A Culture of Nagging Helps California Save Water
SAN FRANCISCO — Californians sharply cut water use this summer, prompting state officials to credit their new conservation policies and the sting of thousands of warnings and penalties that they had issued to people for overuse.
But the most effective enforcers may be closer to home: the domestic water police.
They are the moms and dads, spouses and partners, children, even co-workers and neighbors who are quick to wag a finger when they spot people squandering moisture, such as a faucet left running while they’re brushing their teeth, or using too much water to clean dinner plates in the sink. And showers? No lingering allowed.
So discovered Dick Allen, a retired businessman in San Francisco, who tells of getting busted recently by his wife. He’d just stepped into a hot shower to loosen up after a workout when she appeared in the bathroom to scold him.
“ ‘You’ve been in the shower too long,’ ” he recalled her saying. “How do you know that?” he pleaded. She had proof — his back was red. “It was the gotcha moment,” said Mr. Allen, who occasionally jokes with his younger wife that she has “junior water rights” and therefore can’t shower until the following day.
The culture of badgering has intensified since January 2014, when the drought led Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency and ask Californians to voluntarily cut water use by 20 percent. But as conditions worsened, the state stopped asking so politely. In June and July, for instance, state water agencies issued more than 70,000 warnings for overuse and more than 20,000 penalties. (The fines varied widely, but were generally several hundred dollars or less, state officials said.)
Many of the warnings were issued because “someone’s neighbor ratted on them,” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board. The actual penalties, he said, were assessed to “a tiny percentage of people who just don’t care.”
The nanny-state strategy, however, has been helped by the nagging-state approach at home, according to interviews with people across the state. By many accounts, the needling often seems taken in its intended, well-meaning spirit. But it isn’t always welcomed, particularly when it comes from someone outside the inner family circle.
That led to an awkward moment for J. S. Gilbert and his wife recently during a gathering at their house with friends in South San Francisco. One of the visitors used the bathroom and, Mr. Gilbert happened to notice, didn’t flush. So he mentioned this oversight to his friend, who “looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow,’ ” said Mr. Gilbert, who works as a consultant to advertising agencies.
“I said, ‘I think that’s O.K. if that’s you and your wife at home,’ ” Mr. Gilbert responded, which invited another riposte from his visitor. “He said: ‘That’s up to you. I’m doing what I can to save water.’ ”
Water shaming has plenty of precursors. Public safety advocates, for instance, have said that greater use of seatbelts, and a drop in drunken driving episodes nationwide, can be traced in part to friends and family members giving offenders a mouthful.