Calif. Officials Debate How To Get Residents To Cut Water Use

How do you make people conserve water? Officials in California are asking that question, as the state enacts unprecedented water-use restrictions during the severe drought.

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In California, residents are being urged to conserve water as the state suffers from a historic drought. But a new report says the state's water use has actually gone up over the last year. California enacted statewide water restrictions this week. Those include fines of up to $500 a day. Now, to find out what actually gets people to cut their water use, NPR's Sam Sanders hit the streets of L.A.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Rick Silva has just pulled up on a violator.

RICK SILVA: Hey, I'm with LADWP. Did you know there was an ordinance and there's watering restrictions?

SANDERS: Silva is water conservation specialist for L.A.'s Department of Water and Power or DWP. Think of him as a water cop. He's having a talk with gardener Ricardo Diaz.

SILVA: Do you come once a week or something?

RICARDO DIAZ: Yeah, I come once.

SILVA: Do you have to have the water on right now or something?

DIAZ: No, right now I just saw the lawn that was kind of dry.

SILVA: Oh, you're just getting the brown spot.

DIAZ: Yeah, I was getting the dry spot.

SILVA: It's a coverage problem, probably.

SANDERS: Silva's been doing this for a while, and he likes it.

SILVA: Water conservation, probably, for the last 10 years or so - and I do like it 'cause it's a positive thing that you can pass on information - help people save water - help them save money, too.

SANDERS: Silva is one of only four full-time water cops for a city of almost 4 million people. There are two part-timers, and the city plans to hire three more. By comparison, Los Angeles has 570 full-time parking enforcement officers. Jim McDaniel is a senior assistant general manager at LADWP. And he says those numbers are just fine.

JIM MCDANIEL: I look at it as - not parking, but I think of it as kind of, like, people running red lights and stuff. You don't need to have a police officer at every stoplight to make people not run red lights. You know, have enough people out there so that people know - yeah, there are people watching, but we just know what the right thing to do is.

SANDERS: McDaniel says that of L.A.'s $30 million water conservation budget, only three percent is spent on enforcement. Eighty-five percent goes toward incentive programs.

MCDANIEL: Rebates for plumbing fixtures, high-efficiency toilets, free low-flow shower heads - We have very generous rebates for low water use appliances. We're actually paying people $3 a square foot to take out their lawns.

SANDERS: A lot of care - a little stick. Is that good?

ALISON LEDGERWOOD: Spending the least on enforcement makes sense to me. I don't know that spending a lot more would do much better.

SANDERS: That's Alison Ledgerwood, a psychologist who studies social influence at the University of California, Davis. Ledgerwood says punishment really only works if it does several things.

LEDGERWOOD: Punishment works if you have a bunch of conditions in place, including people are pretty sure they would get caught. The punishment has to be consistently applied. It has to be perceived as fair. And the punishment has to be strong enough to deter the behavior.

SANDERS: In a city as big as L.A., doing all of that would be tough. And LA's current incentive-heavy approach is working. The DWP says LA's water use has gone down by 17 percent over the last three years. Hilda Blanco directs the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Southern California. She says the city is doing well, but it could do more through social pressure.

HILDA BLANCO: The nudge approach.

SANDERS: Blanco points to Atlanta. In the late '90s, that city began sending water bills that showed more than just your own water use.

BLANCO: It said your own total consumption was so much, your neighbor's average consumption was this much, and finally, you consume more water than let's say 73 percent of your neighbors.

SANDERS: That tactic cut water use by almost five percent. L.A. hasn't tried something like that yet. But their existing restrictions are already more strict than the new ones the state put in place this week. Even so, Rick Silva, the water cop, is just going to give the gardener he caught a flier.

SILVA: And this will let you know the watering days that they should be watering because it's different for even and odd-numbered addresses. Hand-watering is allowed any day.

SANDERS: No fine until he's caught three times. Soon, L.A. will distribute door hangers for people to post on their neighbor's houses when they see them violating water rules - a different kind of social pressure, shame. Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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