Northern California’s Tri-Valley region experienced an unprecedented drought-related water supply shortage in 2014. Consequently, water agencies in the region needed quick and effective water consumption reductions to avoid a public health and safety emergency. The city of Livermore partnered with other Tri-Valley water retailers and the water wholesaler on collaborative emergency conservation messaging. These efforts effectively resulted in a 25 percent water use reduction by residents and businesses in the cities of Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton for 2014.
Located in eastern Alameda County, the Tri-Valley comprises the cities of Livermore, Pleasanton, and Dublin. The Zone 7 Water Agency is a State Water Project contractor and the water wholesaler for the entire Tri-Valley region. Four water retailers serve the Tri-Valley cities: Livermore, Pleasanton, the Dublin San Ramon Services District (an independent special district), and the California Water Service Company (a private investor-owned utility.) The Tri-Valley relies on allocations from the State Water Project for the majority of its water supply.

In January 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, and requested a voluntary statewide conservation level of 20 percent. The Tri-Valley water agencies promptly announced a 20 percent voluntary water conservation target for all water customers compared to 2013 use levels. By April it became clear that voluntary conservation measures were not effective. In most cases, water use reductions come close to less than 5 percent, and some areas experienced a small increase in water use.

The State Water Project eliminated allocations to its water contractors in Spring 2014. In mid-April, Zone 7 informed the four water retailers that a genuine water supply risk existed for the Tri-Valley. Without a 25 percent reduction in annual water use compared to 2013 use levels, surface water supplies would be short; water retailers would experience extraordinary difficulty maintaining adequate storage for fire containment during the summer when water demand normally peaks. Since it was mid-April, Tri-Valley water users had already lost three and a half months towards meeting the annual conservation target. If water customers did not ramp up from less than 5 percent conservation to over 25 percent, the water supply situation could be disastrous for the area by midsummer. Because of this, the Tri-Valley water agencies executed mandatory water conservation measures in late April and early May.

Unable to buy additional water supplies, the Tri-Valley water wholesaler and retailers faced a short amount of time to change the region’s water use habits. Each water supplier and city normally communicated independently with their customers about water conservation issues. Spring 2014 exemplified an abnormal, unprecedented situation.

Staff from the cities of Livermore and Pleasanton, the Dublin San Ramon Services District, California Water Service Company, and Zone 7 Water Agency agreed to pool resources to implement a common public outreach strategy spanning multiple communication channels. The campaign had to provide clear information regarding the specifics of the Tri-Valley’s water-supply situation during on-going heavy media coverage of different water conditions across the state.

To ensure maximum effectiveness, project staff developed five themes for inclusion in all outreach messages and materials:
  1. State Water Project cuts severely impacted the Tri-Valley water supply causing a local crisis unseen in other regions of the state;
  2. All Tri-Valley residents and businesses must immediately engage in mandatory water conservation efforts;
  3. All Tri-Valley residents and businesses must immediately reduce outdoor irrigation more than 50 percent and indoor water use by 5 percent, achieving a combined 25 percent annual reduction;
  4. A sufficient 2014 Tri-Valley water supply existed if all Tri-Valley residents and business achieved the conservation targets; and
  5. Everyone was in the drought crisis together, so each individual represented part of the solution.

The various agencies divided up the work by individually taking the lead in communicating the above themes in various formats. Materials reminded the community that all the Tri-Valley water suppliers partnered on these efforts. The water agencies’ public information and operations staff met weekly throughout the summer to refine and adapt the public communications messages.

Some agencies focused on direct mail flyers to residents; others took the lead on radio and cable television advertisements. Messaging platforms included: media outreach, newspaper and Facebook advertisements, social media postings, direct resident contact, automatic resident phone messages, conservation signs across the region, community meetings, mailers and water bill inserts, and newsletter items.

The agencies created a new, joint website and Facebook Page: Combined, approximately $28,500 was spent on print ads; $16,500 on TV ads; $1,800 on Facebook ads; $5,300 on the drought website, and $4,100 on print ads. Due to the technical and occasionally deep nature of water policy, directly reaching out to residents comprised a substantial portion of outreach and messaging efforts. Staff often fielded questions via phone calls and social media direct messages. Some agencies established a dedicated drought hotline to specifically respond and document resident questions. City staff members spoke to local businesses, attended local farmers’ markets, PTA meetings, and other community events to reach more water customers. Communication efforts also included outreach to local Spanish-speakers.

Senior staff from multiple agencies also regularly corresponded with print and television reporters to communicate the specifics of Tri-Valley conditions and conservation messaging relative to the greater Bay Area and the state.

The rush of media outreach and correspondence began in May 2014, with most of it occurring during the summer months when outdoor water use is high. In addition to local newspaper advertisements, nearly 2,000 announcements hit the radio airwaves from May through October along with 5,500 television ads. The Tri-Valley Drought Facebook campaign tallied 43,209 views and frequent social media postings encouraged participation in several community meetings to explain the water problem and conservation solution for the Tri-Valley community.

The collaboration of the two cities, two special districts, and the private investor-owned utility led to an immediate, significant reduction in water use. Just one month after the joint public outreach campaign began, all of the water retailers saw water reductions climb from less than 5 percent to the 20 percent-25 percent range. By June, all Tri- Valley water retailers calculated water use cutbacks in the 30 percent-35 percent range.

This higher level of conservation continued throughout the summer. By the end of 2014, the entire annual water demand in the Tri-Valley was approximately 25 percent lower than in 2013. Although public and private landscaping throughout the Tri-Valley was distressed because of severely limited watering, most of the landscaping was kept alive. Additionally, all the water retailers were able to keep sufficient water for fire-fighting needs in their reservoirs throughout the entire summer.

Prior to the partnership of the joint outreach program, the individual uncoordinated messaging of the agencies proved ineffective and at times contradictory. By collaborating and pooling resources, the two cities, two special districts, and water agency successfully achieved the incredible objective of 25 percent conservation for the entire year. The quick response by Tri-Valley residents and businesses demonstrated their support and understanding of the water conservation message.

The relationships and groundwork built during this partnership created a solid foundation for future joint messaging efforts by the agencies. This crisis communication effort also strengthened existing agency communication platforms like and community links for future non-emergency purposes. The positive lessons earned from this project demonstrate that cities, districts, and private entities can collaborate successfully and quickly on critical regional issues.

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Originally posted at the League of CA Cities.

This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.

The 2015 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Livermore’s Collaborative Emergency Water Conservation Messaging in the Tri-Valley was submitted in 2015 for the Public Works, Infrastructure, and Transportation award category.