Californians have been asked to cut back their water use since last year, but June marked the first month under the mandatory conservation mandate. Now the numbers are in, and the news was good: statewide we exceeded our goal.
While meeting the mandate is likely on the top of the minds for water managers, most Californians don’t know the details of what is being required of them. It’s not a straightforward cut: each urban water agency has a different conservation target, ranging from 4-36%, depending on a number of factors. While most agencies successfully met their June targets, many will need to conserve more.
The July PPIC Statewide survey found that only 30% of adults know the amount they are being asked to conserve. And it turns out whether you are a homeowner or a renter plays a significant role in your awareness. Notably, homeowners (44%) are more than twice as likely as renters (18%) to report knowing the amount of conservation required. On the other hand, of those who are aware of their conservation target, about half of homeowners and renters (53% each) say it is the right amount. We also find that while solid majorities across both groups say their local water supply is a big problem, homeowners (77%) are much more likely than renters (60%) to hold this view.
In general, renters are less connected to their water use. They often do not pay the water bill, so they may not know how much water they use, and they lack financial incentives to conserve. In addition, renters use less water. Renters are often not responsible for outdoor watering, which accounts for more than half of water use in cities and suburbs. During this drought, state and local agencies have focused more of their effort on reducing outdoor watering, but renters’ water conservation must come mainly from indoor behavior. Since renters make up about 45% of California’s households, this is not a group of water users to ignore as the drought continues.
The more people know about how much water they use, the more likely they are to conserve. Renters often live in multi-unit buildings with one main meter to record the entire building’s use, making it very difficult to parse out how much water is used by individual units. Requiring sub-metering on new multi-unit buildings may help reduce future water use, but it is an expensive investment that won’t result in significant reductions in the short-term.
Infiltrating renters’ awareness and reducing their water use will require different incentives and education efforts—especially since renters are much less likely to follow news about the drought. For example, water agencies should expand public outreach campaigns focused on indoor use and feature them in urban areas with high renter populations. Renters should be encouraged to check for leaks in their toilets and request that their landlords perform leak-checks on the rest of the property. Landlords should also be encouraged to take advantage of available rebates to upgrade to efficient appliances, toilets, and shower heads. There may be more that most homeowners can do to reduce water use, but as a large portion of the population, renters can also play a role in getting us closer to our goals. The drought provides an opportunity to change perceptions of this scarce resource by all Californians.