This applied anthropology dissertation aims to enhance public policy and best practices for conserving potable water resources, using the Tampa Bay region of southwest Florida as a case study. It addresses not how humans conserve, but why they may or may not choose to do so. To date, a limited anthropological focus on water conservation behavior in western, urban settings has created a gap in the role culture plays in understanding why people conserve.
The research problem is to identify how water conservation behavior in Tampa, Florida can be enhanced through a better understanding of beliefs and values reflected in individual mental models of water users, and subsequent cultural models that emerge. Applied anthropologists are paying increasing attention to "cultural models," those shared, simplified, formal representations of explicit and implicit knowledge, interests, beliefs, and values that help individuals understand the world and their behavior in it. Environmental anthropologists, especially, have recognized the power of this analytic tool to find solutions to complex environmental problems by incorporating cultural and political contexts.
Though Florida’s water resources appear abundant, they are highly variable in time and space with a well documented flood and drought recurrence, 90% of the 2007 population of 18.7 million living in coastal areas and most fresh ground water, which 93% of the population relies on for drinking supplies, situated inland. By 2020, Florida’s projected total water use will grow from 7.2 to 9.1 billion gallons per day, with public supply the fastest growing use segment. The issue is how to make conservation a more significant water “source” by overcoming public apathy and better understanding conserving behavior.
The research methodology emphasizes a qualitative approach to address beliefs and values most related to water conservation, and identify cultural models. Key methods employed were: a comprehensive contextual analysis of Florida’s history, environment and water law; use of recent results of a Tampa Bay Water Conservation Public Opinion Survey; and semi-structured interviews with twenty City of Tampa households (half high water users and half low water users) and seven water resource experts. All twenty-seven interviews were recorded and transcribed for textual analysis to reveal mental and cultural models, and let informants speak for themselves to share their beliefs and values. Direct quotations were coded and used to illustrate key points, including the three cultural domains that emerged: (1) Why conserve water?; (2) Sources of conservation values; and (3) Lack of water conservation awareness and involvement.
The primary beliefs and values identified by informants included: (1) the need to avoid waste and greed in water use, whether in day to day functions or such societal choices as standards for new development or lawn watering restrictions; (2) the need to protect existing water supply sources, both for current benefits and generations to come; and (3) the perception of fairness among water users. Both the archival research (past opinion surveys, media coverage) and semi-structured interviews indicate people feel conservation is not being shared fairly among water users. This view is closely linked to waste and greed values, and applies to watering lawns excessively as well as use by other sectors (agriculture, golf courses, businesses, etc.). Informants felt strongly rules are not being enforced equitably. The clear danger is this perception may serve as rationale for non-conserving behavior.
Two other shared beliefs and values were put forward by informants. A significant majority believe existing policy areas of education, regulation and incentives should be used to achieve water conservation. Finally, the predominant role of family as the source of conservation values was strongly supported.
The specific “cultural model” for water conservation in Tampa would be based in family as a source of conservation values, emphasize avoidance of waste while protecting existing sources and directly address widespread perceptions of inequity among water users.
The theory and methods of anthropology, including cultural models, can contribute to enhancing water conservation. This dissertation is an example of those possibilities, setting the stage for ongoing research, including: (1) Refinement of methods specific to the water use culture of the Tampa region. (2) Exploring cultural models of diverse sub-cultures such as youth, Hispanics and others to enhance water conservation. (3) Overcoming social desirability impacts as part of refining cultural models.