What happens when governments ask the public to report water waste?
Rainfall has been low, the mountain snowpack is thin, and Californians are bracing for another year of scarcity. But this time we've got a raft of data from the historic 2014-2017 emergency to inform drought management in 2021.*
As the drought ravaged California in 2014, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued several orders restricting discretionary outdoor water use like lawn watering and car washing. A revival of these restrictions may be coming this summer, so it’s useful to look at their implementation during the last drought.
If you see something, say something
As with any regulation, enforcement of water use restrictions requires monitoring--after all, you can't enforce a rule if you don't know who is breaking it. Water management agencies sometimes use inspections or patrols to spot violations. Citizen participation can augment agencies’ monitoring capacity, and so often governments invite the general public to join in the effort. Public management researchers call this implementation strategy participatory surveillance.
Participatory surveillance became part of the Golden State’s water conservation regulatory regime during the 2014-2017 drought, as state and local agencies provided telephone hotlines and websites for the public to report water waste anonymously. California communities responded with gusto: over the 32-month emergency, water utilities logged more than 485,000 water waste reports. In a new Water Resources Research paper, Youlang Zhang, David Switzer, and I analyzed water waste reporting across 408 water systems during the 2014-2017 emergency—with important implications for 2021 and beyond.
What kinds of communities get the most water waste reports?
We marshaled a variety of data to explore the factors correlated with water waste reporting, measured as monthly reports per thousand population. Unsurprisingly, the drought severity and the strictness of local water restrictions were among the strongest predictors of complaints: as the drought worsened and restrictions tightened, reports of water waste increased. But our analysis also identified significant social, institutional, and political correlates of reporting.
Education. Water waste reports correlated positively with the share of a community’s population with a college degree—even after adjusting for income, poverty, and racial/ethnic composition. A more educated public, it seems, generates more water waste complaints:
Institutional structure. A clear ordered relationship between utility ownership/organization and water waste reports emerged in the data: all else equal, municipal utilities got the most participation, followed by special districts, with investor-owned utilities getting the lowest participation:
We think that these disparities mainly have to do with familiarity. Municipalities are in most situations far more visible to the public than special district governments and investor-owned systems, and so garner greater media attention and citizen participation.
Party competition. We expected higher voter turnout to correlate with greater water waste reporting, but our analysis didn’t find any significant relationship between the two. However, we found that the composition of the local electorate predicted participatory surveillance in a surprising way: water waste reporting was higher in communities where the electorate was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
We measured partisan competition as one minus the local difference between registered Democrats and Republicans, divided by total registered voters.** Are hardcore partisans tattling on their opposition party neighbors? Maybe, but we suspect that heightened party competition simply indicates a more civically engaged public.
Does water waste reporting lead to greater conservation?
We also analyzed the correlation between water waste complaints and conservation outcomes, using the SWRCB’s official measure of conservation (current water use compared with the same month in pre-drought 2013). Yes, waste complaints positively correlated with subsequent water conservation. Substantively, one more complaint per thousand persons predicts a 0.56% increase in monthly water conservation. This effect is small in percentage terms, but represents a great deal of water in a state as big as California: one more complaint per thousand persons per month for each utility would have resulted in 32 billion gallons more water saved during the emergency—enough supply San Francisco for 16 months.
So is participatory surveillance a good idea for water utilities?
With the data on hand we can’t say for sure that participatory surveillance caused the conservation we see. But the results are consistent with the idea that public engagement expands monitoring capacity and suggests that participatory surveillance can enhance the effectiveness of urban water restrictions. More generally, inviting the public to report maintenance or water quality problems could be a useful way to put more “eyes on the street” and help water utilities perform better.
But it’s also clear that participatory surveillance is a social phenomenon, so water waste reporting is likely to work better in some places than others. Authorities looking to manage drought in California and elsewhere should bear in mind that demographic, institutional, and political contexts can condition the effects of public reporting strategies.
In deputizing the masses, participatory surveillance also changes relationships between citizens, and so could deepen social divisions when people report each other for breaking the rules. Whether the promise of participatory surveillance as a way to strengthen water restrictions justifies its possibly divisive social side-effects is a harder, more fundamental question.
**If a utility service area was entirely dominated by one party (i.e., 100% of registrations), then the value of the party competition index would be zero. If the area was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (50% Dem, 50% GOP), the value of this party competition index would be one.
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Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Connecticut AWWA’s annual conference. There I shared a the stage with a team from Providence Water, who told the story of their city’s struggles with lead contamination in drinking water. One of the most surprising things about Providence’s experience is the way that its customers apparently responded to the Flint water crisis.
Lead in Providence
Lead contamination in drinking water is a long-standing problem in Providence. Like many older American cities, Providence has many buildings with lead plumbing. As in Flint, Providence’s water system requires careful corrosion control in its treatment process to limit the release of lead into the drinking water supply. Lead contamination has been detected consistently in Providence’s water system since testing began in 1992—usually hovering just below EPA’s action level of 15 ppb—but it spiked to 30 ppb in 2009 and again in 2013, prompting increased regulatory scrutiny.* According to last week’s presentation, at least one Providence test site yielded lead contamination greater than 200 ppb—far higher than the levels that sparked outrage in Flint. Unlike Flint, where leaders denied and obfuscated lead contamination, Providence has publicly acknowledged and taken steps to address the issue: they’ve changed maintenance protocols and treatment methods, and introduced programs to replace lead service lines in its system.
As part of that effort, in 2014 Providence Water began offering drinking water lead testing for $10 to any customer who wanted it (earlier this year they started offering testing for free). In providing this service the utility also gathers valuable data on its own system. Initial participation in this voluntary testing regime was moderate, with an average of 4.7 customers requesting testing each month over the first two years of the program.
Then something unexpected happened in 2016: Participation in Providence’s lead testing program skyrocketed—after the Flint Water Crisis grabbed national headlines. Water contamination in Flint made Americans everywhere reconsider what comes out of their own taps. The figure below plots monthly voluntary lead testing in Providence from 2014-2017 (blue line); the utility mails its testing brochure in the May/June billing cycle, and so testing jumps in June and July each year.** The graph also shows monthly average Google News Index for coverage of the lead crisis in Flint (red line). Providence Water’s own lead contamination issues emerged in 2009, but when Flint put drinking water into the national spotlight in 2016, Providence citizens took action locally.
Are the people of Providence responding to events in Flint? It’s impossible to be certain, but the circumstantial evidence is strongly suggestive. A lead crisis 700 miles away apparently caused a 400% increase in lead testing participation by focusing Rhode Islanders’ attention on the contamination that they’d been living with for decades.
The water crisis in Flint is the Cuyahoga River fire of our generation: an event that thrust a widespread but underappreciated problem into the national consciousness. Political scientists call these focusing events: harmful, high-profile occurrences that suddenly put previously obscure issues onto the public policy agenda. One important consequence of the newfound attention to drinking water quality is that citizens everywhere think differently about their own utilities and drinking water. They may not deserve it, but utilities everywhere must now grapple with the Flint Water Crisis’ awful legacy. The effects of the Flint Water Crisis on the people of Providence, Rhode Island show such events afar can transform citizens’ interactions with their own local governments.
*No level of lead is healthy according to the CDC, especially for young children.
**Thanks to Providence Water for providing these data.