The city of Galveston is right to make it expensive to waste water. It might be the only way to convince people to conserve the precious resource.
It’s a puzzling contradiction that most people will agree society should do more to conserve water, particularly in times of drought, but those same people rarely do anything meaningful to reduce their own use of it. But it’s not necessarily surprising nor done with malicious intent.
Consider that Californians, in a 2015 Field Poll study, agreed water agencies should be forced to cut back consumption by an average of 25 percent. But 44 percent said it would be hard for them personally to make more of a sacrifice, according to a Southern California Public Radio report.
Cameron Brick, at the time a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the public radio station:
“I think that’s in agreement with a lot of things we see about individual behavior.”
Research showed that when humans are faced with massive challenges, they often feel their individual actions won’t make a difference, Brick said in the report.
It’s called “low self-efficacy” and it’s also behind why people feel their vote doesn’t matter or why they think it’s impossible to eat healthier or lose weight, Brick said.
Human nature and issues of low self-efficacy are what the city of Galveston and other area municipalities are swimming against when they try to get people to conserve water.
We don’t have to look as far away as California to know that.
In November, crews had to shut off a Gulf Coast Water Authority pipe that supplies water to the island because of a leak. But despite official recommendations and some restrictions, water consumption didn’t decline, officials said.
“It definitely is concerning,” Brandon Cook, assistant city manager of development and municipal services, told The Daily News.
Galveston’s new draft water plan aims to reduce water use by 25 gallons per capita per day in the next 10 years, an effort that focuses both on decreasing the city’s lost water and urging residents to reduce use. The plan, which was last updated in 2009, is open for public comment.
While the city now has the rights to enough water to meet demand, conservation will be key to ensuring the city doesn’t have to buy more rights in the near future, Cook has said.
Buying water rights and building the infrastructure to deliver the water is expensive. U.S. consumers, and those in other countries, have long enjoyed paying unrealistically low prices for their excess water use — unrealistic when compared with the cost to procure water, industry observers have lamented.
Galveston’s plan calls for city officials to get more serious about cracking down on consumers who use excessive water during times of drought. In December, the Gulf Coast Water Authority approved a plan that would surcharge its customers if they fail to meet certain conservation goals during times of drought and water shortage, authority General Manager Ivan Langford said.
“Penalties in the form of surcharges on excess water use during shortages encourage our water supply customers to take measures to use less water,” Langford said.
Under the city’s new plan, those surcharges would get passed down to the city’s customers only during times of drought.
A huge part of the water conservation battle has to do with public perception. It’s tough to get people thinking about water conservation when they’re surrounded by water in communities prone to flooding. But people might start thinking more about it if they see their water bills go up.
The city, by repairing aging infrastructure, plans to reduce its water loss from 55.4 gallons per capita per day to 30.6 gallons in 10 years. And the Galveston City Council earlier this year approved a water rate increase of up to 7 percent to pay for about $35 million in capital projects meant to enhance water and wastewater services.
While the city is doing its part, residents have to help, too. If low self-efficacy is the problem, maybe higher bills are the answer. At the very least, people should want to conserve water because it will save them money.
• Laura Elder