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Water Conservation: Successful Public Outreach Programs

If California’s recent 5-year long drought was any indication, water is one of our society’s most valuable resource.  In fact, California’s starved reservoirs brought an entirely new meaning to the old saying, “when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” With the drought now behind us thanks to last winter’s storms, residents, businesses, and state officials have a renewed focus on the topic of water, and are taking steps to mitigate a water crisis in the future. In this blog, we’ll focus on the successes of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Program as well as the Save Our Water campaign, and detail a few effective strategies that these public outreach programs use to effectively communicate with stakeholders and communities alike.

California’s drought, which began in 2011, was the state’s longest dry-spell in recent history (scientists point out that the last drought as severe was at least 1,200 years ago). By the summer of 2016, all of California’s reservoirs (which supply California’s nearly 40 million residents with water) had hit their lowest recorded levels – some reaching as low as single digit percentages of total capacity.

During the worst years of the drought, Californians were using groundwater at elevated rates to alleviate the stresses of water shortages. According to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Strategic Plan, approximately thirty million Californians (about 75 percent) depend on groundwater for a portion of their water supply. On average, groundwater provides about 40 percent of total annual agricultural and urban water uses – some areas are 100 percent dependent on groundwater for their supply. However, unlike surface water, groundwater is not regulated on a statewide basis, which leads to some problems when it comes to consumption.

In 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed what is perhaps the most significant legislative water act in recent history: the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Designed to manage the amount of groundwater that is extracted, the legislation provides a framework for sustainable management of groundwater supplies by local authorities, with a limited role for state intervention, only if necessary, to protect the resource.

While the effects of this plan are controversial among some residents, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is the perfect example of a scalable public outreach initiative. Speaking as a communications agency that specializes in sustainability and public outreach, the SGMA initiative ticks all of the boxes for an effective outreach campaign designed to inform and educate the public, while offering all stakeholders involved key insights and communications strategies.

Firstly, the Department of Water Resources drafted a Strategic Plan to provide an overview of their initial proposal for communication, outreach, and coordination with partners. The key audiences for the outreach effort included:

  • The public
  • State, Federal and Tribal Governments
  • Regional and local governments and agencies:Water and groundwater management agencies and districts; land use entities such as counties and cities
  • Other stakeholders:Non-governmental organizations representing water, groundwater, environmental, environmental justice, and agriculture interests as well as universities

The Department of Water Resources’ Strategic Plan outlined an outreach program that is both proactive and interactive, with information, ideas, and opportunities for a two-way exchange. Focus groups were conducted with the public and key stakeholders to address questions and concerns about specifics of the act, in addition to variety of methods designed to gather input and information including advisory groups, on-going meetings, conferences, and public meetings.

Additionally, the SGMA’s interactive web portals proved to be key tools in educating the public and parties involved. The California Groundwater website acts as a hub for the efforts of the initiative, offering links to partners involved in the SGMA implementation, an implementation toolbox, multi-agency news and information, a groundwater blog, event calendar and the text of the SGMA legislation. We have built several successful web portals for government initiatives aimed at reaching diverse and large audience segments, and we give kudos to the SGMA team for implementing such useful and interactive tools to keep the community informed and engaged.

To further reduce water usage throughout California, the Association of California Water Agencies and the California Department of Water Resources partnered to create the Save Our Water campaign, a program focusing on changing long-term water-use behavior to help state residents keep the momentum of conservation. In the spring of 2015, Save Our Water launched a statewide marketing campaign, and offered an enhanced, interactive website detailing ways that Californians could help conserve. The program also utilized high-impact advertising campaigns to spread the message to state-wide community segments, and inform the general population about more sustainable water usage practices.

The Save Our Water campaign proved to be very successful, and helped foster a statewide water savings of 22.5% between June 2015 and February 2017 (a total of 2.6 million acre-feet of water). The Save Our Water program’s effective communications is primarily responsible for much of the general public’s knowledge about general water conservation, and was a highly impactful initiative displaying the power of effective communications strategy.

The techniques and modalities highlighted in this post are excellent examples of strategies used to reach target communities, as well as effectively and openly communicate proposed plans to the public and shareholders. The backbone of any initiative lies in an effective strategic plan that details all relevant research, proposed legislation and drivers, success factors, as well as goals, objectives, and actions. To date, the post-drought state now has a surplus of water in all of its reservoirs, and a tactical, strategic plan in action to mitigate a water crisis in the future.

Should you have any need for public outreach, strategy, interactive digital tools or website design, please reach out for a complimentary consultation here.

 

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