By Sara Hughes at NCAR and UCSB – It’s no secret that improving the environmental outcomes of water governance can be politically difficult to do; as a result we are continually searching for new policy tools that are able to solve problems and appease interests. Voluntary environmental programs (VEPs) have been growing in popularity in the private sector due to their political palatability, low enforcement costs, and flexibility. In fact there are over 300 voluntary agreements in the European Union and around 200 in the United States. VEPs can take on a variety of forms but have three key features: environmental standards are created that members of the program commit to meet, joining the program is voluntary, and there are perceived benefits to members in the form of avoided regulation, increased demand for their products, or assistance from regulators. Could VEPs be a viable solution for achieving environmental benefits from water governance? Most VEPs are used in the private sector so very little research has been done on the use of VEPs for water governance. I decided to look at a voluntary urban water conservation program that California developed in 1991 to establish best management practices and water savings targets for participants. What kinds of water agencies have joined the program? How successful has it been? Are VEPs a good approach for water governance? The research has produced four key findings.
1. Political institutions affect the decisions urban water agencies make about joining the program. More specialized water agencies and private water agencies are more likely to join. The reasoning behind this is that specialized water agencies have fewer political responsibilities and tradeoffs to make and so are more likely to provide services that benefit the average water user; private water agencies are often more regulated than public water agencies so would be interested in supporting a VEP that reduces their regulatory burden.
2. The decision to join the program is quite distinct from the decision to implement the program. The factors influencing the decision to join are not what determine how well the program is then implemented. Rather than being driven by political or regulatory aims, water conservation patterns are largely a function of population growth pressures and being located in an arid region.
3. Program members have not saved more water than non-members.
4. The per capita use of water in California’s cities has been steadily declining since the program was put into place. It may be possible that the program has had indirect benefits on water conservation. For example, member agencies demonstrated that low flow toilets can successfully conserve water without backing up sewer lines (as they were previously thought to do) and non-member agencies may have subsequently enacted a toilet replacement program without taking on the full commitment of joining the program. We need methods that allow us to detect this type of indirect influence.
It is too early to say whether this model could be improved upon and adapted for water governance in other places. California’s voluntary water conservation program does not have a monitoring program or sanctions for not complying. These features have been shown to be critical to success in the private sector. There is room for improving program design and experimenting with voluntary approaches to achieve some of the changes in water governance that many desire.
 Borkey P, Leveque F. 1998. Voluntary Approaches forEnvironmental Protection in the European Union. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: Paris. Darnall N, Carmin J. 2005. Greener and cleaner: the signaling accuracy of U.S. voluntary environmental programs. Policy Sciences 38(2–3): 71–90.