Bursting the dams: Where can we rethink water conservation?

Bursting the dams: Where can we rethink water conservation?

Water is scarce in Chennai, India, where Madhan Sundaram, product manager for Fiveworx, Shelton Group’s new affiliated digital startup, grew up. “If you had a bucket of water,” he recounts, “that’s what you had, and you made do. In the U.S., we take things for granted.”

We haven’t always, though. Cisterns, for instance, used to be quite common. Often located underneath the house or the porch, cisterns were the collection point for rainwater streaming off the roof and though the gutters. The stored water was used for bathing, laundry and agricultural purposes. A friend of mine tells family stories set in a house with a cistern, built in 1892 in the Cape Code area.

Most Americans either never think about water or think of it as a problem that exists across the ocean somewhere. Here, under “normal” circumstances that are becoming less of the norm, it’s largely an invisible issue.

Necessity, however, is slowly starting to raise awareness of water in the U.S., especially out West. Tools and techniques for water collection and reuse are being “re-discovered” by a wide range of people, from those who still remember saving water (along with everything else) during the Depression, to their urbanite grandchildren.

There’s a lot that individuals and businesses can do to conserve water – water-efficient plumbing fixtures, changes in  habits, rain barrels, cisterns and a variety of landscape features, like native plants, rain gardens, permeable pavement and many others.

But there are significant barriers to even the relatively simple solutions: awareness, regulation and cultural norms. Breaking through these barriers offers a plethora of opportunities for almost as many types of organizations and companies. It will require partnerships on the national, regional and local level.

Only if they come can you build it.

Barrier #1: Awareness. How do you get consumers (and/or your own organization) thinking about conserving water and acting appropriately?

Making water an integral part of your sustainability story, a part that’s visible and builds connections, will be helpful. And financial incentives for water-saving products or services will cause a lot of ears to perk up, even if they don’t take you up on your offers.

Making water visible is a primary way to start raising awareness levels – not just that water is a resource in need of conservation, but that water is a threatened resource requiring immediate action.

But when rain barrels are against the law …

Barrier #2: Regulations. Out West, in particular, there’s historical precedent for not saving water. Old water rights policies need to be re-examined and adapted to new needs and visions. This is an issue where the public, government and business can collaborate and create change together.  Disagreement over water rights can quickly get intense. When people learn that they can’t store the rain that falls on their property because it takes away from the watershed, there is often lively dialogue.

Even in other regions, fights over water are becoming more common. Georgia and Alabama’s bickering over the Coosa River, which flows through my hometown, turned more serious during drought conditions a few years ago. But the focus centered on both states getting what they thought they needed, not on lasting change in how we use water. For most people, the issue got distilled into a couple of short-term nuisances: brown lawns and low lake levels that negatively affected pleasure boating. What a missed opportunity!

And when they’re outlawed by your HOA …

Barrier #3: Cultural norms. We’re accustomed to green grassy lawns. In fact, many homeowner associations ban water conserving practices like xeriscaping (low-water landscaping) or installing rain barrels or cisterns. Texas recently passed a bill taking away the power of HOAs to ban some water conservation methods.

Las Vegas, as I wrote about early in the summer, wisely approached HOAs and educated members in order to help make the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Water Smart turf rebate program a success.

Creating relationships with groups like homeowner and neighborhood associations is a major opportunity to change cultural norms and expand the market for water conservation products, services and designs.

If you have ideas to help break down these barriers, we’d love to hear from you. We’re ready to make water visible before waste and weather disruption make it disappear.


Posted on

September 16, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.