A conversation about conservation

'Climate change is about water change. And water change affects everyone'
DENVER WATER

Conservation is always a meaningful conversation, but in times of drought it becomes one that is urgent and essential. Denver Water Assistant Director of Public Affairs Melissa Essex Elliott recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Jamie Eichenberger to talk about the success of the agency’s long-term, consistent messaging about conservation to ensure that clean, safe, reliable water is available not just today, but 50 and 100 years into the future.

Why is conservation such an important strategy for surviving climate change and ensuring water supplies for the long term?

It is important to understand that climate change is a long-term issue. At Denver Water, we look ahead on a 50-year planning horizon, so it's not like we're just planning for tomorrow. Conservation, if you do it right, it's for the long term not just drought response for this year.

In a recent board meeting, we were talking about California's drought. One of the things that our CEO Jim Lochhead said to our board is that we have definitely learned that you have to do conservation messaging constantly. Whether it's a good water year or a bad water year, you have to continue to talk to your customers and get that message across that they need to be efficient no matter what.

When you factor in all those uncertainties, Denver Water does pursue an all-in approach and conservation is certainly a huge part of that. But we also utilize recycled water and we're developing new water supplies because we want to make sure that our customers have clean, safe, reliable water not just today, but 50 and 100 years into the future.  In our area, when we look at theoretical models, it is uncertain what effect warming will have on precipitation and our water supply. So we just need to plan that our snowpack isn't going to last as long in the future, and that we're going to have drier conditions and more extreme weather events.

Most likely there's going to be different demands for water than we see today. We certainly expect our community to become denser. It's a great place to live, people want to be here, so it’s likely that we'll have more people here in the future and they'll need water.

Climate change is about water change. And water change affects everyone. 

Metro Denver’s water use dipped to a 40-year low in 2014. What were the main factors that contributed to this achievement?

We've been promoting conservation for a long time, but one thing that I have observed is that our customers really do lead us in this. We don't have to drag them kicking and screaming into conservation and water efficiency. We're fortunate that in our service area, people are connected to their environment and they care. Valuing water as a resource is a message that resonates with them.

We've actually been doing conservation advertising and messaging since the 1920s. We have old photos of trolleys in Denver that say, "Water is Denver's greatest natural asset. Please don't waste it."  We're looking at almost 100 years of promoting conservation.

What makes us so successful now is not only that our customers lead us, but we have conservation programs that are so broad that they touch every type of customer we have. We haven't just focused on a commercial customer base. If you're in our service area, we have a program that fits you whether that's education, an incentive-based program, or rebates. And then we have operating rules in place too. You have to talk about this with customers all the time. You can't hit it hard one year and then forget about it for a couple of years. Water conservation has to be part of the lifestyle in Denver.

I would also give a lot of credit to our board of directors at Denver Water. We have a mayor-appointed board and the members were put in place with the understanding that they need to push conservation at Denver Water, that conservation and water efficiency will be a big part of our future. They make sure that we're on track.

What was the genesis of Denver Water's "Use Only What You Need" campaign?

In the 2002–04 drought, we started to do some stronger conservation advertising because of the severity of the situation. That worked well and coming out of the drought we had a goal to reduce water usage by 22 percent over the next 50 years. But the board of directors raised the bar and challenged us to develop a plan to reach that goal in 10 years. We felt like the drought was the great motivator for our customers. It was so tangible. They could feel the effects of the drought and it was in the news all the time. But when that drought went away, we needed to continue with a campaign that made sense and resonated with people.

We tested some other messaging at that time. The term "conservation" is not exactly something that people embrace. It tends to leave people feeling like they have to use less than they want or they have to sacrifice. We didn't want people to feel that way. We wanted them to feel good about what they were doing. When you say, "Use Only What You Need," that really resonates. We did some testing with that message and found that people liked it. We launched that campaign in 2006 and it has been with us for about 10 years.

The latest ad campaign is "Don’t Be That Guy” and last year it was "Use Even Less.” Where will the message evolve from here?

We're getting ready to launch the 2015 campaign. This is the 10th anniversary of the "Use Only What You Need" campaign, so you'll see a little bit of a change from that. We're moving into something that we feel is more in line with our Denver Water brand and the message this year is going to be, "You Can't Make This Stuff. So Please Use Only What You Need."

You mentioned the goal of 22 percent water use reduction in 10 years. Are you going to be able to meet that?

Yes, we've exceeded it so far and that's good. When you look at the numbers, water usage is closely tied to weather in any given service area. We've hardly had any water usage this spring because it's been so wet here. Right now, we look awesome. Of course, it could be hot and dry later in the summer. From one year to the next, the numbers change. We feel like we will reach the 22 percent goal by 2016. We're hoping to keep going and push it over the top with our customers. But we have to look back five or six years to make sure that this is a permanent change with our customers. It's looking very favorable, though.

How does Denver Water’s long-term water supply planning fit into the new One Water way of thinking?

Our long-term planning definitely includes water efficiency both in our use and our sources. And that fits into the Integrated Water Management concept. We believe that water from all sources can be managed efficiently and cooperatively to meet our economic, social and environmental needs. The benefits of efficiency are that we have fewer negative impacts on the environment and we have a reduced need to draw on natural resources, like energy for pumping and treatment. That leads to lower long-term costs.

But an increase in efficiency can also include new forms of municipal reuse. We use recycled water in our service area for irrigation and some industrial purposes now. It's about maximum efficiency across all sectors of water use and all regions of the state. We really feel like water use and water source efficiencies work together to create a more resilient water system. That needs to be done with multiple redundancies that can absorb system fluctuations easily.

Any plans for expanding the non-potable reuse system or potable reuse?

I think that's something a lot of water utilities in our region are thinking about. The drought in California has everyone thinking about how to squeeze every drop of water and how we can be more responsible and efficient with our water use. It’s something we'll definitely look at in the future. We're always on the lookout for what we can bring to our customers to maximize the value of our water.

What’s next for Denver Water in terms of increasing efficiency of water usage?

Efficiency is the key. We'd like to get away from talking about conservation and focus more on efficiency.

A major part of that is planning for efficient development. As we're seeing a growing number of people move into our service area, we want that development to be efficient right from the start. We spend a lot of time and resources fixing things that could have been made efficient from the beginning. We'd like to work with developers as new housing and facilities are being built to make sure that they are water efficient from the start.

Knowing more about our customers is also something that we're focusing on. We have started a group that does customer-based geographic information system (GIS) work and that helps a lot with our conservation and efficiency efforts. Just knowing who our customers are and whether they're being naughty or nice with their water use can help us target our programs to them directly.

We're also piloting Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) in our service area. We do automated meter reading now, but AMI could really take us to the next level in knowing how our customers use water, when they use water, leak detection, all of that. We're piloting that on some large commercial properties now to see how we can move that forward.

And, of course, there is the issue of rate structures and tailoring those to efficient use. Denver Water is in the middle of a rate structure study and we hope to wrap it up by the end of the year. There's definitely an interest by some of our stakeholders in moving toward more individualized rate structures, recognizing that customers use water in different ways. Also recognizing that when droughts occur, we want to be able to identify which customers are using water inefficiently so we can get to them first rather than taking a sledgehammer approach and making everyone reduce their use by the same percentage. That's what the main tool was in past droughts, but with technology and innovative ways to look at customer efficiency, we can be a lot more selective in the future.  

Is Denver Water also trying to focus on water efficiency by addressing non-revenue water, leaking pipes and unmetered connections?

Absolutely. In the past, the way utilities have looked at that is as a percentage and that’s how we look at it. When you look at it as a percentage, our non-revenue water is quite low. Recently, we're trying to take a more holistic approach to identifying exactly what that non-revenue water is and where it's coming from. We have a crew that specializes in leak detection and our asset management team is definitely focused on making sure that we don't have breaks that could have been prevented.

Of course, our meter management is a big part of that, too. Making sure we're billing where we need to be billing and that our meters operating efficiently and accurately. We feel confident because our system is not quite as old as some other systems and we've invested a lot in our infrastructure maintenance.

How much interaction do you have with other utilities with regard to talking about best practices and sharing information?

A lot. We're fortunate that our program is well-recognized and our staff is asked a lot about what we do.

The WaterSmart Innovations Conference is a big information exchange and the AWWA conference is a big information exchange for us as well. But on a regional level, we like to think we're leaders and with that comes responsibility to present our findings and be involved in research and sharing so we can all grow.

What form of messaging media do you use to reach the customer base that you're trying to appeal to?

While our advertising campaign is wonderful at promoting awareness, it isn't specific to a customer’s property or how they use water. In certain parts of our service area, we have identified customers that are highly inefficient irrigators. These are primarily single-family homes. We have a metric that indicates whether they're inefficient based on their landscape type and how much water they're using outdoors. Those customers receive monthly letters from us that basically say, in a nice way, "Hey, you may not be aware but you're using X and we really thing you ought to be using Y. And Y is a lot less than X, so we're here to help you. If want to call us and talk about this, that'd be great. But here are some water-efficiency tips."

The fascinating thing is that we thought we'd have a lot of people call us to have us come out and check their systems, but very few people have called. But we have found that when they get that letter, they actually will just change their water usage without us having to come out to their property. For the cost of mailing letters and doing data analysis, we're seeing at least a 5 percent decline in water usage just by mailing those letters.

We try to reach our customers and stakeholders with consistent messages using a variety of vehicles, such as bill inserts, news media stories and advertising, as well as through social media channels. In this day and age, people receive information in a variety of ways, and we try to use multiple channels to make sure we reach them where they are.

In California, the governor has called for fines for water wasters. Have you found that enforcement works or is it counterproductive?

Certainly, California is in a world of hurt. If we were in that situation, we would be looking much closer at an enforcement mechanism. We tend to focus on education.

We have the ability to give out fines, but it's rare and we didn't give any out last year. We hire a group of temporary employees every summer to reach out to customers and respond to calls from customers who observe water waste in their neighborhood. They stop, get out of the car and knock on the door because we want to talk to somebody. If we can't talk to somebody, we'll leave a friendly note for the resident to address their water waste. For the most part, we don't get repeat complaints after we do that. We also thank people when we observe water-efficient practices. We've actually gotten a lot of positive feedback from that.

About the experts
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Jamie Eichenberger is a Principal Engineer with Brown and Caldwell. He is a project manager and engineer for water, wastewater, and water reuse treatment planning and design.
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Melissa Essex Elliott has more than 25 years of public relations experience in both the water industry and agriculture. She is the Assistant Director of Public Affairs – Government & Stakeholder Relations/Conservation for Denver Water, directing government and stakeholder relations and water conservation programs for the municipal water utility that serves more than 1.3 million people.
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