When a severe drought held the West Coast in its clutches in 2015, some government leaders could think of no better way to get people to conserve water than to encourage them to turn on each other through drought shaming — the practice of publicly outing and humiliating perceived water wasters on social media.

The results should have been predictable.

As the Orange County Register reported, one person sarcastically posted, “Congratulations for watering the pavement,” along with a picture of a water puddle near a curb in Costa Mesa, California.

Another tweeted the photo of a bald man wearing sunglasses and watering roses in East Los Angeles. “This guy has been doing this daily since the drought began,” the post said.

At about the same time in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun reported that people were using the hashtag #vancitywaterhogs to rat on neighbors and strangers alike.

Instead of uniting to tackle a common problem, people attacked each other.

The Orange County Register began a report on the practice with this ominous description, “The water ninjas are prowling the streets. Mocking. Undercover. Often anonymous. They are watching you, snapping pictures of your wastefulness with their cellphones, then uploading the evidence for all the world – and your newly empowered local water agency – to see.”

Anger, animosity and hatred became attitudes associated with drought. People don’t like others telling them to wear masks during a pandemic. Why should we think they will like others telling them not to use water during a drought?

Today, Utah and much of the West is in a situation similar to the West Coast in 2015. Skies are mostly clear day after day. Snowpack from winter is small and quickly melting. With the promise of another hot summer looming, Utah governments are pondering how to get people to use less water.

Underlying it all are three vexing facts. Utah is, according to the 2020 Census, the fastest growing state in the nation; it is the second driest state in terms of precipitation, behind Nevada; and its per capita water usage ranks second in the nation, behind only Idaho. 

The state is not above shaming. Utah has a website it ominously titles “The hall of fame or shame.” It’s where people can go to report someone they think has been misusing water. Alternately, they can report someone who is doing exceptionally well.

Low water levels are pictured in Echo Reservoir north of Coalville on Thursday, May 6, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Kim Wells, public information officer for the Division of Water Resources, says the reports are not made public. The idea is to educate people who may not know better.

“We’re not about publicly shaming,” she told me. “Although it is frustrating when people do see water being wasted when they’re trying to do what’s right.”

California’s official reporting efforts were not publicly shared, either. But the campaign seemed to give people license to do their own unofficial reporting on Twitter and Facebook. 

To be fair, Utah isn’t focusing on its hall of shame. Wells said the state doesn’t anticipate anything more than possible outdoor watering restrictions this summer. But she cautioned those decisions rest with local governments, which could react differently to local conditions.

Meanwhile, the state is focusing on education campaigns, urging people to voluntarily use less. Gov. Spencer Cox has issued an executive order encouraging local governments to restrict watering on public land, irrigation companies to delay the start of the watering season and average Utahns to take shorter showers, among other things.

The real solution

A free-market conservative could imagine a better alternative in a split second. If you want to change behavior, change economic incentives. The more expensive something becomes, the less of it people will use. Conversely, if something is cheap, people will treat it as if it has little value.

The most effective way to get people to conserve water is to make it more expensive.

That’s not a popular idea, however.

In the latest opinion poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, respondents were asked what they thought would be the best way to get people to use less water. Not surprisingly, raising water prices for people who use more than a set minimum each month was unpopular. Only 10% selected it as the best option. Government restrictions, with penalties for over-watering, were twice as popular, with 20% choosing that option.

The most popular idea, at 49%, was to “provide incentives for waterwise landscaping.”

This would, of course, be another market-based solution. Rewarding people for good choices tends to encourage positive behaviors. 

But some of these incentives already exist. Utah’s “flip your strip” program provides homeowners with rebates of $1 per square foot if they replace grass in their park strip with a water-efficient design, or $1.25 per square foot if they do this and attend a class on designing a better park strip.

By contrast, Las Vegas pays residents $3 per square foot to rip out their entire lawns.

Widespread behavioral change won’t come, however, until all Utah homeowners are forced to make the choice to conserve or to pay significantly more. And they won’t really understand how precious water is until they have to pay rates that more accurately reflect the true cost of water.

In Utah at the moment, that’s complicated. Most water districts in the state benefit from property tax subsidies, which they use to reduce water rates. This insulates many customers from the actual cost of water. It also means entities that are exempt from paying property taxes, such as schools, governments, non-profit organizations and churches, get a significant break, while their share of the cost is passed on to everyone else. 

Several recent Utah governors have advocated removing this tax subsidy, arguing Utahns would naturally conserve if confronted with water bills that reflected the actual cost of water. But state lawmakers consistently have either killed or significantly altered bills that would do this.

The Utah Foundation, an independent research organization, published a comprehensive four-part series in 2019 on the issue. Among its findings was that water companies see a 6.5% reduction in usage for every 10% increase in rates — a clear indication that pricing is the best way to promote conservation.

Saving water in a drought is more complicated than this, however. Raising rates would have an obvious impact on low-income Utahns who already struggle to pay their bills. Many of them live in apartments and would likely see the increase reflected in rents. Those who own homes would see a more direct impact.

The Utah Foundation reports suggest the state could find ways to tie rates to property values, charging less to those who could least afford it. Many water districts have tiered rate structures that provide low rates for the first 5,000 gallons used each month, then progressively more from there. 

Advocates such as Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, believe those tiers should be much steeper, sending a market signal to people who use too much.

He has a point. Although the governor asked people to take shorter showers, state officials say showering typically accounts for only 17% of water use in a home, behind toilet flushing and washing machines. Most of a homeowner’s water usage is outdoors, and that is where real conservation begins. People may need to get used to brown lawns, or switch to more drought-resistant landscaping.

Others, like water attorney Nathan Bracken, believe removing the property tax subsidy entirely would lead to other consequences. It would hamper a water district’s ability to bond for improvements or new projects. It would affect mostly wholesalers, who may not pass the increase onto the water company. Removing it would make it harder to pay off debt already incurred.

Perhaps a nuanced approach is needed, but if the end result isn’t higher rates for heavy water usage, little conservation would result.

And then there is agricultural use in the state, which amounts to about 85% of the state’s total usage.

Former Gov. Gary Herbert convened a water summit that resulted in a plan to meet state needs for the next 50 years. That resulted in some changes that are beginning to take effect.

For instance, agricultural users may now band together to form water banks, which allow them to lease out water they don’t use. Another change allows them to split their watering season, leasing out water for only a certain time period.

These changes may make it easier to transition agricultural land to urban growth without losing the water that once flowed to those areas.

Agricultural users also face the reality of an old and complicated use-it-or-lose-it law. They stand to forfeit any water they haven’t used for seven consecutive years. While this seldom results in the loss of a water right, it can hurt the resale value of dormant claims.

But the plan didn’t recommend any change in property tax subsidies.

Utah’s current drought is serious — perhaps much more so than many people are aware. The May Water Outlook Report, released last week by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, put it in sobering terms. The ground is parched, the snowpack is low and rain is scarce. The coming summer’s water supply “could be exceptionally poor to (potentially) worst-on-record.”

“We have been concerned about the high likelihood that a significant portion of this year’s snowmelt runoff would soak into headwater soils and not make it to downstream reservoirs,” wrote the report’s author, data collection officer Jordan Clayton. “Unfortunately, we are now seeing that reality unfold.”

People kayak in Echo Reservoir north of Coalville on Thursday, May 6, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Given the long-term severity of the drought, which, according to the state website drought.gov, has persisted most of this century, It may be time to explore more options, including incentives to reduce the lawns on new construction or to find new ways to capture water.

As Megan Nelson of the Nature Conservancy told me, “Drought is becoming the norm. Extreme drought is becoming the new ‘drought,’ unfortunately. That’s not good.”

Even if a wet season returns, climate change may cause higher temperatures that replace mountain snow with rain. And more should be done to protect the long-term health of the Great Salt Lake, which is shrinking, and which is vital to the ecology of the Wasatch Front. 

As of yet, Utahns aren’t shaming each other to keep the lid on water waste. That may be because people won’t be aware of how serious the drought is until governments try to keep them from watering their lawns or doing other things they take for granted.

That makes this a good time to work on better overall strategies, even the ones that result in higher costs for water which, while unpopular, would be effective.