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Water Talks

water-faucetAn academic approach to the water conservation conversation
Water municipalities are like submarines. They bumble along with abundant supplies and little concerns until they hit a rock, or maybe several rocks—or at least so says Australian researcher Zoe Sofoulis. In her analogy, these “rocks” are things like environmental changes and public awareness. It's when that submarine hits those rocks that the structure begins to give way and shift.

Sofoulis, an adjunct research fellow at the University of Western Sydney, recently put an academic spin on the issue of water conservation for the three-dozen Santa Cruzans who gathered at India Joze Restaurant on Wednesday, June 8 to hear her speak. The event was titled "Changing our Relationship to Water," and was organized by Transition Santa Cruz.

The divisive issue of what to do about Santa Cruz's limited water supply moved away from the particulars of whether desalinization or alternatives are the answer, and toward ideas about how community water issues in general came to be.

Her academic, research-based approach to water conservation issues encompass the relationship between water managers and water users, and how their roles have changed and are continuing to change in communities around the world. She walked the audience through three models of water relationships: historical, rational and integral.

Historically, she explained that when many people stopped using wells (and thus ceased being their own water provider), a complex relationship was born between the consumer and the supplier of water. It was a profound societal change to hand those rights over to governments and private companies. "Municipal water suppliers were developed in splendid isolation," she said. "There was a shift of responsibility for water ... a passive relationship between the public providers and the laid-back recipients.”

When water became a matter of the state, there grew a lack of knowledge of the system, where it's coming from, how it's getting here, what the supplies are, and how much we're using. Out of this new relationship came the mindset that if you pay the bill, you can use as much as you want—and, says Sofoulis, an inevitable disconnect from the decisions and concerns around the water supply.

In the "rationalist" model of water relationships, environmental awareness caused consumer irresponsibility to transition to hyper-responsibility. "Environmental knowledge began challenging engineering knowledge," she said, adding that this led to increased water use regulations."[It became] a shift to over-responsibility and guilt for using water. Citizens became environmental advocates."

Sofoulis says this rationalist way of thinking may change behavior but it does not change the institution of water management; rather, it places the responsibility of water problems solely on the consumer and becomes divisive.

For Sofoulis, an ideal model for water management and consumption would be one of “integration.”

"Managers are not the sole central authority of delivering water," she said. "People can gather their own water. … ‘Consumers’ is the wrong word—they're co-managers in water responsibility. We are citizens, not customers, and there is a real need to reclaim that role."

In this vision, managers aren’t left with the decision making, consumers don’t feel guilty and hyper-responsible about water consumption, and there is an integration of the community from the beginning—in making decisions, identifying water problems and creating solutions.

Sofoulis encouraged residents to transition from taking individual responsibility to an "emphasis on getting genuine participation in the process, to get involved in the decisions in the livability of our future communities."

City of Santa Cruz Water Department official Toby Goddard agrees that there is a strained relationship between water consumers and water managers, whom he says have had different interests all along—initially consumers just wanted clean, cheap water and managers needed to provide the clean, safe water. He says water managers still, for the most part, only think of water supply as a subset of public health, and not in environmental terms. But as consumers have become more environmentally aware, so, too, have water suppliers.

"There's a hidden tension in that relationship—if people use less water their budgets go down," he says, adding, "now there's an acceptance utilities incorporate conservation. It's the responsible thing to do."

He says that Santa Cruz is using less water as a system than it did 25 years ago, despite population growth (the water district serves 5,000 more people than it did 10 years ago).  Overall, the city has reduced water use from 4.4 billion to 3.2 billion gallons of water per year in the last 10 years.

Goddard says the last dip in water use was in 2009 when the city implemented water restrictions that required people to only water outside on specific days and times. It ended up dropping the consumption in 2010 even when there weren't restrictions probably because some people forgot to turn back their watering systems, Goddard says.

"We know we've made some progress but there's still more to be done," he adds.

So what do Sofoulis' ideas of the historical, rationalist and integral model mean for Santa Cruz? What will this model do for the water conversation in Santa Cruz? That was a bit harder to come by during the talk at India Joze, but Sofoulis did suggest that the community build better relationships with UC Santa Cruz. "Have social and cultural research done that can become conduits for the intellectual, articulate community," she said, explaining that solutions need to be both social and political.

She added that Santa Cruz is on its way to becoming more integrated in its model of managers and consumers. "[Santa Cruzans are] thinking beyond their tap," she says. "They're thinking of themselves in relation to the whole urban infrastructure. It's a sign they're ready to be involved."

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