Pulling Out All the Stops

The City of Austin uses all available channels to promote water conservation in a drought-prone area where every drop counts.
Pulling Out All the Stops
Signs on city buses deliver water conservation alerts and event announcements.

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Droughts are a serious matter for Austin, Texas. The city watershed system includes the Colorado River and the Highland Lake chains with storage lakes Travis and Buchanan, where the water capacity today is at a dangerously low 37 percent.

The drought began nearly five years ago. To its credit, however, this city of 840,000 has been highly proactive in water conservation and protection since the early 1990s with public education and outreach. This, combined with interdepartmental participation, has given the community some of the best educated “water consumers” in a region where every drop matters.

The city’s water utility conducts more than 100 outreach events every year, according to Jill Mayfield of the public information office. From a speaker’s bureau and special events, to collaborative city/state presentations and in-school programming, the outreach team optimizes every means and opportunity to educate and motivate the community to conserve water.

A little song and dance

In 1991, the Water Conservation Division created Dowser Dan, a captivating character who performs for K-4 students in 160 public and private schools in six area school districts. Evan Kelley, a public information specialist with the utility, has performed this role for 18 years.

“Besides Dowser Dan, I play two other characters each time,” says Kelley. “Sonny Brightwater talks about the importance of saving water and how to protect it from contamination. Dwain Piper uses a clean blue plunger as a pointer, as well as an inflatable globe and other water-related graphics, to talk about water use and conservation.”

Kelley’s goal is to engage his young audience for a full 45 minutes: “I step out of sight for a few seconds to introduce the next character, changing costumes at the same time. Each character sings a special song related to his topic. With the help of props, music and audience participation, the kids learn a lot while being entertained.”

Teachers can schedule performance dates online. Since 1991, more than half a million kids have learned lessons about water from Dowser Dan.

Drawing big crowds

Austin’s biggest outreach program is the Water Science Expo. Held for the past 20-plus years, this event draws nearly 2,500 kids in grades three through five. Much of the content aligns with teaching curriculums. “The Expo is a huge collaborative effort involving city and state resources,” Mayfield says. ”Our support is very broad-based, from department executives to a large group of staff and community volunteers.

“We have presentations on water and wastewater treatment, the lab, fire hydrants, conservation and special services. Several city departments participate, including Watershed Protection, the Office of Sustainability, Austin Resource Recovery, and Health and Human Services. Some state and federal groups participate, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, Texas A&M Forest Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.”

Mayfield describes Austin as a progressive community with early adopters who, along with city officials, were already embracing the conservation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. “Our outreach group has always supported rebates and consumer programs,” Mayfield says. “We’re presently promoting a rebate program for water retention practices, including garden mulching and lawn aeration.”

Skilled team at work

The public information group appears to be a well-oiled media team. On staff are two graphic artists. Television, radio, print ads, and bus and taxi billboards are all in the media mix. Social media are being used more, including Facebook and Twitter to promote rebates and programs.

These media channels also help promote “Water Stages” that residents must follow. The four stages relate to the severity of drought conditions, and each includes water-use restrictions, such as limiting the frequency and time of day for lawn watering and car washing. “With graphics already in place, we can change the stage alerts quickly for any drought change,” Mayfield says.

Educational videos on YouTube and the city’s website have become much more important. For example, residents can find a short video on how to change a faucet aerator or change a showerhead. “We are finding that videos are often more readily embraced than some informational articles,” Mayfield observes.

The outreach team is exploring the use of a mobile classroom, possibly a large van equipped with displays and electronic media to teach water conservation in a new and dynamic way. “We don’t always need to do new things,” Mayfield says. “It’s OK to repeat our messages as new people are always joining our communities. But we continue to explore and adapt new ideas as our situation and the media change, so we can make every man-hour and every dollar count.”


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