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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Use Only What You Need
distributed 5/31/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Glady Gifford of Buffalo, New York.. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

It has been dry here in Colorado, not just for a few days, but for a few years.

Very low water levels in area reservoirs a few months ago caused Denver Water to impose strong conservation measures on all of its customers. The way they have done that provides a well thought out model for behavior change on any number of issues. Let's see what we can learn from them.

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The Rocky Mountain region never gets a lot of precipitation. We're considered a "semi-arid" geography. It does not take much of a shortfall from normal snow and rain to make water supplies tight. Around here, it never makes sense to waste such a precious resource.

Our water utility, Denver Water, has a long-standing -- and very creative -- educational program urging conservation. Starting in 2006 (I believe), our metropolitan region has been fairly constantly reminded, "Use only what you need." Year after year, bright orange signs have spread that message with humorous and attention-grabbing ads.

In 2007, variations on the "Use only what you need" billboard campaign said: "CNSRV", "GV A DM" and "B RSPBL". In 2008, large stacks of orange barrels towered over downtown sidewalks with the label, "GONE: This much water down the drain every month if you don't adjust your sprinkler system." Last year, one sign showed a tiny little watering can, held by a pair of pinched fingers, and the reminder, "Water less." (If you need a grin, browse through several pages of the campaign's photo gallery.)

The message of careful conservation has taken hold, and Denverites have done a great job of cutting back on our per-person water consumption.

But this year, by the end of March, reservoirs were at dangerously low levels -- far below long-term averages, and even way below those seen with the big drought in 2002. Denver Water has rolled out a stringent set of new restrictions, and a new ad campaign to go with it.

"Use only what you need" has been pounded into our heads and hearts -- so thoroughly, in fact, that the utility could build on it without ever printing the well-known slogan. This year's signs just say, "It's a drought. Use even less."

Now, just as those signs were showing up around the city, we were graced with a remarkable series of snow storms. One columnist wrote, "Denver Water should predict droughts more often. Their announcement last month triggered several blizzards, hail storms and rain." But even with that big boost, reservoirs and ground water supplies are still very low. "Use even less" is still the message around town.

Part of Denver Water's excellent conservation campaign has been their pervasive and delightfully creative "branding" with variations on the "use only what you need" theme. They have given us memorable slogans and vivid images that contrast conservation and waste. They have planted a community-based ethical principle of sufficiency, of "enough". They have taught us about the need to live appropriately for our climate.

But the cute billboards are only half of the conservation efforts. We've also seen a lot of very hard-nosed programs and policies that embody the nice ideas through strictly enforced rules and regulations.

The air is dry around here. (This Friday morning, the humidity level is 10%.) So we are not allowed to water our lawns between 10 AM and 6 PM, when too much of what is put out by sprinklers just evaporates. And sprinklers need to be adjusted so that they don't splash too much on pavement. You'll get a first warning, and then progressively more expensive tickets for off-hours watering, or for having run-off in the gutters.

Some years have had voluntary watering restrictions, based on street addresses. This year, it is mandatory -- at our house, we can water only on Thursday and Sunday. We're even encouraged to "report water waste" (which means, "turn in your neighbors"), so that the "drought patrol" can provide education and warn of stiff fines for continued waste.

Rebates for low-flow toilets have helped many households cut water use year-round. Incentives for Xeriscaping -- that's the fancy term for low-water landscaping -- are changing the look and water-dependency of many households and neighborhoods.

"Use only what you need" is put into practice through very specific instructions about how much we do need, how much and where we can water, and what sort of thrones to install in the bathroom. We're given financial incentives to do the right thing, and hefty penalties for using more than necessary through fines and sharply tiered water rates. And those who think they can afford a lush green lawn are not allowed to use up the community's scarce water. Flagrant waste can lead to a flow restrictor on the water line, or having the water shut off.

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So what are the lessons for us? In churches and communities -- whether we're working to change behaviors on conservation, recycling, local foods, or any other issue -- what can we learn from Denver Water's very effective conservation campaigns?

  1. We need to be persistent and consistent. Denver is now in the eighth consecutive year of the "Use only what you need" message. It took several years of extensive ads to get the idea embedded. If we think we can embed a pro-environmental message with one Earth Day service a year, well, we're wrong. It has to be hammered home, over and over and over again.

  2. Make the core message short, clear and compelling. Your audience has to be able to repeat that ethical gem, and understand what it means. Long ago, I attended a church where the pastor, almost weekly, quoted a line from a musical: "The love in your heart wasn't put there to stay. Love isn't love 'til you give it away." The congregation lived that out with a passionate level of community service.

  3. Humor helps, a lot. Threats and warnings are not very attractive. A chuckle helps us remember, and it gets us talking with our friends and neighbors. (A warning, though. If you're developing a big campaign, check out your jokes with lots of people. Some lines that seemed like cute slogans really are pretty lame.)

  4. Mix the ethical message with very clear descriptions of desired actions and behaviors. "Be a good steward of God's creation" doesn't lead to much action. "Turn off the office computer overnight" is easy to do and leads to a 50% reduction in energy use.

  5. Reward good behaviors -- give out certificates of accomplishment if you're not able to give cash incentives. And be firm with those who are violating the community goals -- that's going to be harder in a church setting than with a city-wide program that can levy fines -- but somebody who tosses a can in the trash instead of the recycling bin can be corrected.
A clear and effective campaign for ethical behavior change is a lot of work. It takes planning, creativity, and persistence. But if we have a cause that matters to us, that is the sort of intentional effort that we should be making.

I'm grateful to Denver Water for their excellent accomplishments, and for the fine model they provide on how to teach a city good behaviors.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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