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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Public versus private: Does it matter for water conservation? Insights from California

  • Author(s): Kallis, G
  • Ray, I
  • Fulton, J
  • McMahon, JE
  • et al.

This article asks three connected questions: First, does the public view private and public utilities differently, and if so, does this affect attitudes to conservation? Second, do public and private utilities differ in their approaches to conservation? Finally, do differences in the approaches of the utilities, if any, relate to differences in public attitudes? We survey public attitudes in California toward (hypothetical but plausible) voluntary and mandated water conservation, as well as to price increases, during a recent period of shortage. We do this by interviewing households in three pairs of adjacent public and private utilities. We also survey managers of public and private urban water utilities to see if they differ in their approaches to conservation and to their customers. On the user side we do not find pronounced differences, though a minority of customers in all private companies would be more willing to conserve or pay higher prices under a public operator. No respondent in public utility said the reverse. Negative attitudes toward private operators were most pronounced in the pair marked by a controversial recent privatization and a price hike. Nonetheless, we find that California's history of recurrent droughts and the visible role of the state in water supply and drought management undermine the distinction between public and private. Private utilities themselves work to underplay the distinction by stressing the collective ownership of the water source and the collective value of conservation. Overall, California's public utilities appear more proactive and target-oriented in asking their customers to conserve than their private counterparts and the state continues to be important in legitimating and guiding conservation behavior, whether the utility is in public hands or private.

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