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B.C.'s drought: Drought veterans share communication strategies

After dealing with severe droughts for decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) developed and administers one of America’s most progressive and comprehensive water conservation programs, making it a go-to expert for cities across North America looking for advice and information.
The American Southwest is no stranger to drought conditions. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) administers one of the U.S.'s most progressive and comprehensive water conservation programs.

This story is the sixth in a multi-part series running throughout June exploring the wide-ranging impacts of persistent drought conditions and climate change seen across the province in recent years.

As B.C. faces severe droughts expected to continue across the province in coming years, officials are having to look at how best to communicate the sometimes complicated issues of water consumption, conservation and supply. Some are looking across the border for communications strategies. 

Nevada leads the way

After dealing with severe droughts for decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) developed and administers one of the U.S.'s most progressive and comprehensive water conservation programs, making it a go-to expert for cities across North America looking for advice and information.

Bronson Mack, public information officer with the SNWA and Las Vegas Valley Water District, says when it comes to sharing information about droughts with the public, all available communication platforms are used in order to reach their target audience. He notes over the past 10 years, the media environment and the way people consume news and information have changed.

“You have some people that are watching local news on television. You have some folks that prefer to listen to radio or read newspapers,” he says. “Social media obviously has played a big role in information sharing and kind of providing bite-sized bits of information.

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"Obviously, you need to be a critical consumer of that information to make sure that you’re getting accurate data and information to make decisions on, but our organization is really focused on, where are the audiences? What are the tools and tactics that we have to be able to reach them?”

Besides press releases and media interviews, Mack says one of the most successful methods used by the SNWA is direct mail because it delivers something tangible to their customers — something they can see and hold.

“Sometimes we send information in postcard format, so it's very easy. You can even get the information passively as you're walking from your mailbox back to the home and kind of looking through your mail,” he says, “But we also find success in putting the information in an envelope with our logo on it. People believing or seeing that, ‘Oh, this is important information from my water agency,’ has a higher probability of it being opened and reviewed by the public.”

B.C. targets water suppliers, licence holders 

The B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship told the Coast Reporter it also sends out letters and flyers with information on drought preparedness, but to water suppliers, including local governments, [business] improvement districts and private water utilities, and to individual water license holders.

Provincial communications about drought preparedness begin early in the year with water users and water suppliers and, as drought levels escalate to Level 3, 4 or 5, the province then sends letters to water licence holders in specific areas or watersheds to encourage voluntary reductions in water use and to provide early notice of potential regulatory action if needed as a last resort to protect fish and aquatic ecosystems.

On top of mailouts, the SNWA uses its website and social media to help spread the word about water conservation. The authority manages several social media channels, including a Spanish Facebook page, which provides information about mandatory seasonal watering restrictions, conservation programs, rebates, landscaping tips, and more. Their social media channels have more than 40,000 followers.

Water Smart podcast gets a following

Then there’s the Water Smart podcast, of which Mack is a co-host, to talk all things water. The podcast recently celebrated 10,000 downloads with topics such as, “Straight from the Tap: What’s in your drinking water?” “Toilet or Trash: What you flush impacts our water cycle,” and “Surviving Shortage: Southern Nevada relies on conservation, future water augmentation,” it’s no wonder listeners are tuning in.

“We've got more than 50 episodes up and we really try and cover evergreen topics that have relevance, not just today, but also tomorrow, for future customers that begin to tune in,” says Mack.

The authority’s Conservation Education and Outreach Program works to educate customers about water consumption and acts as a reminder for them to change their irrigation clocks each season to abide by the mandatory watering restrictions. As a result of this targeted public outreach campaign, month-over-month water usage decreases by almost 30 per cent during the transition to fall and winter compliance periods.

Other successful community outreach programs include presentations and updates to groups across the state to speak about Southern Nevada’s conservation efforts, a newsletter that goes out to 800,000 customers and the postcards sent to more than 500,00 households each season. Additionally, the dedicated Conservation Helpline (702-258-SAVE) is open 24-hours a day for anyone who wants to report water waste or receive information related to water efficiency programs, which to date has fielded almost 540,000 calls.

The SNWA also operates several programs created to educate and involve students on water issues in Southern Nevada, including the Youth Conservation Council, through which the young members learn about water conservation and plan and carry out projects with a goal to improve and educate the community.

Lessons from Vegas: Every drop returns to Lake Mead

Mack says there are also lessons to be learned from Las Vegas, one of the most visited cities in the U.S. with massive water consumption. Mack says every drop that’s used indoors, including everything that goes down sinks, showers, toilets and dishwashers, is reclaimed, treated and returned to Lake Mead. 

“And every gallon that we return to Lake Mead allows us to draw another gallon out of the lake and bring it into the valley through the drinking water treatment process,” he says. “Our indoor water use has no impact on our water supply. It's the water that we use outdoors, that we consume and that we only use one time, and that's the water that we really need to focus our conservation efforts on.”

On the Sunshine Coast communication starts early

Aidan Buckley, manager of communications and engagement for the Sunshine Coast Regional District, which has faced water shortages and a drought-induced state of local emergency in recent years, says communication around water conservation is vital in spring to help prepare residents as they move into summer.

He notes May and June are good months to get water intensive activities, such as power washing a house or a boat, complete before higher restrictions come into effect.

“We’re asking them to do it when we know there's rain in the forecast and when we know we have supply available to go ahead and do it,” says Buckley. “So that's when we talk about getting ready for summer and then, particularly this year, we talked about the fact it's everywhere in the province, is anticipating water use throughout the summer months.”

Buckley adds, residents with meters can monitor just how much water they’re using and readjust their habits accordingly.

“Everything from flushing the toilet to using the washing machine, or taking baths,” he says. “And the one activity that we have included on the chart here, which kind of eclipsed them all, is running the garden sprinkler for an hour. I guess just really kind of quantifying that in people's minds how much water these activities take. But for now, we're hopeful that getting that information out there and is going to really help with decision making.”