Neighbor wasting water? Is ‘water shaming’ the answer?

Mormons did it in the 19th century, and thousands of Utahns did it last month.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spinning sprinkler in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Gov. Spencer Cox recently invited Utahns to pray for rain as an answer to Utah’s historic drought, a plea not uncommon among faith communities. But as government leaders solicit heavenly intervention, they’re also adopting a more earthly approach.

In any given year, Utah’s Hall of Fame or Shame receives several hundred complaints from residents tired of their neighbors’ misuse of water. Utahns can submit a complaint through the website, which is then forwarded to their local water district. The district then gets to decide whether to confront the offender.

Last year’s drought season was characterized as the worst in two decades. During that entire year, 167 complaints were filed with the Hall of Fame or Shame.

By comparison, halfway through 2021 the website has seen 5,540 complaints, a 3,200% spike from the past year. Of all complaints in the website’s four-year history, 68% were filed in 2021.

The numbers are clear: Utahns are water shaming more than ever. But the social structures that lead to it are complex and run deep. Since Utah’s 19th-century founding as the new home for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, water has been the lifeblood of growth.

From then to today, social “nudges,” stigma, pressure and shaming all have been key to protecting against users taking more than their fair share of this precious resource.

With such a long history, it’s easy to assume water shaming works. The truth, however, is more complicated.

Pioneering the shaming

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

There was perhaps no better central architect of social pressure for proper water use than Brigham Young.

“I will venture to say that one-half of the water is wasted,” the Mormon pioneer-prophet said in an 1856 address on irrigation. “Instead of being applied where and when it is needed, it runs here and there, and perhaps one-half reaches the drooping plants.”

Throughout his remarks, Young frequently cited failures and missteps among the early settlers in a public rebuke of poor water habits and work ethic.

“If people would take a little more pains in preparing ditches, gates and embankments for economically conducting water where it is most needed,” he said, “it would be a very great advantage to them.”

According to several historians, such social regulation was a necessity. Richard Phillips, a religion sociologist at the University of North Florida with expertise in Mormonism, noted that “water was everything,” and in those early days it was closely monitored not by the government but by Latter-day Saint bishops and other local lay church officials.

“Once these things are consolidated, then you have a strong system of social control,” said Phillips, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Weber State and Utah State universities, respectively. “Everybody knows what they should be doing. They’re close enough to monitor each other, and you have to see your neighbors at church every Sunday, so you care about what your neighbors think.”

W. Paul Reeve, head of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, suggested that the concept of the Hall of Fame or Shame does in some ways mirror Latter-day Saint history, particularly the element of relying on neighbors to police one another.

At the end of the day, though, the structure of having neighbors do such policing through the government marks a significant difference.

“You can imagine,” Reeve said, “that neighbors telling on each other could lead to pretty significant disruption of neighborly relations.”

Public shaming?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spinning sprinkler in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

Salt Lake City’s Haley Hastings and her family are being “smart” with how and when they water their lawn. They don’t water during the day, not that they ever did.

But she, like many other Utahns, sees people around her wasting water, whether watering in the heat of the afternoon or for many, many hours. But when asked about whether she would use the state’s Hall of Fame or Shame website to report a neighbor, Hastings quickly responded “no.”

“I don’t believe in public shaming,” she said.

State officials insist the site is not public shaming because the complaints are kept private between the individual filer and the receiving state or local government.

Marcie McCartney of the Utah Division of Water Resources said the website was created in 2017 as a way to centralize the complaints. Utahns would complain on social media instead, she said, and taxpayer dollars were being wasted on staffers taking complaints over the phone.

She also emphasized that Utahns don’t just have to leave negative feedback on their neighbors — the “fame” part of Fame or Shame means users can leave positive feedback on conservative water use.

Still, complaints are soaring, and the vast majority (over 98%) of users are using the “shame” side of the platform. Part of that is the severity of the drought, according to McCartney, and the fact that more residents know about it.

The website is meant to end with education, McCartney explained. But for the Hall of Fame or Shame, the result can be a local government official educating alleged offenders at their doorstep — not a friendly neighbor approaching them on the sidewalk.

Does shaming work?

(Chris Pizzello | Invision/AP) In this March 21, 2019, photo, Amy Poehler arrives at the "Parks and Recreation" 10th-anniversary reunion during the 36th annual PaleyFest in Los Angeles. Poehler was publicly called out during California's drought several years ago for wasting water, a problem which she corrected.

The best example of water shaming across the past decade comes from California during the height of its drought. The most successful form was in Los Angeles, where city officials sent individual letters to water offenders, specifically targeting wealthy individuals like comedian Amy Poehler to warn them about their water use. The crackdown came about in the form of literal water shaming — the state told the city that it “should be ashamed” of its water use.

The letters were sent in November 2015. By the following January, the city had cut back on water by 26%, a drop that city officials largely attributed to the shaming of major abusers.

The California drought shaming system was generally more robust than Utah’s. Four of California’s water districts — particularly wealthy ones — were handed $61,000 fines at one point. Twitter callouts with the #droughtshame hashtag carried the movement to social media. Apps were made to monitor neighbors’ “drought shaming.”

“I know that there’s been plenty of research done that has proven it to be effective,” said Courtney Crosson, an architecture professor with expertise in water at the University of Arizona. “But once you get rain, people forget about it. So I think the endurance of these kinds of approaches is really important. It’s not just ‘oh, we’re in a drought’ fixes that will stop it. I think we have a fundamental shift we have to make as a society, and I think it’s going to take a lot of different things.”

Her argument is supported by a study of a drought in Cape Town, South Africa, where the government engaged in water-shaming techniques to curb usage. Similar letters were also sent to Cape Town’s high water users. The letters were found to have “significantly reduced water use” but only in the short term.

Shaming to promote positive environmental change is part of a wider movement called “green nudging,” and there’s plenty of evidence that it is effective if it influences how a person thinks about “social identity.” In other words, it may be effective against celebrities (think Amy Poehler) who see a conflict with their personal and public image.

Water shaming via Utah’s Hall of Fame or Shame looks quite different, though. It’s less dramatic, it’s community-sourced, and it’s experiencing a massive increase in demand.

One problem the website has run into during its recent surge in popularity is that many Utahns don’t see their own water use as the real problem, but rather watering done by large institutions, like golf courses, churches and government buildings.

McCartney said this is not productive.

“If you see water waste, report it, but pointing fingers does nothing,” she said. “What actually makes a difference is everybody doing their part, rather than everybody saying, ‘I’ll conserve when, [insert entity] conserves.’ It really is going to take all of us.”

Just as individual consumers may use water shaming to pass the buck of accountability, the same may be true of government and industry.

Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning and sustainable built environments at the University of Arizona, acknowledged the role of social nudging, while also noting that “in one way, water shaming may be an excuse to put the blame on individuals instead of actually taking larger policy actions at the state or even city level.”

Research suggests that social nudging can help when it causes people to see their social identity in the community.

In his irrigation speech, Brigham Young stated, “Let every man and woman be industrious, prudent and economical in their acts and feelings, and while gathering to themselves, let each one strive to identify his or her interests with the interests...with those of their neighbor and neighborhood.”

Haley Hastings, in rejecting online water shaming, seemed to echo Young’s remarks.

“I would much rather have a personal conversation with a neighbor first; see if we can talk about it,” she said. “I don’t expect to change their minds, but maybe they aren’t aware of how bad the drought is. Maybe they’re not aware that watering in the middle of the day isn’t very effective.”