Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Turn off that sprinkler! … pretty please …

Lawn    Will the American public accept a new level of environmental regulation of their home lives?  At the Public Interest Environmental Conference at the University of Florida last week, one of the most interesting talks was given by Dr. Pierce Jones of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who offered compelling scientific evidence that could support a ban on lawn irrigation in a state such as Florida.  Like California, Florida has experienced a population boom over the past half-century, a growth in natural uses for water, and a recent drought, all of which have placed nearly impossible demands on the drinking water supply. In both states, water shortages are causing local governments to deny applications for new residential developments.  But unlike in California, where agriculture soaks up most of the water, in many Florida counties it is residential use that takes a disproportionate share.  For many Florida households, watering the grass (which otherwise would wilt in the intense sun and sandy soils, despite decent rainfall) drains as much water as all indoor uses.  Replacing grass with less thirsty plants and landscaping could save colossal amounts of precious water.  It all makes sense. 
    So where are the politicians arguing for compulsory restrictions?  As the nation ponders drastic steps such as a carbon tax and huge subsidies for fuel-efficient cars, why doesn’t government put serious pressure on citizens to take simple but effective steps such as using a programmable thermostat or pulling out their lawn irrigation systems?  It is because politicians in most places know that the bulk of citizens still aren’t ready for government to tell them how to live their lives at home, even for steps that seem both reasonable and socially responsible? 

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Denver and most of metropolitan Denver had lawn watering restrictions, xeriscaping (i.e. low water use plant) incentives, and other water use carrots and sticks during its most recent drought. Later years had mere voluntary watering restrictions. The residential restrictions were governed when you could water and during what hours you could do so, but not how much you could water. These restrictions supported by P.R. campaigns from Denver water had wide public support somewhat akin to public support for compliance with WWII rationing regimes, and voluntary recycling campaigns.

The result was not just a dramatic reduction in water use during the drought (about half of residential use in the arid West is from lawn watering and golf courses are another major water use). Water useage remained much lower after the restrictions were lifted and water use declined further when mere PR campaigns and voluntarily restrictions were put in place afterwards.

Notably, this major change in public behavior was not strongly price driven. Denver Water is a government owned utility with a mandate to operate at close to the cost of providing water. The useage portion of the water bill for an urban household for a month is on the order of $20-$40 depending mostly upon lot size which impacts lawn watering needs, so even big cuts and costly landscaping changes generate few monetary savings for the households involved.

What happened was that attitudes towards water use, social norms about how green your lawn should be, and behavior patterns changed in a lasting way.

There are monetary incentives in Colorado that impact residential water use, but they are mostly in rapidly developing suburbs. In Douglas County, an exurb south of Denver that is among the most rapidly growing in the nation, declining ground water aquifers have led to very high tap fees from the water utility for new residential units (in some cases tens of thousands of dollars with limited supplies available). Similarly, in Mesa County, Colorado, home to Grand Junction, Colorado, water utilities, in practice, have more impact on development than municipal zoning regulations, and tap fees for new developments cost in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Apr 2, 2009 1:19:55 PM