Customer Programs and Communication

This primer identifies popular and effective water efficiency and conservation programs, and communication and outreach strategies that have been used by California water utilities to educate customers, influence water use behaviors, and realize water savings.

This primer contains the following:

  • An index of water efficiency programs;
  • Strategies for how water providers can communicate with their customers;
  • Strategies for how water providers can communicate with the media; and
  • References linking examples of effective water efficiency programs and communication strategies.

    Program Breakdown

    The effectiveness of individual programs depends on the service area. For example, communities built since 2000 will already have efficient toilets and clothes washers in new structures and would not benefit as much from a toilet and washer rebate program as would older communities.

    In general, water efficiency programs can be categorized as mandatory, utility-provided, or incentivized and voluntary.

    In terms of services provided to customers or incentive programs, most water efficiency programs can include:

    Residential Customer Programs Multi Family Programs Commercial, Industrial and Institutional (CII) Customer Programs Mandatory Actions
    Residential Customer Programs Indoor Water Use The residential programs listed may be implemented on a single-family or a multi-family scale; however, in some cases, specific techniques have been helpful in targeting multi-family complexes, such as: Outdoor Water Use Indoor Water Use Most California water utilities have enacted regulations in response to the drought. These regulations are often tiered and based on water supply conditions and other factors. While these regulations are decided at a local level, state mandates such as the April 2015 mandatory water use reductions, will set targets and guide local regulations. For information on these regulations, visit the State Board's drought portal.
    Irrigation Education and Incentives Water Wise House Calls (agency-provided water audits) Submeter programs Landscape Surveys Indoor Water Audit
    Sustainable Landscape Design, Installation, Education, and Incentives Distribution of plumbing retrofits (e.g. faucet aerators and showerheads) Indoor and Outdoor Water Audits Water Budgets Direct Install or Distribution of Efficient Fixtures
    Lawn Conversion or Landscape Modification Incentives Rebates/Incentives (e.g. for water efficient appliances) Direct Install or Distribution of Efficient Fixtures Rebates/incentives (e.g. conversion to drip or high-efficiency nozzles)
    Plant Choice Education Leak Detection (usually at the customer's meter) Efficient Pool Programs
    Alternative Water Sources for Outdoor Use Education and Incentives

    Water Efficiency Programs/Tools Index

    The following table identifies water efficiency program topics, reference tools, and descriptions of their respective water savings actions.

    Residential Efficiency Description
    Clothes Washer and Dishwasher Retrofits Install high efficiency appliances as classified by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency that save water and energy; these appliances are often rebated by water and energy providers.
    Home Water Use Calculator Calculates water use from customer inputs and relays information to homeowners.
    Leak Identification and Repair Informs the property owner or the water provider of on-site water waste and stops wasteful leaks.
    Toilet Retrofits Install high efficiency toilets (HET).
    Water Audits or ‘Water Wise’ or House Calls Survey houses to identify opportunities to replace high water using appliances and to find leaks. Home survey kits are offered through schools to school children or surveys are performed by water provider employees.
    Outdoor Efficiency Description
    Deficit Irrigation Applies irrigation to plants in quantities less than the full ET requirement.; Different plant species respond differently to deficit amounts.
    Drip Irrigation Applies targeted, low volume irrigation allowing water and nutrients to penetrate the soil to the root zone; reduces drift, spray evaporation, and runoff.
    Graywater Capture and Use Applies water that comes from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and clothes washing machines to plants as a substitute for potable water.
    Irrigation Controller Efficiency and ET Educates customers to adjust irrigation controllers, which can result in significant water savings. ET data is available from the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS).
    Irrigation Training for Landscape Professionals Educates landscape professionals through multi-session classes about landscaping principles, soils, mulches, irrigation, pest management, pruning, fertilizers and turf care (e.g., Green Gardener Training and QWEL WaterSense training).
    Large Landscape Surveys Undertakes irrigation equipment inspections, sprinkler precipitation tests, written report listing suggestions for improving the efficiency of the irrigation system, site-specific irrigation schedule based on test data and local weather data, and can generate site-specific landscape water budgets designed to assist in managing landscape water use.
    Lawn Conversions and Turf Removal Removes and replaces turf lawns with more water efficient landscaping to reduce outdoor irrigation.
    Low Water Using Plants and their ET Requirements Minimizes water use through climate-appropriate landscaping. Reference WUCOLS (Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species) to identify low water intensity plants and to estimate their water needs.
    Mulch Covers soil surfaces to conserve moisture, improve fertility and health of soil, reduce weed growth, and enhance the visual appeal of the area.
    Plant Tags Identifies regionally-appropriate plants for consumers.
    Pool Covers Reduces evaporation from pools.
    Rainwater Capture and Use Captures rainwater from roofs, driveways, and other impervious surfaces. Applies rainwater to plants as substitute for potable water.
    Recycled Waste Water Substitutes treated wastewater for potable water on authorized uses such as landscape irrigation, street cleaning, dust control, and cooling towers.
    Rotating Nozzles Improve distribution uniformity, reduce runoff, reduce overspray, and improve application in windy conditions.
    Soil Moisture Sensor Measures soil moisture content in the active root zone and transmits signals to an irrigation controller to prevent overwatering.
    Water Wise Gardening Involves gardening practices that use limited supplemental irrigation.
    Weather Based Irrigation Controller Estimates or measures available plant moisture in order to operate an irrigation system in accordance with current weather conditions.
    CII Efficiency Description
    Commercial Clothes Washers Saves water used in the large family sized washers often found in coin-operated laundries.
    Commercial Ice-Makers Maintains ice machine temperatures through air flow in place of water flow.
    Connectionless Food Steamers Minimizes steam water waste in commercial kitchens.
    Cooling Towers –Conductivity Controllers Measures water quality and controls water additions to cooling water evaporation systems.
    Dry Vacuum Pumps Reduces water use by vacuum pumps common in dentistry and hospitals.
    Laminar Flow Restrictors Reduces flow in health care facility faucets where faucet aerators may be a repository for pathogens.
    Modifications to Processes and Equipment Updates industrial processes and equipment for water efficiency, water quality and/or energy efficiency improvements.
    Plumbing Flow Control Valves Maintains pressure while reducing flow for showers and faucets.
    Pre-Rinse Dishwasher Sprayers Minimizes commercial kitchen water used to pre-rinse dishes before loading them in a commercial dishwasher.
    Surveys and Audits Inspects on-site equipment and processes to identify opportunities for water and energy savings.
    Toilet Retrofits Installs high efficiency toilets (HET).
    Urinal Retrofits Installs waterless and high efficiency urinals.

    Communication and Outreach

    Water conservation programs that effect permanent market changes continue to yield water savings long after the program has ended.  Public information campaigns are essential to the success of such programs. The American Water Works Association’s (AWWA’s) Conservation Communications Guidebook outlines key principles for communicating with customers. Two of these are: alignment of water provider actions with expected program outcomes; and preventing conservation backlash.

    The California Urban Water Conservation Council has also developed resources to advise outreach strategies. Agencies interviewed by the Council’s Residential Committee during the development of its Residential BMP Guidebook cited a range of the most effective strategies for public information campaigns including:

    • Information on mandatory conservation regulations
    • Home water surveys/audits
    • Turf replacement programs
    • Water agency events and workshops
    • Irrigation efficiency retrofits
    • Landscaping guides
    • Online advertising
    • Tours
    • Websites

    There is a growing body of work that documents the effectiveness of using social norms to cause long term behavior change.

    Excellent examples of social marketing campaigns and general resources in the field are listed below.

    Basic programs for contacting the public

    Information on bills and inserts

    Following are some general tips for using customer bills for conservation outreach. Please also see Tool # 7 – Consumption Awareness for additional insights.

    Capitalize on the customer’s undivided attention. Utility branding expert John Ruetten says the water bill is the most important communication vehicle because the customer is paying attention and, in many cases, is motivated to find ways to pay less. (See Ruetten’s Utility Branding Network

    Show year-to-year consumption comparisons. This will help customers understand how their water use has changed over time, and may inspire them to achieve previous low consumption levels. A graph showing historical consumption data can also alert a customer to a major leak or other source of water waste.

    Use editable and static message spaces on the bill to point to conservation pages on your web site.

    Keep inserts small and lightweight to prevent an increase in postage costs. Good topics for inserts include seasonal reminders on irrigation adjustments; workshops, public events, and meetings; rebates and other incentive programs; and conservation measures that are in force.

    Wholesalers may offer bill insert templates or the opportunity to print jointly with other retailers in the area. This cuts design and printing costs and disseminates a consistent message on conservation throughout the region.

    Include links that enable electronic bill-payers to view the inserts, varying the message and links in the cover e-mail to capture customer’s attention at each billing cycle.

    Public service advertising

    Public service advertising (PSA) is an option in some communities, but television and radio stations are no longer required to provide “free” air time to non-profits or for public service messages. If local media produce and/or air PSAs, it is generally as part of a partnership or sponsorship.

    Some water agencies have built successful partnerships with private businesses and media outlets that have sustainability initiatives to air water conservation messages at no cost to the agency. Other times, PSAs are produced for free online distribution and used in combination with paid advertising.

    Community bulletin boards that run on public access and government channels are another low- or no-cost alternative. Contact the cable provider or the city to determine how to provide information for this venue.

    Water agencies may have a 30-minute video production suitable for airing on the government, public access or education channel. Contact the city or the cable provider to determine how to get it on the air. In some cities, the cable provider may operate these channels; in others, these channels are operated and controlled by the city or the county.

    Paid advertising can be expensive, but often it makes economic sense when an organization is truly serious about widely promoting its conservation message or if the agency has a very large service area with many customers. Advertising options include local newspapers and magazines, radio spots, movie theaters, billboards, bus shelters, cable TV spots, and online sites.

    Because of the cost, water utilities must be vigilant in designing the structure of a campaign, developing effective messages, and tracking results. Often it can be cost effective to hire a public relations/advertising firm to aid in developing an advertising campaign. This is especially true if an agency requires specific expert knowledge about advertising techniques and practices that can’t be sourced from internal staff. Additionally, if the campaign requires buying media from a large variety of outlets, an ad agency may be able to bundle media buys to reduce cost. For media that reach large geographic areas, consider working with regional partners to spread out media costs and cut the percentage of the budget devoted to producing the ads.

    Consistency and frequency are crucial in water conservation advertising campaigns. Use frequent, consistent messages to achieve long-term results.

    Examples of paid advertising:

    • TV and Radio Campaigns
    • Outdoor Ads
    • Local Newspapers
    • Online Ads
    • Vehicle Wraps or Magnets for District Vehicles


    Chambers of Commerce, Rotary clubs and other community organizations frequently invite speakers to their meetings, providing many opportunities to talk about water-related topics. Having a speaker ready to go when the group has a time slot to fill enhances water utility’s reach into the community. In addition, water agencies should include speakers as a part of any major outreach campaign. Identify groups that represent segments of the audience you need to reach and proactively seek opportunities to address them. A primary goal of both types of speaking engagements is to reach active and influential community leaders who will pass on information to others, lending their own credibility to the message in the process.


    Community and regional events can reach a large audience at a limited cost.

    Community events, such as Earth Day celebrations, farmers’ markets, Water Awareness Month events, home and garden shows, and green expos occur on an ongoing basis. They offer water utilities a varied audience – ready to walk by booths and take information – at a very low cost.

    Regional events, such as county fairs, trade and industry expos, conferences, and regional symposiums happen less frequently, but they can provide excellent opportunities to reach a large, cross-sectional audience.

    Tours and open houses are a relatively inexpensive way to get customers excited and informed about water agency operations and can generate positive media coverage. Most customers have never seen the inside of a water treatment plant or considered the power necessary to pump water to different elevations within the district. Sustainable garden tours can open eyes to efficient landscapes and turf alternatives.

    Contacts with the Media

    Phone calls, e-mails, face-to-face meetings, and fliers are all methods to make contact with the media, but press releases and media advisories are the most effective, time-honored methods.

    A press release is a news story that you write. It’s the starting place for a reporter, who usually changes it significantly. A media advisory makes reporters aware of an event that they may want to attend or cover.

    Maintaining Relationships with Reporters

    Particularly with journalists, the purpose of a contact is to establish a relationship in order to disseminate information to the public. The better the relationships, the easier it will be to inform your target audience of pertinent events and key messages. Journalists appreciate effective “sources” that make their job easier. Be accessible and provide a steady stream of accurate, newsworthy information.

    In 2014 the Council presented a short media training session during its plenary meeting. The handout distributed during the meeting, “Top Tips for Media Interviews,” provides helpful information on dealing with media inquiries and developing relationships with reporters.

    Actively Maintained Website & Internet Presence

    More flexible and timely than printed materials, a comprehensive website should be the foundation of your public outreach program. Always include your online address in bill inserts, newsletters, social media posts, flyers, newspaper articles, and any other communication tool you produce. Then these other tools can work like headlines, capturing attention and leading interested readers to your website for the rest of the story.

    • Be timely
    • Be customer-centric
    • Be prominent
    • Be accurate
    • Be found
    • Measure results

    Tools and topics to consider adding to your website

    • How-to information on rebates and incentives, including forms, rules, deadlines and lists of eligible models
    • Conservation kit request
    • Information on ordinances, including how to comply, what is voluntary and what is mandatory
    • Recommended irrigation schedules and other seasonal guidelines
    • ACWA’s free Save Our Water widget to display rotating tips
    • Agency newsletters, with the option of signing up for an e-mail alert when a new edition is available
    • Agency water sources (make sure it aligns with the information required in your annual Consumer Confidence Report)
    • News releases on conservation programs and success stories with links
    • Hydrant flushing schedule, explaining why it is necessary and doesn’t waste water
    • Water waste reporting form; determine in advance how your agency will use the information and respond to the person reporting the problem and to the suspected water waster.
    • School education programs, including how to request materials and presentations
    • Information for students doing research for school reports

    Social Media

    Social marketing should not be confused with social media, a term used to describe types of media that are based on online conversations and interactions. Social media can be effective tools in a social marketing campaign because they connect people who are interested in similar issues and help the group articulate its normative values. Out of 22 agencies interviewed by the Council Education Committee in 2010, there were 12 using social media, primarily Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

    • Several agencies use “contact us” links or forms on their websites to generate dialog with customers, and consider this as a social media channel
    • Other utilities are enthusiastic about using social media to reach out to customers that are both tech savvy and interested in conservation issues. They use a variety of platforms, but generally focus on generating content for Twitter and Facebook. These agencies link all of their social media accounts, so that when they update one site, the others update, too.

    Resources for and Examples of Public Information Programs

    The following section lists programmatic opportunities with customers and the media.

    1. Newsletter articles on conservation:
    2. Flyers and/or brochures, bill stuffers, messages printed on bill, information packets can be an excellent and inexpensive way to get your customers’ attention. Below are some examples, and there is also more information on this in the Council’s Residential Guidebook
    3. Landscape water conservation media campaigns:
    4. General water conservation information: this includes basic information on what water use efficiency is, how it applies to your region, and any programs offered by your agency. These can be distributed in any way that works for the agency: though mail, website, bill messaging, or other method.
    5. Website:
    6. E-mail messages: Contra Costa Water District allows customers to sign up for instant e-mail notification regarding when to reset their sprinkler timers:
    7. Website links to qualified landscape professionals, associations and other helpful sites:
    8. Direct mail - seasonal postcards noting irrigation requirement changes:
    9. Direct mail or other notification to customers about high water use:
    10. Customer notification when runoff is noticed or bill is at least 20% higher than same time last year: there is more information on this technique available in the Residential Guidebook
    11. Dedicated phone line or “on hold” messaging: this could be a phone line dedicated totally to water conservation messaging (similar to healthcare “flu lines” in the winter), or it could be recordings that customers hear when they are on hold or being transferred.
    12. Fairs/events:
    13. Monthly water use reports: share progress in reaching conservation goals with your customers via website reports and/or a small section of their bill. This is also good information for your agency’s newsletter.
    14. Point of purchase pieces:
    15. Media outreach
    16. Adult Education/Training Programs:
    17. Water Conservation Gardens: involvement in a garden that promotes and educates the public about water-efficient landscaping and conservation techniques. May include “corporate” or “business” sponsorship or membership.
    18. Sponsor or co-sponsor landscape workshops/training for homeowners and/or homeowners associations.
    19. Landscape watering calculator and watering index to assist with weekly irrigation scheduling
    20. Other programs:
      • Volunteers:
      1. The City of Sacramento employs a “water ambassador program,” making use of neighborly connections. Training is offered through the city’s website: or:
      2. Reach out to local master gardeners for landscape product community education; they are experts, typically well tied into their communities, and enjoy sharing their knowledge
      • Advertise:
      1. Municipal Water District of Orange County’s public service announcement featuring world champion surfer Rob Machado: Case study: Water Do More with Less
      2. Each year Santa Barbara water agencies host a video competition for Santa Barbara County High Schools. Schools from throughout the County submit 30 to 60 second commercial-style videos that promote water conservation in fun and innovative ways. The agencies use the best videos for a summer media campaign
      • Develop and promote lists of plants/landscape options that will thrive locally:
      1. The Council’s Water Saver Home website offers free climate appropriate sample landscape templates through its Smart From the Start project, as does EcoLandscape California as part of its New California Landscapes initiative.
      2. Zone 7 Water Agency sponsors a gardening site featuring water-efficient plants and landscape designs. GardenSoft produces the software, which is used by many other agencies, appropriately customized for each region’s local climate and soils.
      3. The California Native Plant Society offers native plant lists by region

    The complete Jumpstart Water Shortage Toolkit includes:

    1. – Model Water Shortage Contingency Plans
    2. – Water Waste Ordinances and Enforcement Primer
    3. – Water Shortage Pricing Primer
    4. – Water Loss and Supply Alternatives Primer
    5. – Customer Programs and Communication/Outreach Primer
    6. – Local Water Supply Fact Sheet
    7. – Water Use and Loss Awareness Resources
    8. – Water School Curriculum
    9. – Water Resource Funding Primer

    Tools are available to view or download at The Council is grateful to the following individuals for helping Council staff to develop, edit and review the Jumpstart Water Shortage Toolkit: Russell Frink, Charlie Pike, Sharon Fraser, William Granger and Toby Goddard. The Toolkit was made possible by the financial assistance of the California Department of Water Resources and Council membership dues.