December 21, 2016

CGU Researchers Investigate Turf Rebate Programs

birds eye view of a suburban tract neighborhood

What motivates people to replace their thirsty lawns with more water-friendly landscaping?

That’s the question CGU Professor Hal Nelson and doctoral student John Shideler will be studying, thanks to a new grant from a local water district. With California in its sixth year of drought, their research is timelier than ever. Their work, Nelson said, could inform local governments and public utilities across the country on how best to design and implement future water-conservation policies and programs.

Local water districts have already experienced success in getting the customers they serve to apply for their turf replacement programs. Such programs are designed to encourage residents to replace their water-guzzling grass with ground cover, hardscape, and plants that require less water, for example.

“While this is a big step in the right direction there is still much more to be done to ensure an environmentally and economically sustainable future for California,” Nelson said. “Drought, state-mandated water reductions, and increased public awareness will continue to place turf rebate programs at the forefront of policy initiatives in the state of California.”

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California’s program has been so successful, officials suspended it in November 2015 due to overwhelming demand colliding with depleted funds. The district is providing the nearly $10,000 that will be used to help fund the research.

The MWD is a regional wholesaler that delivers water to 14 cities, 11 public agencies, and one county water authority—in all serving more than 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties.

Nelson and Shideler will be analyzing the factors that drove the MWD program’s success. They will examine property, demographic, survey, and program participant data and use econometrics and spatial analysis techniques to analyze the information. The big question they will essentially ask is: Do individuals participate in such programs out of a desire for compensation (rebates to cover the cost of replacing their lawns), commendation (recognition for conserving water), or community (engaging in a sustainable practice for the good of others)?

Nelson and Shideler will send out more than 2,000 surveys to randomly selected program participants as well as individuals who did not apply for the program.

They will seek determine if family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, or community members play a role (“peer effects”) in an individual’s decision to participate in a program and, if so, the extent of that influence. They will also look at spatial data—the distance to the nearest residence with a turf replacement, for example, or city- and street-level clusters of program applicants by geographic areas—to see what role it may or may not play.

“Research in this realm allows us to gain insight as to why community members may adopt, or fail to adopt, a technology or behavior that is more environmentally friendly,” Nelson said. “While we know that people respond to factors other than monetary incentives, those other factors are often difficult to measure and analyze.”

California is currently in its sixth year of drought. In January 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency. In May of this year, he issued an order to establish longer-term water conservation measures as the drought persisted.

“The research is very important for current issues related to conservation and sustainability,” Nelson said. “There is currently a large amount of research being done in this area, but there is also a need for much more.”

He is a research associate professor in the School of Social Science, Policy, and Evaluation’s Division of Politics and Economics. Nelson is an expert in software development, social and environmental issues, sustainability, statistics, and public policy. His teaching interests include international political economy, international relations, energy policy, international environmental politics and policies, policy evaluation, regulatory policy, and methods.

Shideler teaches economics and finance at Chapman University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in economics at CGU, and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics from Florida State University and Florida Atlantic University, respectively.