Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

Media’s Failure to Report on Water – Good or Bad?

Even in our dry, drought-prone realm, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper with a reporter assigned solely to the water beat.

That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,

 When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:

I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.

To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.

This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.

First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters.  Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.

And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?

We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants!  Drought and  hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!

Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.

In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.

But you would see much more of  sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill!  Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.

 

Are Water Agencies About to Drown in Positive Polling?

A recent survey conducted by the Municipal Water District of Orange County found that 93 percent of the 500 respondents feel Orange County’s water supply is somewhat reliable or very reliable.  That’s big news to us in the business of influencing public behavior, because a similar question asked in the agency’s 2008 survey found that only 27 percent felt OC had a reliable supply.

So can us communicators take credit for the nearly four-fold jump in public perception?  After all, our water supply is just as reliable today (or unreliable depending how you look at it) than it was three years ago.  We humbly say, “not so fast.”

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Water Weekly 3: Mixed Messages

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every week, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

Good Judge/Bad Judge

This week we saw one brilliant judge and one judge who obviously is suffering from Marin-think-itis.  Let’s start with Judge Lynn Duryee of Marin Superior Court, who shot down the Marin Municipal Water District’s desal plant EIR with this gem: “Conservation costs nothing.” Yeah, but does it provide enough water for your county, Lynn, ol’ gal? We don’t think so… not that it matters if you get to bang a gavel.  Then there was good ol’ Judge Wanger who was spot-on in deciding the longstanding Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority v. Interior case, declaring if it falls in California, it’s California’s water, Bub, not your water.

Catch Marin-think-itis through this newspaper account

Or, if you must, read Duryee’s entire decision

Here’s an account of Judge Wanger’s un-wrangling of Tahoma-Colusa

Heck, this decision even hit the big time in Iowa!

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Water Weekly 3: Pesky, Pesky, Pesky Water News

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every week, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

Pesky Smelt Insist on Procreating

The smelt-counters in the Delta are finding about twice as many of the little fishies this year, compared to last. Some attribute it to “smelt protections” – even though the State Water Project is pumping five times more water than in early 2010. More likely it’s high water levels and the turbidity that comes with more, faster-flowing water. That’s great news because if the feds accept the smelt’s love of muddy water, using the location of turbid water as an indicator should allow higher pumping volumes.

Here’s the story from the Sacramento Press (more…)

“Turn Off the Water When You Brush” Just Ain’t Enough

All around California, updated Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) are appearing, as required by state law.  Here’s the lead of a news story that ‘s typical of many we’ve seen in the last few weeks:

LAKEWOOD – The city is reminding residents to stop watering sidewalks and conserve water for outdoor irrigation in an effort to meet the state’s 2020 goal of 20percent water reduction.

Conservation was part of the message at Tuesday night’s City Council’s meeting, where the council approved the Urban Water Management Plan Update 2010.

The updated plan is required every five years by the state and includes plans for water supply, water shortage contingencies and achieving the state’s goal of 20percent reduction in water use by 2020.

Of necessity, the “20 by 2020″ water conservation goal (and its companion “15 by 2015″ goal) from 2009′s epochal water legislation is at the core of all new UWMPs, and it seems the plans’ authors have rounded up the usual suspects when discussing how they’ll achieve those goals:  Incentives, seeking funding for new conservation-oriented programs, education and outreach.

To which we say, great, nice start, and good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

It’s not that those sorts of efforts haven’t proven effective. They have. We know because we’ve helped many districts communicate programs like that.  It’s just that more will be needed. As the headline says, alluding to the most famous of the old way of promoting conservation, “Turn of the water when you brush” just ain’t enough.  Not enough people will listen, fewer still will change their habits, and even if they did, not enough water will be saved.

Let’s get more aggressive

We’ve been thinking about new ways to attain the sorts of water savings that will have to be achieved to keep water providers out of the penalty box when 2015 and 2020 roll around. They include:

  • Re-think the water bill - We’re most excited about the missed communication opportunities on water bills, especially ebills.  Bills are the one document customers read regularly, but they’re a confusing mess and a messaging nightmare. We’re developing some great new ideas – let’s set up a meeting with your billing service.
  • Coalesce and conquer - Ever heard of an advertising coop? It’s when a bunch of businesses, like the individual car dealers in an auto mall, join forces to buy more ads than they could ever buy on their own. We have developed ideas and themes that a “communication coop” of several water providers in a region could mutually hit a home run with.  Who’s going to step up to the plate?
  • Water budget based rates – Yes, this is a really big idea and you’d have to start  now to get them in place in time to get some years under your belt before the deadlines hit. So get started – and let us help you manage a successful Prop 218 campaign, as we’ve done for many water providers. In district after district, the penalty rates for excessive water use have educated customers more about what constitutes an efficient level of water use than a blizzard of statement-stuffers ever could.
  • Expanded programs - The new money that comes from those penalty rates can fund an unprecedented level of conservation outreach, including rebates, audits, consults and new communications tools … like the new bills we want to help you develop.

Unlike much of what comes out of Sacramento, California actually needs the 20 by 2020 goals the Legislature set for us.  Of course, the Legislature didn’t give you the tools or money to go along with the mandate, so it’s going to take a real commitment and really creative thinking to meet the goals. Let’s talk.

It’s a Wet La Nina

This chart shows rainfall as of 8 p.m. yesterday at the Costa Mesa measuring station. The dotted red line is the long-term seasonal average, and the blue line represents season-to-date rainfall for the 2010-2011 rain year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.  As you can see, we’re already just three-quarters of an inch behind the average rainfall for an entire year – and it’s only December … and it’s still raining.

It’s obvious that we’re in the midst of a “wet La Nina” year, which leads us to many ponderings.

First, why do reporters insist on thinking La Nina years will be dry and El Nino years will be wet? That’s a trend, for sure, but if there’s one thing any reporter should know, it’s to ask questions and not assume trends will repeat themselves.  A modicum of research would show plenty of precedents for years that went the other way.

Second, we always wonder about the effect of wet years on California’s heated water politics.

Since the water bond was proposed in 2009, we’ve now had two years of relief from drought.  That means very little in the larger picture, especially since we still have reservoirs to refill (including Lake Mead, which recently dropped to its lowest elevation since Hoover Dam was built), but people tend to be more willing to spend money on water supply when the well’s running dry.

Will the wet winter make it harder to pass the bond if it returns to the ballot in 2012?  We realize that the state’s fiscal condition will be more important than rainfall levels in most people’s minds, but wet winters certainly won’t make the campaign any easier.  Still, the messages in support have the advantage of being true:  A wet year is an aberration; we have to plan as if we were going to have dry years. Supporting construction of an new, sustainability-based water infrastructure for the State isn’t just necessary, it’s the environmentally right and economically right thing to do.

Third, as a public affairs firm here in Southern California that has written probably at least ten thousand words promoting water conservation, we worry that this wet December will cause people to get sloppy about their water use.  To them we say, striving for efficiency in your water use is something that should become a lifestyle commitment, something you do without thinking because it’s important for the health and well-being of our society.

Lastly, I have to admit I’ve also been thinking about the bozos who installed our landscaping at our home.  Our undersized and poorly placed drain pipes allow water to seep in around the side door of our garage whenever it rains like this – and last night, as I stood barefoot in the cold water, sweeping it down the sidewalk towards the driveway and the rain gutter, I admit the thoughts I was thinking about those landscapers weren’t exactly alive with the Christmas spirit!

Live Better Magazine Quotes Laer on Water

When Live Better Magazine’s contributing editor Randy Goble was looking for an expert to quote on water issues in California, he turned to Laer, and here’s what he got:

Civilizations have historically developed near ample fresh water supplies. However, modern economic affluence has enabled cities to grow where there’s plenty of sunshine but little water – requiring costly long-distance water diversion. Even diversions from ample supplies are constrained by infrastructure capacity or drought in the supplying watershed, which leaves no choice but to reduce per capita consumption.

“Total water consumption in Los Angeles has not changed in the past 10 to 20 years despite continued population growth,” explains Laer Pearce of Laer Pearce & Associates, consultant to public and private sector organizations. This is due largely to effective conservation programs that include creative public awareness campaigns and rebates that cover some or all of the cost of plumbing fixture upgrades.

With an average annual rainfall of about 15 inches in Los Angeles (L.A.), compared to 50 inches in Atlanta, it’s clear that the U.S.’ most heavily populated area has a serious water constraint. Oddly, L.A. water and sewer rates are half the amount charged in Atlanta, even though Los Angeles has experienced a persistent drought for many years. Pearce explains that pricing difference could be due to the efficiency of L.A. water treatment facilities or opposing schools of thought on pricing, or both. According to Pearce, “Historically, people have felt that water should be free, and that the only charge should be for its treatment and conveyance, but emerging pricing strategies are based on market value or forced conservation through rate penalties for over-use.”

Live Better Magazine is published by the Center for a Better Life, whose mission is to “build consumer and business advocacy for, and public and private involvement with, all aspects of sustainability by enhancing and shaping public understanding of its importance.”  We were all for sustainability back when it was called stewardship, so more power to the Center.

Randy, who practices sustainability by being VP, Marketing & Canadian Regional Manager at Falcon Waterfree Technologies, met up with Laer through LP&A’s “Water Conservation Professionals” group on LinkedIn.

Negative Messages Create Skeptics

Doom-and-gloom emotional messages that paint pictures of the sky falling or the earth burning don’t work well when you are trying to change public opinion.  That’s what a new study by two Berkeley professors found when they studied the impacts of fact-based vs. emotion-based global warming messages.

The professors had one group of subjects read stories that began with facts, but ended with apocalyptic warnings, while the other half read positive stories that focused on solving problems.  Those who read the positive stories were less skeptical than the group exposed to doom-and-gloom messaging.

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LP&A Creates New LinkedIn Group for Water Policy Professionals

Thanks to Laer Pearce & Associates, professionals that work with water policy around the world now have a LinkedIn group where they can discuss topics related to helping set and navigate water policy.  The Water Policy Professionals group encourages members to discuss legislation, communication strategies, regulations, incentives and news regarding policy on water supply, quality and pricing.  It will also include job postings and other networking functions.

Laer set up the group because he believes idea-sharing and open communications can help to find consensus on highly contentious issues – or at least move the discussion forward instead of having it bog down in rhetoric wars.

The group is a sister to LP&A’s other LinkedIn group, Water Conservation Professionals, which has 513 members. Seven people joined Water Policy Professionals in its first 30 minutes.

LP&A has been working on water-related issues for more than 20 years and is actively involved in helping to set policy for water issues on local, regional and state-wide levels.  We currently serve four water and wastewater agencies and CalDesal, a nonprofit advocating for pro-desalination policies and regulation in California.