Guest Column | August 16, 2016

Achieving Urban Water Security Through Demand Management


By Robert C. Brears

Across the U.S., cities are at risk of water insecurity — the inability of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate supplies of good quality water — as a result of climate change, population growth, and the various impacts of urbanization. As a consequence, the U.S. EPA predicts that many cities will face:

  • Higher water prices to ensure continued access to a reliable and safe supply;
  • Increased summer watering restrictions to manage scarce supplies;
  • Seasonal loss of recreational spaces (e.g., lakes and rivers) from increased water abstraction; and
  • Expensive water treatment projects that transport and store water when demand threatens to outstrip supply.

How Can Urban Water Security Be Achieved?

Urban water security can be achieved through demand management, which is the better use of existing water supplies before plans are made to further increase supply. Demand management promo­tes water conservation, during times of both normal conditions and uncertainty, through changes in practices, cultures, and people’s attitudes towards water resour­ces.

In addition to the environmental benefits of preserving ecosystems and their habitats, demand management is cost-effective compared to supply-side management because it allows the better allocation of scarce financial resources, which would otherwise be required to build expensive dams, water transfer schemes from one watershed to another, and desalination plants.

Demand Management Tools Available

Cities can use two types of demand management tools to achieve urban water security: Communication and informational tools and economic and regulatory tools.

  • Communication and informational tools aim to change behavior through public awareness campaigns around the need to conserve scarce water resources. Examples include water-focused school education, public workshops on water efficiency, and social media campaigns on water conservation.
  • Economic and regulatory tools invol­ve setting allocation and water-use limits, protecting vulnerable water supplies, in addition to providing incentives for all water users to conserve water and use it efficiently. Examples include conservation ordinances, pricing of water and wastewater, rebates for water-efficient appliances, and source protection.

Cites Taking Action To Reduce Demand

Many cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, use a variety of demand management tools in an attempt to achieve urban water security.

Case 1: San Francisco’s racy water conservation messages

Over the past few summers, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has implemented a head-turning water conservation strategy that involves using bold, risqué, multilingual water conservation advertisements to change the behavior of water users in the city. The SFPUC’s racy public awareness advertisements, featured in or on newspapers, bus shelters, buses and billboards, were designed to get the heart racing with creatively crafted messages that blare out for customers to ‘’Jiggle it’’ when looking for leaks, ‘’Make it a quickie’’ when having a shower, and ‘’Doing it’’ by replacing old toilets and getting paid for it.

Case 2: New York City protecting its source from urbanization

New York City’s Long-Term Watershed Protection Plan for the Catskill and Delaware Water Supply System is designed to protect and improve existing water quality by engaging in or funding various activities that aim to protect or remediate the city’s watersheds. A key component of the Watershed Protection Plan is the Land Acquisition Program. Under this program, owners of certain properties that contain streams, wetlands, floodplains, and other sensitive natural areas are approached to see if they are interested in selling their land. The program also offers conservation easements — legal agreements where a landowner agrees, in exchange for a lump-sum payment and long-term property tax benefits, to permanently limit certain types of activities and development on their property while retaining overall ownership.

Case 1: L.A. customizing water savings

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has developed the Water Conservation Technical Assistance Program that offers commercial, industrial, institutional, and multi-family customers a customized approach to reducing their water usage. Through the program, LADWP works one-on-one with customers to modernize their facility with the latest water-efficient equipment. The program offers up to $250,000 in financial incentives for pre-approved equipment and products that demonstrate water savings. The actual incentive amount is based on the water savings accomplished by the project, with the incentive calculated at $1.75 per 1,000 gallons of water saved over a number of years — not to exceed the installed cost of the project — with customers receiving a rebate following verification of installation and operation of pre-approved projects.

With climate change, population growth, and urbanization diminishing the ability of cities to become water secure, cities across the U.S. can utilize a variety of demand management tools, including water conservation messages, source protection, and economic incentives, to achieve urban water security.

About the Author

Robert C. Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley). Urban Water Security argues that, with climate change and rapid urbanization, cities need to transition from supply-side to demand-side management to achieve urban water security.


Image credit: "Downtown LA from the Brewery," Ray S © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: