they need adequate water to be able to do that, so by conserving water in the region, we can stretch the available supplies we have and meet our regulatory and tribal requirements without impacting those resources,” says Dietemann.

“The fundamental reason why we have conservation programs in the Northwest is that we recognize the supply of high-quality drinking water isn’t unlimited here, and we need to share it with a variety of other users,” he adds.

Dietmann also comments that there was very little resistance to the idea of water conservation. “A few folks questioned whether this was the right approach, but the cost of developing new high-quality drinking water sources in our area is quite expensive,” he says. “We did a fairly detailed analysis for elected officials looking at the cost and potential for conservation in terms of the ability to save water and ranked that against the cost of various new water supply alternatives. Conservation came out to be a “˜slam-dunk’ as the lowest-costing new source of supply.”

Dietemann says Seattle Public Utilities tries to avoid the use of the word “alternative” with reference to water supplies, “because that connotates we’ll never need a new supply source. We call it a parallel planning process, which basically keeps our options open for developing new sources, such as preparing design plans and land options for a traditional wet water supply source, but not actually proceeding with construction or major development of that alternative while we invest heavily in conservation to have some confidence that we can in fact save water.”

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been very successful in reducing our demands,” continues Dietemann. “We”˜ve proven that conservation can be obtained at a relatively low cost, compared with a new supply development.”

There are 1.4 million people in Seattle Public Utilities’ service region, a number that has been steadily growing by 1% a year. “We labeled our regional water efficiency program as a “˜One Percent Conservation Program,'” says Dietemann. “Originally, that sounded like a good idea because the idea was that we would save as much water each year as our demand would increase, so there would be no net increase in demand for our regional system despite growth in population.”

“In retrospect, I wish I had called it the “˜Ten Percent Program,’ because 1% doesn’t sound very exciting to most people,” he adds. “It sounds too easy. But if you look at any large utility–whether it be electric, garbage, or whatever is facing a continually growing customer base–to just hold demand constant is a pretty big accomplishment. We are actually doing better than that. We are reducing demand.”

The program has four components: Conserve Inside, Conserve Outside, Conserve at Work, and Education. “We found over time that people seem to relate a little better to those categories,” says Dietemann. “We’ve experimented with quite a few different categories, and these are the ones that seemed to resonate best for people.”

In the indoor component, rebates are offered for WaterSense toilets and clothes washers. A number of tips help customers save water elsewhere indoors. “Indoor revolves around behaviors and domestic activities, such as the use of urinals, toilets, dishwashers, clothes washers, and brushing their teeth,” he says. “That’s typically where most people have an opportunity to save water, whether they are in an apartment or a house.”

The outdoor component focuses on irrigation and landscape design. “We find the public is not necessarily motivated per se by a water conservation message relative to their landscape,” adds Dietemann. “Most people think of their lawns and gardens in a more comprehensive way in terms of plant materials, maintenance, and the landscape’s attractiveness.”

The program transcends that by outlining best practices that include building good soil, selecting proper plant materials, and watering wisely. That becomes more relevant than merely discussing how to save water in the yard, Dietemann says. “A lot of people equate water efficiency with water sacrifice and equate dead or brown landscapes as not attractive, so it’s a turn-off for a lot of people if you just tell them to use less water.”

The outdoor component features a comprehensive list of tips, including how to be a “salmon-friendly” gardener whose practices will have positive effects on the salmon population. In surveys, customers indicate they use water efficiently “even though they are putting on twice as much water on their landscape as their plants really need,” says Dietemann. “They don’t realize they are over-watering, and if they don’t see runoffs they assume the plants are using the water, even if it is percolating down below the root level.

“The outdoor efforts are geared at encouraging people to think more comprehensively about their landscape maintenance practices in general, including lawn chemicals and pesticides, as well as thinking about building healthy soil with plenty of compost that can hold more water and allow the roots to grow to a healthy depth where they are not so dependent on daily watering,” he adds.

The work component of the Saving Water Partnership focuses on getting workers to think about how they use water at work “so if people see water wasted there, they are apt to try to deal with it,” says Dietemann.

Additionally, the program provides substantial incentives up to 50% of the installed cost of a measure to upgrade facilities for greater efficiency. “Our commercial program has probably been the most successful in terms of the lowest cost per gallon of water saved of any of our programs,” he says. “That’s because, historically, there’s been a lack of attention to water efficiency among many of the commercial businesses.”

For most businesses, water is a tiny percentage of overall operating costs, especially compared to labor. “Businesses focus on those things they can get their biggest return for on their investment and time,” states Dietemann. “When you talk water, you have to have a project that has a relatively rapid return on the investment. Generally, most businesses are looking for a two-year return on the investment before they even consider it, because they have a lot of other places where they could put their money and get a better rate of return on it.”

That makes it challenging to stimulate businesses to upgrade their facilities and equipment, Dietemann says. “But we’ve been relatively successful,” he adds.

The Saving Water Partnership has partnered with the local Chamber of Commerce and also has a business outreach group, Resource Venture, a marketing arm reaching out to the business community through workshops and networking.

“We gave up years ago doing what most utilities are currently doing, which is an audit where they call their customers and offer to come out and give a few suggestions on how to save water,” says Dietemann. “We started doing that 15 years ago and rapidly gave up on that strategy. Most customers would have us come out, but the tips we gave people generally weren’t followed.”

What does work is working from the top down with the financial officers and upper management of business, alerting them to opportunities, and having them direct their staff to produce more effective alternative designs. “When we put on the table 50% of the total cost of an upgrade, that gets a lot more attention than just having the utility person come out and look around their facility,” notes Dietemann. “That’s how we leverage our resources to stimulate the business community to step forward.”

The work category–and water efficiency opportunities–also extends to large universities, institutions such as hospitals and city, state, and government properties. The education component the program addresses is the “foundation pillar for all water efficiency,” says Dietemann.

The agency’s Web site serves as a key source of information. “These days, a lot of people are using the Internet as an educational tool, so by having a good Web site, and having good and complete information that people can find and understand, helps to educate and push them in the right direction,” he says.

Yet, “nobody’s going to do anything unless they’re convinced it’s the right thing for them to be doing,” adds Dietemann. While utilities are strong on focusing on the “how” message, they are not as focused on the “why” message, he explains.

“People say, “˜I know how to save water, but I’m not going to do it,'” he says. “They’re not motivated strongly enough for the “˜why,’ so that becomes a challenge. If you ask them why they are not doing it, you get a variety of reasons. But it becomes pretty clear most of them are not strongly motivated or feel it is important enough for them to take actions.”

Many societal changes start with the youth, and Seattle Public Utilities recognizes that through its youth education program. The best approach–not only with youth, but also with most other people–combines messages regarding climate change, recycling, and water efficiency as an “environmental green message,” says Dietemann.

“If you just talk about water conservation and isolate all of the other environmental issues, sometimes it doesn’t click for people,” he adds. “But if they see it as one part of something they can do that would make a difference to the overall environment, it clicks better for folks.”

The Saving Water Partnership made one of the first efforts of any large utility to link consumers’ water consumption with responses they offer on surveys. “Most utilities have done surveys of their customers over time, but to actually look at how people responded and how their consumption patterns differ was a new effort and a lot of work,” says Dietemann.

“People have said they took certain actions, or upgraded their irrigation system, or bought a new clothes washer–how did that relate to their actual water use?” he continues. “Were we able to track individual measures people said they were taking against their actual consumption patterns? Through this, you get an understanding of one of the more effective measures people are doing that saves more water.”

Clever public education campaigns have attracted attention. Through surveys, the Saving Water Partnership discovered that among the sources customers consult for information, they prefer their main source of information to be a plumber or plumbing supply house rather than the utility. “If as a utility we want to promote water efficiency and get people to think about upgrading to a higher-efficiency toilet, does it make sense for the utility to talk to the customer, or go to the plumbers and suppliers of those fixtures and make sure they are well-educated about efficiency options, so they can inform customers?” points out Dietemann.

The Saving Water Partnership set out to educate those throughout the plumbing supply chain. “If we get those people educated about water efficiency, we get them to be ambassadors and promote water efficiency, and we’re going to be so much further ahead than if we just send out a utility flyer urging our customers to think about changing their toilet,” says Dietemann. “Not that we don’t do that, but it is not as effective.”

The Saving Water Partnership hosted two events: one for the plumbing industry and the other for the media. In the first event, the organization set up a variety of demonstration WaterSense toilets, including dual- and single-flush. The line-up included toilets most commonly recommended and installed by plumbers and several WaterSense models, including toilets by American Standard, Caroma, Crane, Duravit, Foremost, Gerber, Kohler, and TOTO.

“We encouraged plumbers to flush whatever they wanted, to satisfy themselves that the WaterSense toilets worked a little better than the toilets they were currently recommending to their customers,” says Dietemann.

The plumbers flushed ping-pong balls, potatoes, and wadded-up paper. To the plumbers’ surprise, the demonstration proved that the WaterSense toilets performed better. Manufacturers were on hand to answer questions about selection and installation. The media event was dubbed “The Flush Off,” and directed at getting local TV and radio station coverage. The demonstration was the same as it was for the plumbers, but it was done in front of the media cameras.

“People come home from work, flip on the evening news, and here’s a guy demonstrating how a WaterSense toilet flushes as well or better than a standard toilet model,” says Dietemann. “That’s trying to create demand on the customer level where the customer is going to ask their plumber or plumbing supply house about the toilets.”

The Saving Water Partnership’s water savings numbers can be an eye-opener for other utilities throughout the country. Dietemann has fielded calls from utility managers nationwide, asking how they can duplicate the organization’s results. “I encourage people not to benchmark Seattle’s accomplishments against their utilities and geographic areas,” he says. “It’s not easy to compare per capita consumption among different utilities, because we have different demographics, different weather patterns, and different exterior irrigation use. Rather, the utility has to look at its per capita consumption over time to get a better measure of whether there is good progress being made.”

Dietemann does offer advice on three facets of his utility’s program that can be modeled in other areas:

  1. Rates. Dietemann suggests utilities convey rate information to customers and the steps they can take to change their bills. “Bills are what everyone thinks about, not rates,” he says.
    Many utilities don’t link water consumption to sewer use. “They have a water rate, but the amount of cost the customers pay on the wastewater side is not directly tied to that,” says Dietemann. “In Seattle, we bill our wastewater on how much water we put in use, so they get a combined price. In our jurisdiction, sewer costs are more expensive per unit than water costs. If they put in an efficient toilet, they not only save off their water bill, they save off their sewer bill. They save a lot more money than they would if they were just saving off their water bill alone.”
  2. Education. “I find many utilities have not surveyed their customers on water efficiency–they don’t know their customers’ opinions, what motivates them, what would motivate them, and they don’t know what turns them off,” says Dietemann. “Utilities need to understand their own customers. They need to gather as much information as they can and see what works and what doesn’t work in their own jurisdictions. A media or a program message might work well in Seattle where we are a very environmentally-conscious community, but it may not work worth a darn in areas of the country where those issues are not of paramount concern to most customers.”
  3. Incentives and rebates. “Most people are motivated through incentives and rebates from a variety of water efficiency measures,” says Dietemann. The Saving Water Partnership’s Web site lists a number of incentives and rebates for customers, but customers who don’t find anything suitable can suggest their own ideas. “We have a customer incentive rebate where we pay up to $10 a gallon per day saved for anything people can come up with that can save water and is cost-effective through our qualifications,” says Dietemann. “A lot of people come up with new ideas.” Such programs are a stepping-stone process whereby when customers try one measure and successfully save water, they’re more willing to try another, he says.
    One of the most popular Saving Water Partnership rebate programs is the Wash Wise program that offers up to $100 rebates for the purchase of high-efficiency clothes washers. “We build on that by sending each customer opportunities to save in other areas with their rebate checks,” says Dietemann.
    Most customers step up and participate in another incentive. “It’s a building block, and that’s an important element utilities need to understand,” he says. “It’s not just one thing in isolation–it’s the cumulative understanding so people are motivated.”

How the $4-million program is funded is another question Dietemann often fields. Of that, 80% is derived through capital debt through the sale of long-term bonds to promote water efficiency. “A lot of utilities are shocked when I tell them that, because they say their financial officer would never let them do that,” says Dietemann. “That’s because they haven’t presented it in a way that makes sense.”

For example, the Saving Water Partnership does not fund education or behavior components through the capital improvement program, “because those measures can’t be quantified, and nobody would ever give you a loan on education programs,” says Dietemann. “But on a piece of hardware such as a cooling tower upgrade where you’re putting in a higher-efficiency cooling tower–that’s a piece of capital equipment a bank may give you a loan for.

“Capital equipment has a value,” he adds. “If you install that measure, and it is maintained properly, you are going to get savings for at least the next 20 years, so that is a bankable, quantifiable savings for a utility investment over time. Likewise, if you drilled an additional well for your water system and invested in that and the maintenance operation of that, it lasts 20 years, too.”

Traditionally, utilities have been “very willing” to capitalize a new well, but not willing to capitalize a new cooling tower for customers, Dietemann says. “Yet savings might be similar if you do things in multiple cooling towers. The idea is you capitalize the conservation program because what you are really going to do is save water for the benefit of future customers. The current ratepayer benefits some, but it’s really the future ratepayer who is going to benefit, so it makes a lot more sense to capitalize that program and let future ratepayers pay most of the burden of the cost of that current upgrade.”

“If you try to do it through operating revenues, you are saying all current customers need to pay now for future customers, and that isn’t right,” says Dietemann. “That’s why when you capitalize a new reservoir, pipeline, or well system, you try to spread those costs over time to a larger base of ratepayers in the future.”

That’s why Seattle Public Utilities capitalizes equipment and hardware to which it can attach a long-term, useful life cycle, Dietemann says.

Political support also is key. “Our elected officials have a greater confidence that we will produce long-term, reliable savings by changing out equipment and hardware,” he says. “With behavior, a lot of people think that in a couple of years people will go back to their old water-wasting ways, and we will have wasted our education and media money.”

That may be true, Dietemann agrees. “That’s why you have to continue to maintain behavior programs, just like everybody who sells products continues to advertise and keep their name out there for folks. We don’t believe those long-term savings are as dependable as the hardware savings are unless it’s continually reinforced with people.”

Some utilities may not be keen on the idea of conservation because of the potential for reduced revenue generation. “That goes to how you’re setting up your rates and if you have a good understanding of what future rates are going to be without conservation,” says Dietemann. “A lot of folks believe if they do conservation, they’re going to reduce revenues, and it’s going to be a hardship.”

Instead, they should compare rates between cultures of conservation and no conservation, he adds. “Sometimes that is a little difficult for a lot of finance people to do, but it takes some guts and fortitude to be able to tell people their bills are going to be lower in the future if the utility invests in conservation than if the utility does not,” says Dietemann.

Dietemann understands the reticence. “Certainly with the current economy, people are looking to how they can reduce their bills on a variety of things,” he says. “It is a very difficult time for utilities in particular, because at a time when customers are looking for advice, information, and more efficiency, typically, water efficiency for many utilities is at the lower level of priority in terms of operations.”

Utilities hitting hard times are more likely to cut back on non-mandated efforts, including water efficiency, says Dietemann. “That’s at a time when your customers actually have increased interest in that very subject,” he says. “The challenge right now is how to maintain good customer service and continue to provide good water efficiency information during times of challenging budgets.”

There are those who question how long the Saving Water Partnership can maintain its efforts. While Dietemann concedes that there may come in time in the long term where the region will find itself “at the end of the road,” for now, a current analysis shows the region can continue to save an additional 30 million gallons per day of water–another 20% to 25% of its supply–over the next 15 to 20 years.

“We are looking at horizons well beyond 2030 before we would need to develop a new source of supply by continuing to invest in water efficiency and conservation,” says Dietemann. “It’s an accepted reality in our area that we’ve been successful with our programs, and we anticipate we will continue to be successful over the next decade or two.”

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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