Water Stewardship

Water Conservation Strategy

The Basics of Water Conservation

Water conservation has had negative connotations for many people because it unintentionally implies hardship and inconvenience associated with rationing. However, water conservation is not simply a matter of using less water through restrictions. It is about careful management of water supply sources, use of water saving technologies, reduction of excessive demand and many other actions.

2.1 Water Conservation Defined

Water conservation is generally defined as: "the socially beneficial reduction of water use or water loss." (Baumann, et al. 1980).

Net social benefit is one of the key concepts of water conservation. Consequently, water conservation implies that:

  • Atlin River 2005 - R. Picciniwater use is optimized over a medium to long term time horizon;
  • water resource use and protection are given equal concern; external social, environmental and economic effects of water use are taken into account;
  • tradeoffs must be conscientiously made to achieve net social benefit;
  • social and economic planning are integral to water use management; and circumstances and context are important factors.
Reducing water use or water loss is the other main concept of conservation. This implies that:

  • more water is used than is needed;
  • attention to water demand is as important as water supply; and
  • water can be used more efficiently.
"Water conservation" is a term commonly interchanged with "water-use efficiency" in this Strategy. It differs slightly but either way, the benefits of saving water, money, infrastructure, topsoil or fish are benefits that every British Columbian can appreciate.

2.2 Water Management Principles

Water use efficiency is based on a number of principles or premises that dictate management of the resource. Four key principles are identified below to reinforce the basis for developing a Water Conservation Strategy for B.C.


Water is a Valuable Resource

Water is essential for the health and well being of society, and the environment.

  • Acknowledge the intrinsic social and environmental values of water.
  • Reflect both the value of water and the costs of supplying, treating and disposing it in water rates and charges.


Water is a Finite Resource

Water availability is limited by many factors including geographic location, water quality, financial costs, weather and seasonal flows.

  • Don't assume there is an endless supply of water.
  • Use water efficiently.


Water is a Renewable Resource

The water we use is part of the hydrological cycle — another user waits downstream.

  • Keep it clean.
  • One person's wastewater is another person's well. Disposal of wastewater must be treated with caution and respect, given the demands of other water users downstream.


Water is a Shared Resource

Water sustains life on earth. It is a common resource and it cannot be owned.

  • Respect the needs of others, both human and non-human.
  • Manage water use for intergenerational needs.

2.3 Water Use Efficiency Tools

There are a wide variety of water use efficiency measures, or tools. A range of tools should be included in any plan or program to complement efforts and address specific needs.

The best mix of tools should be identified and evaluated as part of a comprehensive water supply planning process. Specialists within the fields of water resource management, marketing and communications, social research, public policy, economics and engineering can provide valuable advice on the relative effectiveness of each tool. Readers of this Strategy are encouraged to select and implement those tools which best meet their needs and can be adapted to local circumstances. The following "menu of tools" is presented to demonstrate the variety of tools that have been, or can be developed and used.

2.3.1 Regulatory Tools

Legal tools include both mandatory and enabling legislation, regulations, policies, standards and guidelines. These can be used to reduce institutional, legal or economic barriers or to establish barriers against unnecessary water use.


  • Building and plumbing code restrictions (federal & provincial regulations); e.g. toilets, faucets, showerheads, garburators, water and sewer lines, downspouts, water processing and cooling systems;
  • Landscape requirements (local bylaws, provincial guidelines); e.g. pervious surfaces, xeriscapes, slopes, soil cover;
  • Outdoor water use restrictions (local bylaw); e.g. lawn and garden, washing, swimming pools;
  • Requirements or enabling legislation to consider water use efficiency in plans (provincial legislation and regulations);
  • Bylaws for new construction; e.g. requiring "shunt pipes" to facilitate addition of meters in future, low-flow fixtures, standards for installation and construction of water mains, meters;
  • Municipal effluent regulations; and
  • Subdivision development control bylaw; e.g. specifications setting out material and construction practices for developers and contractors.


  • Public and political acceptability is largely dependent on perceived need.
  • Mandatory measures and voluntary/enabling measures will depend on several factors including: financing, availability of water saving devices and the relative effectiveness of water supply management objectives.

2.3.2 Economic and Financial Tools

Economic and financial tools include both incentives and disincentives. They may be used to convey the message that water is valuable and can assist in motivating people to reduce water use. Increased water service charges also recovers costs.


  • Grants and loans to municipalities and utilities;
  • Financial incentives to install water use efficient devices; e.g. low interest or forgivable loans, tax credits, rebates, buy-backs of inefficient devices;
  • Fines for non-compliance of regulatory requirements;
  • Pricing structures; e.g. marginal-cost pricing strategies, increasing block rates, seasonal rates;
  • Program funding, e.g. Environmental Youth Team;
  • Revolving loan funds;
  • "Fee-bate" systems, e.g. water savings from retrofit projects may become the allowable water use in new developments;
  • Start-up and venture capital financing;
  • Surcharges linking sewer costs with water use;
  • Full cost pricing; and
  • Water licence rate adjustments.


  • Social issues such as equitable distribution and ability to pay require careful deliberation.
  • Price is assumed to change consumer behaviour, when in reality a variety of factors influence behaviour.
  • The approach taken to pricing is as important as the price.
  • Availability of an inexpensive source of water is linked to economic development such as large industries and agriculture.
  • Public funding may not be available; other financing arrangements should also be considered including partnerships, private investment and co-operatives.
  • Some water uses, particularly indoor residential use, are relatively price-inelastic.
  • An emotional response to rising water prices often clouds issues.

2.3.3 Operations and Maintenance Tools

These tools include structural or physical improvements and installation of water use efficient devices or processes.


  • Ditch and canal liners and covers;
  • Dual line water systems for potable and non-potable water;
  • Efficient irrigation systems;
  • Moisture monitoring devices (e.g. irrometers) for improved agricultural irrigation scheduling;
  • Irrigation audits, water audits;
  • Landscaping activities including contouring, xeriscaping, trenching, soil moisture retention;
  • Leak detection and repair;
  • Low flow faucets, showerheads and toilets;
  • Meters;
  • Rain sensors for automatic irrigation systems;
  • Rainwater collection;
  • Recirculating and other efficient water-cooling systems;
  • Wastewater reclamation systems;
  • Water efficient appliances and machinery including washing machines, dishwashers, car washes, ice machines, commercial laundries; and
  • Water pressure reduction.


  • Many of these tools may require up-front expenditures.
  • Effective water-pricing structures rely on a metered system.
  • The products or expertise to install / maintain tools may not be locally available.

2.3.4 Communication and Education Tools

Communication and education tools are utilized to encourage voluntary water conservation actions and to support other tools.


  • Competitions, awards and recognition programs;
  • Demonstration sites and information centres;
  • One-on-one meetings with major water users;
  • Irrigation design and scheduling guides;
  • Social marketing campaigns such as public broadcasting announcements, brochures and handouts, public displays, slogans, bill inserts, advertising and news bulletins, special public events, internet sites, door-to-door campaigns, newspaper articles and radio / television programs;
  • Published materials such as "how to" manuals, case studies, technical reports, resource libraries;
  • School programs and materials including activity books, games, videos and CDs, poster contests, in-class visits and demonstrations, "teach the teacher" guides, curriculum guides; and
  • Special project committees, seminars and workshops with specific water users.


  • Communication and education is based on an assumption that action is influenced by awareness and understanding.
  • Some tools are aimed very broadly or indirectly at water consumers, resulting in low or immeasurable results.
  • Communication and education requires a good understanding of how people learn and how they are motivated.
  • The focus is most commonly aimed at individual behaviour change, which requires a high critical mass and takes time before results are noticeable.
  • Market research and targeting specific consumer groups are important elements of a social marketing initiative.
  • Messages must be competitive with commercial and issue related messages in the media.
  • Water conservation messages are difficult to market.
  • Messages should be phased to:
    • create awareness and interest,
    • persuade and motivate,
    • educate and provide skills or other tools to enable people to conserve,
    • create actions, and
    • maintain the behavioural changes.

2.3.5 Market Development Tools

Market development tools serve to increase the availability of water use efficient products and services as well as to encourage improvements and innovations in product development.


  • Research grants and scholarships;
  • Research contracts;
  • Government procurement policies;
  • Cap and trade systems to gain "water equivalency units";
  • Product labelling such as Eco-Logo, Energuide, PowerSmart;
  • Education and liaison with professional associations, trades, industries and wholesalers / retailers;
  • Point of purchase education programs; and
  • Product "testing".


  • Expertise or opportunities to implement market development tools may need to be found in conventional economic development agencies and research institutes which may not be familiar with water use efficiency issues.
  • Market development tools can be implemented at the local, provincial and national levels.
  • Investment in market development is a medium to long-term initiative.