Multi-Benefits of Water Conservation

With funding from the California Department of Water Resources, The California Water Efficiency Partnership (CalWEP) conducted a literature review on the various social and environmental benefits attributed to urban water conservation. In particular, CalWEP sought information on benefits attributed to a specific water management strategy: turf replacement programs (also known as landscape transformation programs). These programs became the focus since they are ubiquitous across the state, will likely continue into the future, and can achieve multi-objective water management goals (AWE, 2019). This work supplements efforts by the Pacific Institute who, in 2019, released a multi-benefit framework and web-based resource database for examining water management strategies. The intent of this work is to identify metrics and other qualitative measures not traditionally factored into water management decisions for outdoor use efficiency and compile the information to make it readily accessible to water managers, conservation staff and other interested parties.

Findings from the landscape-specific literature review have been synthesized into downloadable cut sheets, as part of CalWEP’s landscape tool series, representing a specific benefit theme provided by the Pacific Institute’s multi-benefit framework: 1) Water, 2) Energy, 3) Risk & Uncertainty, 4) Land & Environment, and 5) People & Communities. The cut sheets can be utilized by water agency staff to achieve any of the following:

  • Develop an appreciation for the breadth of multi-benefits, both environmental and social, associated with landscape transformations;
  • Integrate benefits into water management multi-benefit decision making frameworks;
  • Improve landscape transformation program pitches to increase uptake by hard-to-reach customers, including the CII sector;
  • Improve the business case for landscape transformation using return on investment calculators; and
  • Source benefits for use in community-based social marketing campaigns.


    Water that is conserved has a value. Most often this value is translated as the avoided costs associated with maintaining and/or expanding infrastructure to meet unmitigated demand. And while avoided cost accounting has helped decision-makers justify continued investments in water conservation and efficiency programs, such an analysis is limited in scope. Nearly a decade ago CalWEP (formerly the California Urban Water Conservation Council, CUWCC) and AWE developed technical models to help agencies perform value of conserved water analyses within their service areas and accounted for energy savings and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, and wastewater treatment costs. CUWCC also built an “environmental benefits of water conservation model” in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to assess environmental flows and subsequent benefits to fisheries from conserved water in the Delta. Although good first steps, none of these models perform a comprehensive analysis of the additional social and environmental benefits that can be attributed to water conservation and efficiency.

    In 2015, The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) conducted a study that examined avoided costs and environmental benefits of conserved water, but similarly did not incorporate sufficiently broad co-benefits (CPUC, 2015). While the CPUC study helps to expand the benefit and cost considerations integrated into planning and decision-making models for energy and water conservation, a true comprehensive assessment has yet to be realized. And as water management models evolve to adopt principles of “Integrated Regional Water Management” or a “One Water” approach, the need for more wholistic cost/benefit analyses for decision-making is warranted. To this end, the Pacific Institute notes in its study Moving Toward a Multi-Benefit Approach for Water Management:

    “Government agencies, businesses, and others have acknowledged the importance of multi-benefit projects and the potential of multiple benefits to assist with building partnerships, leveraging resources, and garnering public support. However, there is no standardized methodology for identifying and systematically evaluating the co-benefits of water management strategies. As a result, the broad benefits and costs of water management strategies are not routinely or systematically included in decision making, and water managers cannot maximize the benefits of their investments.”

    Further, by narrowly focusing on the water saving potential of any conservation management strategy, agencies miss an opportunity to account for the additional performance objectives they are helping to support; objectives like storm water control and flood management, water quality protection, and energy reduction. For example, a recent study by the UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency found that water conservation programs were more cost-effective at reducing energy usage when compared to direct energy conservation initiatives (Spang et al., 2018). As such, a systematic evaluation of the co-benefits generated by the water/energy nexus can lend to a more equitable distribution of funding by justifying a cost-share framework amongst all beneficiaries, and thereby relieving a single entity from bearing the entire cost-burden of project implementation. Additionally, comprehensive accounting of co-benefits can help water conservation projects qualify for non-traditional grant funding. For example, the City of Santa Rosa was awarded funding from the State Water Resources Control Board’s Prop 40 and 84 Stormwater Grant Program for a large landscape conversion project at Santa Rosa City Hall, because, in addition to water savings, the new design was projected to significantly reduced stormwater runoff.

    The examples cited here exemplify the need for a comprehensive evaluation framework that can more accurately account for the true value of water conservation management strategies. Such a framework that helps to compare performance across benefit categories (i.e. water savings, energy reductions, air quality, etc.), can help prioritize alternative project solutions that otherwise would not have been considered for implementation. This includes more cost-effective, decentralized water management strategies like low impact development (LID) (collectively known as Green Infrastructure) that can achieve multiple performance objectives.

    Resources for Water Agencies

    In its report Moving Toward a Multi-Benefit Approach for Water Management, the Pacific Institute provides a framework to assist water managers and businesses with intentionally incorporating the multiple benefits of water projects into decision making across contexts and scales. The framework outlines a process for:

    1. identifying the benefits, trade-offs, and beneficiaries of water management investments,
    2. characterizing co-benefits quantitatively or qualitatively, and
    3. incorporating co-benefits into decision making.

    While step one demands a more holistic view of the value of conserved water, step two requires an additional level of investment as highlighted within the Pacific Institute report: “finding context-relevant, good-quality data to adequately assess each benefit is a common challenge.” To help address this challenge, CalWEP, with funding from the California Department of Water Resources, conducted a supplemental literature review to source data for the various environmental and social benefits attributed to urban water conservation. CalWEP’s scope of benefits were narrowed to focus solely on a specific water management strategy: turf replacement programs, also known as landscape transformation programs, since these programs are ubiquitous across the state, will likely continue into the future, and can achieve multi-objective water management goals (AWE, 2019). The intent was to identify metrics not traditionally factored into management decisions and compile the information to make it readily accessible. Select research and reports from the literature review have been organized into the Pacific Institute’s comprehensive and searchable multi-benefit resource library. To further synthesize the information, several benefit- specific cutsheets have been prepared and appended to this report. See "Highlighted Resources" for a report summarizing CalWEP's efforts along with the cutsheets.

    We hope that by utilizing these collective resources, water managers can begin to explore more comprehensive decision-making models that integrate the multiple benefits of water conservation, including landscape transformation, to achieve any of the following objectives:

    • Justify continued investments in conservation programs as an effective water management strategy
    • Seek alternative funding sources
    • Prepare more competitive grant applications
    • Recruit diverse partners to help leverage funds