How Water Conservation Education Reduced Residential Water Usage

Thompson, R., & Serna, V. F. (2016). Empirical evidence in support of a research-informed water conservation education program. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 15, 30 - 44.

As the urban populations grow and climate change contributes to periodic droughts, cities increasingly need to examine how to ensure their residents safe, reliable sources of water. Water conservation education is one way cities may choose to encourage residents to conserve water. In this study, the authors examine whether a water conservation education program (WCEP) that educated schoolchildren and homeowners reduced residential water use.

Theories suggest that working with children can have a lifelong impact, and that hands-on learning can help people remember information longer. In addition to teaching people how to do a behavior, asking them to commit to that behavior may help improve the chances that they actually do the action. The authors applied Fishbein's model of predicting behavior to the WCEP, which states that behavior is likely to change when an individual has made a commitment to change, has the skills need to enact the change, and factors preventing change have been removed. The WCEP in this study followed Fishbein's model by working with local students, giving them commitment cards, linking water conservation to existing skills (such as turning off faucets instead of leaving them on while using them), and creating a classroom norm of water conservation therefore removing the factors of unawareness of the problem and any pressures of being the only student to know or talk about water conservation. The authors believed that through an idea known as “intergenerational transfer,” the participant children may teach their parents about what they had learned in school and help the whole family conserve water at home.

The WCEP took place in schools and homes in Dallas, Texas. The WCEP had two primary methods of educating residents: informational doorhangers to houses (targeted marketing) in some areas and reoccurring lessons on water conservation in local K-12 schools. Each lesson lasted 45-50 minutes and included a hands-on science activity focused on empowering the student to make a change and understand water conservation. One of the zip codes received both the targeted marketing and the lessons, and the other only received the lessons.

Two years after the WCEP, the researchers acquired the participating households' average monthly water usage data in the participating two zip codes. They then compared residential water usage in the homes of those two zip codes with that of a third zip code. Because the three zip codes were located near each other, the price of water and rainfall are relatively similar over the years of the study, and populations of all three groups are comparable.

The data supported Fishbein's model and indicated that the WCEP was effective in changing behavior to reduce water usage. Of the three groups, the two zip codes that participated in the WCEP reduced their water usage, and the zip code that did not participate did not significantly reduce water usage. The group that received both the in-school lessons and doorhangers decreased water use by 2.17% over the years, and the group that only received the in-school lessons reduced water usage even more, by 2.92%. These findings support the idea that children are bringing home what they learn, teaching their parents, and changing behavior for the whole household.

Water usage in all single-family homes was collected in each zip code, which may have included homes without children who participated in the in-school lessons. While this still measured the impact of the WCEP, results are more dilute because it included water usage of those who may not have participated in the WCEP.

Given the success of the WCEP, the authors recommended implementing similar educational programs in other cities that empower students and encourage them to teach their parents how to conserve water. The authors believe similar programs would be successful in many locations, regardless of city size.

The Bottom Line

<p>As cities grow and the climate changes, promoting water conservation is critical in order to have enough water to meet the needs of residents. This study showed that a water conservation education program in Dallas, Texas, that distributed informational doorhangers and taught water conservation lessons in schools was directly linked to a decrease in household water usage. Key components of the program included teaching skills to reduce water consumption, asking students to complete commitment cards, and encouraging them to share this information with their families. The authors recommend that additional locations undertake similar programs to teach residents how to conserve water.</p>

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