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Testing the Waters: Factors that Influence Water Conservation and Efficiency in the Santa Clara Valley Water District

Connie Huynh
Conor McFadden
Stefan Norgaard
Hector Santa Cruz
Wendy Sov
Santa Clara Valley Water District


Faced with severe drought and one of the state’s fastest growing regions, Santa Clara County (SCC) must devise a set of strategies to meet future water demand. One of these strategies is to ensure that water is used in a more efficient way through conservation and efficiency measures. For the past few decades, SCC’s sole water wholesaler, Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD), has been actively working with their thirteen independent water retailers to encourage water conservation. In collaboration with SCVWD, our team conducted a comprehensive evaluation of their water conservation and efficiency programs to arrive at a set of recommendations to meet their long-term conservation goals.

This study explored the following research questions:

·  What factors influence water conservation and efficiency in SCVWD?

·  What have been trends in program participation by retailer over the last twenty years?

·  Which programs are most cost-effective, have the largest per capita impact on water use, and can best be scaled to reach large segments of the district customer base?

·  What recommendations emerge from this study to best improve water conservation and efficiency in the future?

We evaluated ten of SCVWD’s conservation programs to determine participation across thirteen retailers, identify trends in water savings, and evaluate each program by cost-effectiveness, impact, and scale. We created a ranking system based on current and potential savings. From our retailer analysis, we found that smaller and medium sized retailers in SCVWD perform better than larger metropolitan retailers when it comes to proportion of community engagement.

As part of our study, we compared residential, commercial, and landscape programs using the following criteria: cost-effectiveness, impact, and scale. We found that the Residential Showerhead program has been the most cost-effective program. For impact, our data indicates that the Residential Clothes Washers excels. Of the SCVWD’s residential programs, the Residential High Efficiency Toilet (HET) program has the most potential to be scaled; currently only 2.55% of District residents have participated in this program. Overall, the best three district programs are the Residential Showerhead, Residential High Efficiency Toilet, and Residential Clothes Washer programs, in that order.

We also conducted a best practices analysis by observing the systems in place for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), and East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD). We found that, like SCVWD, peer water district wholesalers like SFPUC, MWDOC, and EBMUD have innovative water-savings programs that both holistically engage their respective populations and create cultures of water conservation and efficiency. Geographic and demographic factors make direct comparisons with peer water districts difficult at best, but from our research, we learned that all three observed benefits from the automated water meter systems that track household water savings and provide households tailored suggestions to reduce water use.

Our team advanced two alternatives, “expanding the tent” and “changing social norms,” as the two most palatable interventions in the short and long term.

1.     “Expanding the tent” is a strategy of reaching out to specific demographic groups and locales, which have comparatively low rates of participation and engagement around water conservation and efficiency. As more SCC citizens participate, retailers can develop economies of scale and more cost-effectively run passive and active programs. “Expanding the tent” naturally increases programs’ impact, as participation rates increase across the district. While programs might lose their potential for scale as more residents participate, the proportion of the population engaged increases.

2.     “Changing Social Norms” can help cultivate to a community of expectations around active participation in water conservation and efficiency. Such norms will allow greater participation in rebates and incentive programs regardless of the cost. They will also lead to higher impact numbers across the board as citizens engage due to a common understanding of the importance of water use. Much like in “Expanding the tent,” changing social norms will lead to an increase in the proportion of SCC households reached.

Alternative efforts such as “expanding the tent” and “changing social norms” will complement the tremendous work of Santa Clara Valley Water District.  As population continues to increase in Silicon Valley, water conservation and efficiency programs must similarly grow to reach new demographics and change behavior in new ways.   

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