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When It Comes to Water Restrictions Cities Use More Carrots, Less Sticks

Robert S. Donovan
Creative Commons

Denver and Fort Collins have started mandatory watering restrictions response to persistent drought conditions. Greeley and Colorado Springs are expected to follow suit. Residents who violate the law could be fined as much as $1,000.

But the chances of getting a fine are rare.


Water managers across the Front Range are gravitating toward a “nice guy” enforcement approach. Cities will likely issue you multiple warnings before you ever get a ticket. If you need help—and are nice in return—they may even reprogram your sprinklers.

Back during the 2002 drought, Greeley wrote zero tickets. Fort Collins officials only wrote three tickets that year.

But Fort Collins Water Conservation Specialist Laurie D’Audney stresses the city was still actively engaged with residents.

“Even though we only gave those few tickets, we did have almost 1,500 contacts with people. So it’s not that we’re not following up on them. When most people found out they’re in violation [of watering restrictions], they tried to rectify the situation and comply.”

From Mean to Nice

The one exception in 2002 was Denver Water, which issued 1,062 fines.

Denver Water Spokesperson Stacy Chesney says to understand the city’s mindset that year you have to go back to see what folks were actually doing.

Credit sfxeric / Creative Commons
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“When we had mandatory restrictions—that was a new thing for our customers and for Denver Water,” she says. “So having people out to enforce those rules and implementing fines was part of the program.”

Chesney says that since 2002, Denver Water has moved its focus away from fines to conservation education. The agency will spend $640,000 this year on advertising. It’s part of an overall $4 million budget Denver Water has for education.

So will the nice guy approach work for Denver Water during the 2013 drought?

“I think that people really have a different water-use ethic now than they did 10 years ago,” says Chesney. “People are really aware of our situation.”

Why The Approach Works

Ultimately, being the nice guy seems to be paying off for cities along the Front Range. In the Denver area, water use has declined 20 percent over the last seven years. In Greeley, residential gallons per capita per day (GPCD) use decreased 20 percent over the last 11 years. Fort Collins has also seen a decline in outdoor residential water use.

Part of the success comes from so-called “social marketing” a technique that’s long been used in the health field to change human behavior for social good. In recent years, Ruth Quade who coordinates conservation efforts for the city of Greeley explains that water managers have been trying out techniques.

When drought conditions are bad, people really start paying attention.

“A drought year helps, it really makes it apparent for people because everyone is talking about it,” she says.

Customers Who Overuse Still Pay

For the small number of customers who choose not to conserve this summer there will be other penalties. Denver Water says customers who don’t tighten their belts and decrease water use could see their monthly water bill increase by as much as $6 a month or more.

Both Fort Collins and Greeley may also be raising their water rates for the summer.

So you may not get a water ticket. But you might still have to pay for it in the end.

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