An East Bay MUD conservation program has cut water use by comparing customers with their neighbors. (Craig Miller/KQED)
An East Bay MUD conservation program has cut water use by comparing customers with their neighbors. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The record dry weather means California water districts are ramping up conservation programs.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District is encouraging some of its customers to use less by having them compete with their neighbors.

About 10,000 EBMUD customers have been getting personalized reports in the mail over the past year, summarizing their water use and comparing it to the consumption of similar households in the area.

“It puts it into a context,” says Richard Harris, water conservation manager at EBMUD. “Like: for similar households with three-to-four people and with a [property] lot of this size in this zip code, this is how you compare. It creates an awareness of a benchmark.”

The comparison is done anonymously – no neighbors are outed by name — but Harris says the small dose of peer pressure seems to work. An independent review of the program found customers who got the information cut their water use by five percent.

Click to enlarge - example of WaterSmart's statements for EBMUD customers.
Click to enlarge – example of WaterSmart’s statements for EBMUD customers.

“We were targeting two percent,” says Harris. “So five percent is a pretty good savings rate. Compare that to conservation incentives where you’re enticing someone to buy something. If you can do it through behavioral science, it’s much more cost-effective.”

The reports also make personalized recommendations for conservation measures. EBMUD found that customers getting the peer reports were twice as likely to participate in conservation programs, compared to other average customers.

The pilot program was run by San Francisco start-up WaterSmart Software. It’s similar to what companies like Opower have done with electricity consumption through “social norms” programs.

“Peer pressure turns out to be the major motivator in changing behavior,” says WaterSmart Software CEO Peter Yolles. “Eight of ten people are more likely to change behavior based on social comparison than they are through saving money or saving the environment.”

Yolles says in these programs, about one-third of the reduction in water consumption comes from home retrofits, like low-flow faucets or toilets. Two-thirds comes from behavioral changes, like shifting outdoor watering habits. WaterSmart is also working on projects in Davis and Newport Beach.

“It’s new in my perspective and it’s gaining some traction,” says Harris.

Water districts are looking for new conservation techniques in light of California’s plan to cut per-capita water use 20 percent statewide by 2020 – and because of the current drought. 2013 was the driest year on record in California.

“We’re all feeling that,” says Harris. “As we get through the spring, we’ll see what happens in February and March. If it stays dry, we’ll likely have to enhance conservation measures and we’ll know then if we have to take additional actions.”

EBMUD is currently considering expanding the pilot program to more customers.

Want to Save Water? Try Some Neighborly Competition 15 January,2014Lauren Sommer


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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