Freshwater is a resource that is absolutely vital for life and health, both for human beings and for the ecosystems upon which we all depend. Yet the availability of this precious resource into the future is less than certain. Growing populations demand more water supplies, while pollution, salinization, and climate change threaten resources that already exist. In the United States and throughout the developed world, cities have large, complex systems for the delivery of freshwater to a concentrated urban population. Managers of these systems have implemented different types of water conservation strategy to augment their supply portfolio as they attempt meet the expected growing demand. These municipalities have met with varying levels of success (cf. Saurí 2013).
Among the reasons for the variable success of water conservation are political conditions (Teodoro 2010). Water conservation policy is an inherently political process, where entrenched interests can find themselves in a deep conflict. Powerful stakeholders can stymie conservation regulation and enforcement to their own advantage (Brown and Hess 2017). In such a contest, the general public could play a powerful role in opposing special interests that might seek to slow or prevent political efforts toward greater conservation. The question then becomes, how may this sleeping dragon be awoken? What causes some citizens to support conservation while others do not?
There are certainly many variables that can be brought to bear on this question, but the current article will examine a factor that the literature on sustainable water consumption has not yet recognized: the visibility of water stress. I suggest that when water stress results in visible change to water supplies and the proximate ecosystem, the general public comes out strongly in favor of water regulation and stronger conservation policy. When water stress is hidden from view, the general public assumes there is no problem with current water use practices and provides no strong resistance when conservation efforts are rolled back. However, because visibility can also be constructed in the public mind without direct physical vision, municipalities can help the public to see water stress in an indirect way that also helps to garner public support for conservation. This indirect approach can include media representations of available water resources. The variable visibility of water—both direct and indirect—helps explain why some cities in wet locales maintain strong conservation policies and why certain cities in water-stressed regions are less robust than their counterparts.
The Visibility of Water: Concrete and Constructed
One of the important insights that social science has brought to the study of the environment is the recognition of nature as a social construction (Eder and Ritter 1996; Greider and Garkovich 1994). The environment that humans inhabit is invested with meanings that arise through social interaction, and our perception of a “place” may be unrelated to the actual physical characteristics of the environment (Kyle and Chick 2007). A wide literature has grown around the social construction of landscape, nature and place (cf. Stokowski 2002).
However, nature has materiality that constrains social construction. Meanings are built around what is materially present, which shapes the available meanings and interpretations (McDonnell 2010). Stedman (2003) shows how the physical characteristics of a landscape can predict the subjective meanings that individuals attach to them. Moreover, water’s physical existence can be altered due to socially constructed understandings. For example, Aguilera-Klink et al. (2000) demonstrate how the physical scarcity of water can be related to social processes that construct water as abundant or scarce. In their study of water use in the Canary Islands, they show how a manageable problem of limited supply became a water crisis because of the failure to recognize that the system of private property rights impeded regulation.
Essentially, water has materiality and meaning, and the point of social scientific study of water is “not to determine where social constructions end and materialities begin, but to see how completely they are intertwined” (Orlove and Canton 2010: 403). To reconcile the material properties of water with its socially constructed dimensions, I develop the concept of “visibility” (Brighenti 2007). Encompassing a physical dimension of water (its ability to be seen) with the socially constructed dimension of water (how we see it), the concept can help us to grasp the nexus of material and meaning.
In addition to the social construction of water and the landscape, it is also important to recognize that water supply systems and infrastructures are socially constructed. This perspective, long recognized in the literature on large technical systems (e.g., Hughes 1987), notes that these systems are sociotechnical and material hybrids that include natural factors, organizations, laws and regulations, consumers, and values. These systems may be justified in terms of efficiency and technical problem solving, but the literature also demonstrates that the configurations of the systems at any given time are the product of public policy, cultural values, and political and economic relations of conflict and cooperation.
It is especially important to bring the socially constructed dimensions of water supply, landscapes, and large technical systems together when studying water policy. Water conservation is not merely an outcome of water scarcity and technical problem-solving. Rather, water conservation policies are inherently tied to governance issues and the influence of special interests (Furlong and Bakker 2011, Teodoro 2010). Myriad stakeholders can oppose water conservation policy (Brown and Hess 2017). To counter the interests and inertia that resist advances in regulation and demand management, it helps to have public support for conservation; but this support is not always forthcoming. For example, in a study of institutional barriers to sustainable water management, Brown and Farrelly (2009) cite “lack of political will” as an obstacle. But whence comes political will for water conservation?
I argue that one source of political will for conservation comes from the ability of a public to see water stress. However, not all water stress can be seen with the naked eye. In some cases, water stress must be made visible to constituents through work done by utilities, state regulators, advocacy groups, and the media. Furthermore, as I will argue for the case of Phoenix, water stress can also be made invisible, and there can be an active production of the ignorance of water availability and stress (Gross 2010). Through a comparison of case studies, I will unpack how different municipalities under different geological, climatological, and hydrological conditions have reacted differently in policy and political will for conservation in the face of visible and invisible water stress.
The research presented here is part of a larger project that examines the socioeconomic, political, technological, and hydrological factors that impact the adoption of strong water conservation policy by municipal water providers. The larger project involved constructing the most comprehensive database yet of municipal water conservation policy, based on 79 measures for the central city in the 200 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the United States (Hess et al. 2017). The database formed the foundation of a comprehensive index called the Vanderbilt Water Conservation Index (VWCI) that provides a numerical comparison across cities and can be used to examine the conditions that produce stronger water conservation policies. Some of the predictor variables are not surprising—for example, the wetter East Coast cities generally have a lower VWCI score than the arid Southwest, and drought was a positive predictor of more developed water conservation policies. However, analysis also indicated that social and political factors were important, including population growth, regional price parity, and left-right political preferences based on Cook’s Partisan Voting Index. Furthermore, even within similar regions some cities stood out as being relatively high or low compared to their regional counterparts. Consequently, I used in-depth qualitative research to examine the sociological factors that contribute to water policy in greater depth.
The qualitative research upon which this study is based examined four cities in depth. I chose two cities from the relatively humid eastern portion of the country (Atlanta, Georgia, and Tampa, Florida) and two from the relatively more arid western portion of the country (San Antonio, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona). San Antonio had a higher score than Phoenix, and Tampa had a higher score than Atlanta. But I was also intrigued by a puzzle: the rapidly growing desert city of Phoenix received a lower VWCI score than either Atlanta or Tampa, both of which are located in an area of the country with much more precipitation. (For the scores and ranks, see Table 1.) All four cities are located in politically conservative states. This latter consideration was important because previous research indicated that there is a negative relationship between political conservatism and VWCI. By sampling in conservative states, I held the overarching political climate relatively constant. I did not sample in the politically liberal, but water-stressed, state of California, because stringent water conservation policies at the state level might interfere with a qualitative comparison at the municipal level.1
|Sector||Atlanta (VWCI=22; 53rd out of 198)||Phoenix (VWCI=21; 58th out of 198)||San Antonio (VWCI=47; 8th out of 198)||Tampa (VWCI=35; 21st out of 198)|
|Rural and Agriculture||1||2||1||2|
|Scientists and experts||1||0||3||0|
To conduct the case studies, I sought out interviews in each of the four cities with representatives from five broad categories: environmental and community organizations, water supply utilities and regulators, agricultural and rural organizations, the business community, and scientists and experts. Interviews with the business community generally included representatives of the local green industry (landscaping and horticulture), the real estate and construction industries, and the general business community (e.g., a chamber of commerce representative). I selected organizations and businesses based upon a documentary review of newspaper articles and reports related to water politics in the region. In addition to these strategically selected organizations, I also employed a snowball approach: when interesting new topics emerged and names were suggested, the interviews shifted to follow these suggested threads. Furthermore, some potential interviewees did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. Consequently, the selection of interviewees is not uniform across the cities. A breakdown of the sample can be found in Table 1. Demographic characteristics of the four cities can be found in Table 2.
|MSA||Population||% non-white||% Latino (any race)||Median per capita income||Poverty rate||MSA ranking in GDP|
|San Antonio||2.4 million||21%||54%||$18,518||14.5%||35th|
All informants were guaranteed anonymity. In the quotations below, I reveal only the city and general category of occupation or organization that the informant represents. Interviews were transcribed, yielding more than 170,000 words of text for analysis. The entire collection was read and coded inductively for emergent themes, as well as according to several preselected topics. The visual representation of water supply emerged inductively from the data as an important point of comparison, which I placed alongside preselected codes for conservation policy and practice. The data presented below analyzes the relationship between the visibility of water and the political will to conserve it.
One theme that emerged from the interviews was how much water the public saw on a regular basis. In the two East Coast cities, the temperate climate, plentiful surface water, and even the Gulf of Mexico were cited as obstacles to conservation. However, informants in these cities also explained that the ability to see water supplies dwindle became a major instigator for stronger conservation policy. Arid, desert landscapes do not provide much visibility for water, but because water supplies come from underground, the public can imagine a limitless supply. In these contexts, there must be an intentional effort to make supplies “visible” to the public. Below, I examine each of the cities under study in relation to the relative visibility of water supply and their different approaches to conservation policy.
US cities on the East Coast are frequently located alongside rivers. Residents are accustomed to the sight of water: it runs through streams and creeks, sits in lakes, is stored in reservoirs, and falls from the sky on a regular basis. The apparent abundance of this natural resource may explain the generally low VWCI scores in this side of the country. However, in Atlanta, the visible depletion of surface water during a major drought helped rally the population behind more robust conservation measures, yielding legislation that has perpetuated conservation practices, even after the drought passed.
Metro Atlanta, with a population of more than 5.6 million, sits upon a granite ridge and has virtually no access to groundwater. It relies almost entirely upon surface water, 70 percent of which comes from the Chattahoochee River, much of it impounded in Lake Lanier. The region is humid and green; it receives an average of about 50 inches of rainfall annually. However, Atlanta does face periodic droughts, and one drought in particular was cited by informants as transformative for the city and its water policies.
Specifically, the multiyear drought of 2007–2009 produced a new awareness in the general public. Due to a faulty gauge, Lake Lanier was kept unexpectedly low, and the multiyear drought compounded the water scarcity. Atlantans commuting to work along the reservoirs were literally watching their water supply shrink, and media reports made the shrinking water supply visible and salient to both civic leaders and to the general population. Although the interviews for this study were conducted in 2016—seven years after the drought ended—it left a palpable impression on public perceptions of water that informants repeatedly mentioned to explain water conservation. For example, when asked what motivates water conservation, one environmentalist in Atlanta immediately cited the 2007–2009 drought: “When you see pictures in the paper of that reservoir level dropping, the mud flats at Lake Lanier or elsewhere, that is number one” (Atlanta Environmentalist). Another environmentalist concurred, saying:
When we hit drought, because we are dependent upon our lakes, we end up with a major water shortage and everyone is talking about Lake Lanier dropping and Metro Atlanta water use, it educates our populace, right? So when we hit the 07–08–09 drought, and the lake was dropping and people were nervous, it changed how people use water and it hasn’t rebounded. … People just don’t use water the way they did in 2006. People water their lawns differently. It changed the dynamics. So the upside of drought, if there is an upside, is it changes the education of the average resident.(Atlanta Environmentalist)
Utilities also referenced the 2007–2009 drought as the source of their conservation policies. In particular, they specified the visual element of dry lakes and riverbeds doing the work for them in raising public awareness. As one water professional said: “[People became more water-conscious during] the drought of 2007. They were watching when we flashed the words ‘Water Supply’ over, and they were watching dogs play Frisbee in it. ‘Woah! Really? That is where we get our water?!’ … I mean, when you are watching your water supply dry up, it makes you a lot more aware” (Atlanta Utility). Another utility representative concurred: “Everyone here is still so shell-shocked from the drought. … It seems like the mindset of people has just changed.” A water professional in Georgia told the following story to illustrate the public understanding of water scarcity during the drought:
We could see it. We get our water from surface water … and we couldn’t draw any water from [the local rivers] because they were dry. They were literally dry. And then the lake, the reservoir … it pulled water from the [local river], but I just told you that it was dry. So every drop that people were using out of the reservoir, every bit that evaporated, everything: that was it. That was it. The water level was very, very, very low.(Georgia Water Professional)
Another environmentalist agreed, saying: “I think people really did take to heart that your dirty car or your brown lawn was a badge of honor” (Atlanta Environmentalist). Indeed, the city made such strides in a relatively short period of time that water consumption in Metro Atlanta in 2016 is 10 percent lower than it was in 2001, and per capita consumption has fallen by 30 percent (Fox 2016).
I can remember during the worst of the drought times, doing things like, we had young children at the time, we’d give the kids a bath and then I would save the bath water and use it to water our plants, … I don’t consider myself a big environmental champion or anything like that, but we were taking in our house a very real, very serious look at [conservation measures]. We tried to be good stewards as homeowners, and we saw that replicated by a lot of our neighbors.(Atlanta Business Community Representative)
The 2007–2009 drought coincided with the Great Recession and a 2009 Federal Appeals Court ruling that suggested that Atlanta may have to forsake Lake Lanier as a water supply source in favor of downstream supply to Apalachicola Bay in Florida. These three factors together created a knowledge of water stress and water politics that enabled the successful passage of Georgia’s 2010 Water Stewardship Act, an omnibus water bill that raised the threshold for water conservation throughout Georgia and particularly for the Metro Atlanta region. Although there were many factors behind the passage of the law, the quotes above (and below) continually reference the visual impression of shrinking or abundant water supplies as a source of motivation prompting the public will for conservation. “It is psychological,” one environmentalist explained, “this mentality that, if the lake is not full, we are in trouble” (Atlanta Environmentalist).
Just as the visible shrinkage of water supply spurred the public toward the acceptance of greater water conservation, informants cited the return to normal climatic conditions as a hindrance to continued development of conservation policy. As one environmentalist explained, “People aren’t interested in hearing about water conservation when we have flooding all over the metro Atlanta area. That is the real challenge” (Atlanta Environmentalist). Another environmentalist said: “Here, during a normal year, and particularly during a wet year, there is more than enough water for everybody, even the most wasteful. It is a very rainy region of the country. So the only time you see pressure is during the drought” (Atlanta Environmentalist).
Like most of the East Coast, the presence of visible, abundant water dampens the will for conservation in Atlanta. In this sense, the visibility of water shortage, which took the form of a drought with measurable effects on Lake Lanier, soon shifted back to invisibility with the end of the drought. With the invisibility of water stress came a return to ignorance, as the public could no longer “see” the problem. For this reason, our informants emphasized the importance of requirements and penalties in conservation legislation. As one utility representative said: “In a region like this where they see a lot of water … droughts are not enough to drive the conservation ethic. It is sad to say, but I think the stick has to be there. The Water Stewardship bill, the requirements of the Metro District, the fact that they are requirements is what makes it work” (Atlanta Utility).
The visual depletion of surface water resources fostered a will for conservation in the general public, but that political will abated after the lakes and riverbeds refilled. The drought left a shadow that shifted behaviors into the future, but more important, according to our informants, were the conservation requirements placed upon utilities that have continued to lower demand into the present. Although there is more water savings to be gained in Atlanta through greater conservation policies, the general consensus from informants in multiple sectors was that there would not be any great leaps forward in Atlanta until faced with another water crisis.
The Tampa Bay region has developed a strong program of water conservation, but much like in Atlanta, the policies that have stabilized its aquifer withdrawals were born of a visible water crisis. Although the majority of Tampa Bay’s water historically came from groundwater wells, this water was made visible to Floridians because of the porous karst topography and the unique Florida ecology of semitropical wetlands. As hydrologists well know, groundwater and surface water are connected; and overpumping of groundwater can have visible repercussions on surface water supplies. It was the visible effect on Florida’s surface water than enabled residents to “see” the groundwater stress.
The result was Tampa Bay Water, a regional water management wholesaler that now provides water to the different jurisdictions. Other changes included a new governance structure, a new desalination plant, and, especially, the development of conservation and water recycling to reduce demand on the potable water supply.
When I moved here we were in the midst of what was termed the “water wars,” and it really was an era of huge groundwater stress. The majority of the use was coming out of the ground and our lakes were drying up. So it was a huge crisis. A lot of citizen activism was coming from the residents who were living right there, and of course their property values [were affected]. (Tampa Environmentalist).
In Northwest Hillsborough, parts of Tampa, and throughout the county, there were noticeable withdrawals and noticeable damage to lakes, wetlands, river flows. … And people had been noticing this for years, for decades. It was getting worse and worse. The science behind it was that it was overpumping of the aquifer that was causing these problems. Over time they realized that something had to happen.(Tampa Utility)
The management of water in Tampa has staved off crisis. But also like Atlanta, once the visible signs of water stress had abated, public consciousness again retreated. The notion of Florida as a place of water stress is difficult to reconcile with the visibility of water in the form of frequent precipitation and the existence of creeks and rivers.
In Florida, people think it rains all the time. They think we have so much water because wherever you are, you see water. There’s water in a storm-water pond, there is water in the rivers, there is water in the Gulf, there is just water everywhere here. And the ocean, the Atlantic. We are this peninsula that is covered in water. We have the Everglades; we have lots of lakes. People really don’t put that together. They think, “There is water all over this state. We are flat, we’ve got water, what is the problem?”(Tampa Utility)
An environmentalist in the region concurred: “I think a lot of people go, ‘Oh! Here we are in Florida, we are surrounded by water everywhere we are. Where is the water crisis?’ So [we need] education and communication to new residents, providing incentive for people to do the right thing” (Tampa Environmentalist).
In this sense, the trajectory in Tampa of visibility and invisibility is parallel with that of Atlanta. However, whereas in Atlanta visibility was linked to a drought, in Tampa it was linked to the overpumping of groundwater and its effects on rural wells and the landscape. When the overpumping issue was resolved through the regional governance structure, the issue became largely invisible.2
However, the low public appreciation for and awareness of water policy was not seen as particularly problematic in Tampa because water remains highly regulated by multiple agencies, all of whom continue to mandate and incentivize improvements in demand reduction and efficient use. Water is seen as a highly specialized field in Tampa, where experts maintain authority and control. It is telling that few stakeholders in Tampa agreed to participate in this study. Most of those who declined our request for interviews told us that they did not feel sufficiently informed on water conservation to make a comment, and they referred us instead to the regional supplier and state regulator. With the retreat of visible water stress, the public in Tampa is no longer as interested and informed as it was during the water wars; but the strength of its regional governance structure has fostered political buy-in to continue to develop its strong conservation program.
In Atlanta, surface supplies were visibly stressed, and the public directly engaged the water shortage through the visibly shrinking shoreline of Lake Lanier. In contrast, cities that are dependent upon groundwater do not have an easy understanding of their water quantity. Not all cities have such a delicate ecosystem as that surrounding Tampa. If the surrounding landscape is perpetually parched, the spring welling up from underground presents itself as a bountiful and potentially inexhaustible supply, as the eye cannot readily discern its limits. However, in San Antonio, which is largely dependent upon groundwater, the public is heavily invested in water conservation. Their political will for conservation is in part due to their ability to “see” regularly their aquifer and engage with its relative condition. Informants from all sectors mentioned this socially constructed “visibility” of the aquifer through mass media. (See Table 3.) The result is a public that remains surprisingly well informed on water issues and robustly supportive of conservation. As one San Antonio environmentalist said: “I have never been in a place where people are more aware of where their water comes from and of its vulnerabilities. We always have support amongst the people of San Antonio, whether it is raining a lot or not. During drought people might be more concerned, but in general support for conservation in San Antonio is pretty high” (San Antonio Environmentalist).
San Antonio was not always so conscientious. One informant remembered San Antonio’s poor stewardship in the early 1980s, saying, “I think 50 percent of the daily consumption during that time went to watering St. Augustine grass lawns. And I believe at that time San Antonio had the highest per capita water use in the state of Texas” (San Antonio Scientist). The city drew all of its water from the Edwards Aquifer, a karst aquifer that erupts in artesian springs throughout the region. Texas legal precedent established the “rule of capture,” which allows for unlimited pumping of groundwater, and San Antonio had a very big straw. As San Antonio grew and pumped more and more water, the springs in the region slowly dried up or slackened. This was particularly troubling for other cities and communities that were dependent upon surface water flows coming out of the Edwards-fed springs. A massive conflict erupted over water rights in the region that came to a head in an Endangered Species Act lawsuit that determined that unlimited pumping from the Edwards would threaten several species endemic to the local artesian springs.
|San Antonio Water Professional||“The newspaper everyday reports the aquifer levels. A number of TV news stations and radio stations report where we are on aquifer level. These people are quite sophisticated about drought management versus water conservation. … Everybody participates, and has input as to what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. It’s almost impossible not to hear about aquifer levels every day if you are in San Antonio. It’s just part of the life.”|
|San Antonio Water Professional||“We’ve created this interest in protecting our resources and folks really like it when our Aquifer is high and full; they do not like it when it’s low and empty. That’s based on an environmental/water supply-type consciousness. So some of it is absolutely what they can and can’t do at their house, but I also think there’s just a general interest here in San Antonio around our water supply, the Aquifer, because we talk about it so much that it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”|
|San Antonio Water Professional||“One of the things we are lucky about at this point after twenty years of conservation effort is that San Antonio is documented to have a pretty high water IQ. There have been water IQ surveys done across Texas to ask people questions about where their water comes from. A lot of other places in the country if you ask what is your source of water, they aren’t kidding and they will say the faucet. They really don’t know what body of water their water comes from and never gave it any thought. We are fortunate because, one of the side benefits of all the community education efforts and also, frankly, the intermittent droughts that we go through, is that water tends to be in the news a lot here.”|
|Environmental NGO||“This is a town where they actually put the level of the aquifer on the news every day in the weather report. Those were measures that we started endorsing back in the 1990s, and it has been really good because I don’t think you will find another city where the average person is as aware of where their water supply comes from. … People are really aware here. When they see water waste, they will call [the water police].”|
|Business Representative||“I’m in the business, so I have to know more, but I think that the average person on the street knows that we get our water from the Edwards and that it is a great source of water, and we need to continue to protect it and do what we can to maximize its value to the community.”|
Through a lengthy deliberative process, regional stakeholders and scientists determined the flows necessary to maintain the endangered species and restricted pumping accordingly. The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) recognized that it could no longer provide an endless supply of Edwards water to residents, and it would need new supplies to meet growing demand. It found that the cheapest and fastest means to produce that new supply was through greater conservation efforts. SAWS began implementing a comprehensive and growing system of conservation that included programs targeting various sectors, particular water uses, and different customer demographics. Additionally, the conservation program offers outreach and education, but any education on particular behavior or practice is primed on a public that is already highly aware of its water supply, which they can “see” in their daily lives without much effort. The Edwards Aquifer Authority, which permits pumping, maintains a billboard in town with the aquifer level posted. As Table 3 illustrates, the aquifer level is as commonly known as the weather report. It may be underground, but San Antonians can “see” it.
They can also see water waste. SAWS has invested in careful monitoring and reporting of water use. One water professional explained the concern with data and transparency as a means of ensuring that conservation did in fact produce new supply.
We figured out that if we were going to call this a water supply we had to be confident that, when we budgeted, we were picking activities that would save the water that was part of our water plan from conservation. So we became pretty involved in evaluating the water that was actually saved. And with the help from the media and volunteer organizations, everybody was in the middle of it and it was pretty transparent.(San Antonio Water Professional)
SAWS makes that data available and transparent in creative ways. One example is their annual report on the city’s water wasters; residents not only see the waste, but they see the individuals responsible.
Once a year, right on the front page of the paper, they list the 10 worst water wasters. This is for residential, so these are individuals, and they are seriously wealthy individuals. To kind of embarrass them. Last year they had someone, I don’t know if it was a crack in the swimming pool or a leak in their sprinklers, and they were like, “Oh my god, it cut $3,000 a year off our bill!” And everybody was like, “And you didn’t notice that?!” They get famous people on there, like the sports players, and such. It does really embarrass people.(San Antonio Environmentalist)
The constant presence of the aquifer, through billboards, television news, newspapers, radio, and concomitant public discussion, is the backdrop upon which political will emerges. Politics is often a process rife with conflict, and special interests can slow progressive movement on water conservation policy. In San Antonio, however, the public has repeatedly supported new policies for water conservation. One story that was told repeatedly by informants was the city sales tax that funds the purchase of conservation easements over the aquifer recharge zone, safeguarding it from development-related contamination. This designated aquifer-protection sales tax was voted in by the citizens of San Antonio in a referendum three times over the last 15 years, passing most recently with 78 percent of the vote.
Not only does the public generally support water conservation, but residents will also mobilize as a political force when other interests try to roll back on conservation efforts. As one water professional remembered:
There was an issue [once] of reducing the money spent on water conservation. Because we had the aquifer storage and recovery—which is an underground reservoir that was available and that allowed us to quit pumping the aquifer when we were in drought restrictions—we were showing some surpluses and had some revenue issues. So we had to mobilize all those volunteers and the media. The coin of action was a water panel that was televised. The CEO of SAWS quickly restored the budget.(San Antonio Water Professional)
In summary, San Antonio’s principal water source is buried underground, but regulators, water system operators, and environmental activists have pulled the water to the surface, rendering it visible in size and scope through billboards, mass media, educational outreach, and word of mouth. Despite the fact that the Edwards Aquifer is physically invisible, it is almost tangibly present in the daily lives of San Antonians. It is “visible,” within their peripheral vision, such that when conservation is called for, or conservation efforts are threatened, the public will stand by the Edwards and insist upon its protection.
However, the interviews revealed one exception to this generally successful picture of water conservation and the making visible of water stress. There was alarm in the community that its newest supply project, a 145-mile pipeline from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer called Vista Ridge, will weaken the city’s strong stance on conservation. A number of interviews in our study expressed this apprehension. (See Table 4.) The question of whether the culture of conservation that has been built in San Antonio is sufficient to withstand a sudden influx of new water from a distant aquifer remains to be seen. In this sense San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Pipeline could end up playing a similar role to the Central Arizona Project for Phoenix.
|San Antonio Environmentalist||“Of course, the city council and SAWS all said, this will not affect our conservation efforts at all. But shortly after it was finally passed by City Council, one of the city council men who was a former head of the Chamber of Commerce here in town said, ‘Well, let’s not be conserving just for the sake of conserving, you know? We don’t need to have brown lawns if we have water to put on them.’ So, yeah, I think there is a pretty good chance that our emphasis on conservation will diminish once we start taking delivery of water from Vista Ridge. We have to pay for the entire amount, regardless of the amount we use. So if we’ve got it, let’s use it. That will be the attitude of many people.”|
|San Antonio Water Professional||“There was a lot of concern that this was a very expensive project that we would have surplus water for a number of years and the idea was—the board at the San Antonio Water System was saying—that despite that they would continue to fund water conservation. I think a lot of people fear that that would be hard to do. You have water costs. Rates are going up, you have surplus water that you want to sell. It is going to be hard to justify strong water conservation activities.”|
|San Antonio Environmentalist||“They admit that 50,000 acre feet per year is way more than we need, so they have been trying to contract with other cities in that fast growth area. And we have a problem with that because we have pretty good drought regulations and year-round regulations on when you can water and everything like that. When they contract that water, a lot of the other municipalities don’t have those same restrictions. So SAWS rate-payers are paying for this infrastructure and then supplying others who are not conserving as much as they are. So there are some hard feelings about that.”|
|San Antonio Water Professional||“It’s an interesting thing that in San Antonio we’ve spent so much time and energy on our conservation efforts that one of the biggest concerns being discussed with the new supply project is: will it harm conservation?”|
Returning now to the original paradox that prompted this research project—why humid Atlanta and Tampa ranked higher than desert Phoenix in water conservation policy—the relative invisibility of water resources in Phoenix stands out as a difference between them, connecting water supply to the public will for water conservation.
Phoenix is a desert city, and residents are not accustomed to seeing water in rivers or streams, and they also do not see much rainfall. But water is always there when residents desire it: filling their glasses, their bath tubs, and their swimming pools. Neither does the public seem particularly knowledgeable about its aquifers. “Some people don’t even know about it. They just turn on the faucet and there’s water! They don’t know where from. The papers here don’t have nuanced or sophisticated staff on water. It is really just a report. So you don’t get the kind of reporting that might be more illustrative of the problem … it is an inside game” (Phoenix Agricultural Representative). Environmentalists conducting outreach face obstacles raised by public ignorance of what water actually exists in their region.
A lot of my job is coordinating events and activities that connect people with their local watersheds, because they are not tuned into the fact that these rivers even exist. There is not a lot of engagement between people and their local watersheds not to mention what the importance of those watersheds is to the ecosystems in their area, or the economy in their area. People have no idea.(Phoenix Environmentalist)
Another interviewee from the business community concurred that most of the time people in Phoenix were neither aware of nor interested in where their water came from and how it was used. “I come from Colorado, where we had a lot of water restrictions, restrictions on how often we were allowed to water our lawns. There are no restrictions like that here. … People don’t worry about it” (Business Representative).
Phoenix residents “don’t worry” in part because water is managed by a regulatory code, which sets certain allocations and rules around the use of groundwater. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act (GMA) was landmark legislation when it was passed and overcame decades of entrenched conflict between interests in Arizona over pumping rights. The GMA established Active Management Areas (AMAs) where overpumping was particularly worrisome, and these were subject to additional regulation by the state. The following quote from a Phoenix business representative is indicative of the general public’s faith in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act: “[Water] is something that Arizona leaders thought about decades ago, and we are still benefitting from that forward thinking” (Phoenix Business Representative).
Environmentalists, on the other hand, see little to cheer in the current status of water conservation policy. From their perspective, the GMA and the AMAs have failed to slow the rate of overdraft from the aquifers, largely because they are toothless in their consequences. As one environmentalist explained: “The safe-yield requirement in the AMA is a ‘goal,’ not a ‘requirement.’ There are no incentives, there are no penalties, there is no assistance, and so typically government entities have not made aggressive steps to comply. You respond to threats and rewards. We all do. And there is none of that in this Act” (Arizona environmentalist). When asked about the special interests in Phoenix that oppose stricter water conservation policy, another environmentalist answered, “There is no opposition because there is no rigorous requirement.” Instead, Phoenix has relied principally upon voluntary measures and a menu of “best practices” that are not directly connected to aquifer levels.
However, the lack of connection between the public and the aquifers is unsurprising because most of the city receives water from surface supplies. The Salt River and its impounded reservoir provides about half of the city’s water, and much of the metropolitan area relies heavily on water from the Colorado River. Indeed, passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act was a condition placed upon Arizona by the US secretary of the interior for his approval of the Central Arizona Project, which is a massive canal system that carries and distributes Arizona’s allotment of the Colorado River to its metropolitan residents and their surrounding agricultural communities. Forty percent of Phoenix’s water comes from the Colorado River and is ferried to the urban areas by the largest and most complex aqueduct system in the United States. Although these are surface water supplies, their point of origin is distant from the end users. Arizona receives a set amount of water that comes through the canals at a steady pace. Regardless of any visible effect of withdrawals on the river itself, residents of Phoenix see their surface water every day in their full and flowing canals.
Phoenix is guaranteed a certain number of acre-feet per year from the Colorado, regardless of whether the Colorado River is itself under stress. This allocation would only change if the US secretary of the interior put a call on the river. The determination for such a call is not related to the health of the Colorado River, but rather the height of the water in Lake Mead, a reservoir that sits between California and Nevada. Arizona water utilities, then, do not have a strong incentive to limit customer use, but they do have a concern about the level of Lake Mead. Their answer, then, has been to invest in ways to keep Lake Mead from dropping below the call point.
Because irrigation for farming is one of the largest sources of water consumption and would be first in line for a restriction should there be a call, some farmers have negotiated with municipalities to leave fields fallow or plant less-water-intensive crops until the lake’s levels are restored. Municipal users are not asked to conserve because, as one utility explained, the impact of their efforts on levels in Mead are “harder to prove” (Arizona Utility). Another strategy has been an agreement between states to store part of their allocation in Lake Mead, keeping the lake levels artificially high (relative to actual allocation and flow). A water manager described an additional strategy known as “augmentation”: “Those are things like weather modification projects. We contribute money to do cloud seeding in the upper basin. The cloud seeding happens in Wyoming and boosts the snow pack, which then runs into Lake Powell, which then runs into Lake Mead, which we benefit from” (Arizona Utility). The fact that experimental cloud seeding in Wyoming is described as an Arizona water conservation program displays how distanced end use has become relative to water stress in Arizona. The problem for Phoenix is not seen as one of consumer behavior, but rather of geological and climatological factors that affect water supply, and the hope is that water prosperity is just around the corner once snowfall returns to normal. Climate change, and the possibility of a new normal, is not a part of the discussion in this calculus.
Because of the socially constructed nature of “seeing” water, it requires intentional effort to make groundwater and distantly located surface water “visible.” However, there may be more than inertia preventing action to help the public “see” its water supply. There can be concern among politicians and the business community that projecting an image of water stress would hinder continued economic development and growth in the region. If public knowledge of water stress conflicts with a growth agenda, then some stakeholders will readily choose the latter at the expense of the former. One interviewee commented: “The governor here is absolutely committed to growth. … He has that ethic built into him, and to him growth is next to godliness. … So there is no notion in the financial circles and in the development circles of slowing down. … They’re not quitting because of water” (Phoenix Agricultural Representative). Another interviewee from the environmentalist community also cited the governor’s office as a hindrance to a water-informed public:
You have the governor of Arizona Doug Ducey publicly making statements saying we are doing great where water is concerned, and we’ve done such a great job. The line is: we are not California. California has fallen over this conservation cliff, but we have planned better, so we are in a better position. … You have to look only at a very, very, very, very short time frame to feel we are doing fine.(Phoenix Environmentalist)
Because water supplies cannot be seen and observed by residents themselves, they see or do not see water stress indirectly through statements made by political leaders. But these intermediaries may have conflicting interests or alternative motivations that keep water stress where it is: underground and far away, safely out of sight.
I think possibly the reason that you don’t even see market-driven solutions is that staunch refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem. Because for you to embrace even a market-driven solution, it still is suggesting that you do think there is an issue here. A very important part of the Governor’s line, and everybody else’s, is: we’re fine. … Their objective is: don’t have the citizens in any way feel water paucity, or change what they normally do in any way due to concerns about water. … And the general public really has no way to provide that context themselves. They aren’t hydrologists or biologists or ecologists. So when they are hearing the governor of their state saying we aren’t California, we are doing just great, we’ve thought ahead, how are they supposed to know any different, until we hit that wall ourselves a few years into the future?(Phoenix Environmentalist)
The consequence of unreliable intermediaries in the process of constructing a view of the water supply is that the public does not play an active role in maintaining water conservation standards when these come under threat. Water conservation policy is an inherently political process where different interests intersect and align. There are many industries that rely upon affordable and abundant water, and those with powerful resources can effectively lobby against water restrictions that threaten their bottom line or impinge on regular business practices.
Every time the state legislature gets involved in water law, they weaken the law. And that is in response to the homebuilders association, the cattlemen’s association, the big irrigation districts, the cotton growers’ association, the Arizona farm bureau, the Mohawk Irrigation District, yada yada yada. … [Meanwhile] the overdraft has grown from 4,000 to 15,000. So it has almost quadrupled. The thing that bugs me is that the people at the state level, and even at the community level, think they are doing a really great job.(Arizona Environmentalist).
In San Antonio, the public will was very much for water conservation. Attempts to roll back or resist conservation efforts were stymied by a general public that was both aware of and concerned for a water supply that was limited and valuable. With no clear image of water quantities and aquifer withdrawals, the public in Phoenix plays no active role in water politics and policy. Certainly individuals are concerned and do conserve, but they do so in isolation and without a sense of clear relationship between water resources and public behavior.
This article examines the visibility of water as a critical variable in garnering the political will for water conservation policy. In Atlanta and Tampa, the visible retreat of water supplies prompted both regions to enact strong conservation programming. For Phoenix and San Antonio, where water stress was generally invisible to the populace, it was threat from the federal government that finally led to groundwater conservation policy. In Arizona, the 1980 Groundwater Management Act was only passed when the US secretary of the interior threatened to deny the Central Arizona Project canal system and access to the Colorado River allotment. In San Antonio, the Edwards Aquifer Authority was established to limit groundwater pumping following a successful Endangered Species Act lawsuit in a federal court. However, after necessary water conservation legislation was passed, these two cities took different paths. San Antonio has continued to push the envelope, building one of the most robust and comprehensive water conservation programs in the country. Phoenix has relied upon voluntary measures, and it has seen its original requirements repeatedly weakened under political pressure (Larson et al. 2009). One reason for this difference is the variable “visibility” of their water supplies.
The importance of water visibility for water conservation may not be encouraging for those who would like to see greater efficiency and better water stewardship in the United States. Readers may conclude that the public must face a water crisis or live in threat of water stress to find a shared will for conservation. To that concern there are two responses. First, it is not my intention to claim that the visibility of water, whether that visibility is a material quality or a socially constructed condition, is the only or even the principal determinant in the public will for conservation. Thus, strategies to increase water visibility should be combined with other strategies that take into account the many other factors that affect support for water conservation policies. Even in the cities that comprise this study, there are multiple factors that conjoin with water visibility to produce the varied policy approaches that are adopted. These other variables should be explored and can provide opportunities beyond those of “seeing” water. Political ideology and political process clearly matter, and established legal regimes, such as the “rule of capture,” can have path dependent outcomes in water regulation and conservation. However, the almost visceral response by Atlantans to the drop in Lake Lanier, the loss of wetlands around Tampa, and the constant concern of San Antonians for the level of the Edwards Aquifer all stand in stark contrast to the happy ignorance of Phoenix with its federally mandated spigot from the Colorado River.
Second, it is important to recall that visualized water scarcity is not only a material attribute, but also a socially constructed one. There are myriad ways to be under stress. The way that invisible water is made manifest can also influence the public will for its protection. Tampa, for instance, has succeeded in stabilizing its aquifer, but levels are 20 feet below historic norms in some places. Instead of reporting the aquifer level, the distance between the level and historic norms could be reported regularly as a difference to be made up.
Third, while this research has focused upon the visibilities of water supply, there may be opportunities to make water more visible in its use. Some municipalities have been looking at smart water meters as the next horizon in water conservation. Rather than seeing supply, individual households can come to better “see” and understand water use (Chetty, Tran, and Grinter 2008). Not only may customers see and track their improvement over time, a utility could make visible a customer’s use relative to other households in similar circumstances. Whether household water visibility through smart metering will have the same effect as supply visibility is a subject for further investigation.
However, it is importnant to note that “seeing water” is not equivalent to an advertising campaign or an education program. Certainly these are a useful complement to any conservation program. But semiotic games can be lost; narratives can be co-opted. If water is made visible in a manner that comes across as gimmicky, the public may sense manipulation and become skeptical. The social construction should be as constant, and as inconspicuous, as surface water itself. In San Antonio, the levels of the aquifer are reported daily, outside of any concomitant educational program and without reference to political disputes. It is not politicized water, but present water, beside which politics can play themselves out.
As water system infrastructures across the country become old and dilapidated, their invisibility leaves little interest in the public or among politicians to see to its prompt replacement and repair.
It is easy to point at a reservoir and say, “Look how much water we have!” It is very difficult to go out on an intersection and say, “Look at our beautiful pipes! They don’t leak!” … It is really hard for a politician to get up and say, “I put new pipes in this town!” … if you can’t see the infrastructure, then it is really, really hard to get people to understand it.(Georgia Environmentalist)
But the invisibility of pipelines and the consequent difficulty of building public awareness and support for their maintenance and improvement is only one dimension of infrastructure. When made public and visible, the construction of new pipelines and canals can also contribute to the invisibility of water conservation. As discussed above, once the water started flowing through the Central Arizona project canals, the focus of water supply policy changed from limiting use to protecting the allocation. A similar relationship could also occur in San Antonio with the construction of the Vista Ridge Pipeline. Emphasis on supply security can create a “moral hazard” that undermines demand management (Katz 2016).
Additional research questions can be developed from this broader issue that address the diversity of water supply sources and their variable visibility. As water service providers work for a diverse portfolio of sources, will the ability of the general public to “see” the source diminish? Another question is whether public will for conservation is greater for natural sources or manmade ones. And, perhaps more importantly for wetter regions, would the public develop the will for conservation if it were not their own water source whose stress was seen on a regular basis? Finally, how does this finding translate to other types of “invisible” environmental stress? Could the political will to fight climate change be improved if the daily news reported the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere along with the weather and Dow Jones Industrial Average? Or a daily visual image of the polar ice cap? The possibilities and caveats of “visibility” and the will for environmental protection have yet to be fully explored.
Finally, this research raises a new metric by which to evaluate future water policy: What are the visual implications for new capital projects and legal regulatory requirements? For example, when constructing a new reservoir, the proximity of the reservoir to the population it serves could matter for public engagement in protecting that supply. As more municipalities make use of aquifer storage and recovery, how might that supply be made visible to the populace? Regarding new regulation, it would seem that environmental flow requirements produce a stronger conservation culture than designated allocations. The former keep public awareness securely on the stress levels of a water source, whereas the latter keeps the focus on allocated supply alone. “Seeing” water can thus become another dimension for evaluating sound policy choices.
Water conservation is a necessarily political process. Water supply, climate, and technological systems are all conditions that impact policy outcome, but between the conditions and the result are many interest-laden decisions that are not easy to answer. Some of these issues involve the question of whether to pursue conservation or new supply. Other questions ask who should bear the burden of water conservation (Renwick and Archibald 1998). Regarding the former, a visible water crisis renders moot the apparent contradiction between conservation and new supply. Seeing water supplies vanish often results a desire for quick results by whatever means necessary. As Atlanta’s crisis made clear, the fastest and cheapest approach is often conservation. While a long-term strategy may involve a new desalination plant, as it did in Tampa, the emphasis on conservation as a first-line response is comparatively uncontroversial when the public can see dwindling water supply.
On the question of social justice in water conservation and the variable burdens for demand reduction policy, visibility alone will not necessarily impact the more subtle points of this debate. It can “tip the scale” toward a willingness for conservation, particularly by those parties who might otherwise resist the effort, and the general desire to conserve might possibly include greater acceptance of redistribution programs to help low-income consumers. For example, in San Antonio, which has high public support for conservation, the higher rates paid for discretionary water become subsidies for leak repair offered to low-income customers. San Antonio has also pioneered tactics for targeted marketing, matching the conservation strategy to the type of household and its bracket of water use. In the case of San Antonio, it is not the conservation policies that create unequal burdens, but rather a new supply infrastructure. The Vista Ridge pipeline will raise rates for all customers, despite the fact that most of the water will be used by the wealthier households, for whom demand is more elastic. And, as the new supply is far from visible, it may then further erode conservation and the targeted programs that work toward water equity.
The author would like to thank David Hess and George Hornberger for their comments on a previous version of this article. This project was partially supported by the US National Science Foundation for the grant “Water Conservation and Hydrological Transitions in American Cities,” Hydrologic Sciences, EAR-1416964; Division of Earth Sciences. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Seven of the top 10 VWCI scoring cities are in California. A comparative study of California municipalities may be conducted at a later date.
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