Rural water use decision-making: adoption of water conservation practices in southwestern Ontario

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Dolan, A. Holly
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University of Guelph

Almost all rural Ontarions use self-supplied water (e.g., private wells) for domestic, agricultural and other purposes. Shortages are increasingly common in Ontario, particularly during the drier summer months when water demand is at its highest. Water availability and related problems are expected to intensify with projected population growth and urban expansion, and with projected climate change. One approach to addressing water supply problems is the practice of water conservation. Promotion of water conservation initiatives is, however, dependent on identifying influences on certain water use decisions and subsequent behaviour. Factors associated with the adoption of conservation practices vary and include endogenous and exogenous influences, including, among others, attributes of the decision-maker, farm economic factors, and biophysical conditions. This research was an investigation into rural water conservation decision-making in southwestern Ontario. It aimed to identify and assess the importance of a range of factors influencing rural domestic and agricultural decision-making with regards to water conservation. Mail-back questionnaire responses from 291 agricultural and rural non-farm property owners revealed that most practice some form of water conservation, whether deliberately or incidentally. Analysis indicated that household water-saving was more common indoors than outdoors, and non-farm respondents were more active household conservers than agricultural respondents. Livestock operators favoured water equipment maintenance over all other livestock water-saving measures. Irrigators were more likely to adopt a series of conservation measures, most commonly scheduling of irrigation, and reducing water needs of agricultural crops. Statistical analysis revealed that adoption of water conservation measures in the home was influenced by program awareness and participation, level of formal education, and anticipation of future water shortages. Higher levels of livestock water conservation were associated with several factors, including greater farm gross sales, agriculture as the primary income source, and land tenure. Lengthy, in-depth interviews with seventeen agricultural households provided additional insight into the potential motivations and constraints for water conservation. Perceptions of limited opportunities to conserve water in the home and in agriculture were constraints to adoption. Furthermore, perceptions of water conservation, primarily conservation as a preventative measure to avoid water shortages, highlighted why experience with a water shortage did not influence water conservation behaviour. Technological fixes in response to past experiences may negate any motivation to implement preventative conservation. Awareness programs aimed at household water conservation may prove effective in rural households, although somewhat less effective in agriculture. Financial incentives to aid in the installation of water-saving equipment, along with awareness programs, may be necessary to improve water conservation within the agricultural sector.

rural water use, decision-making, adoption, water conservation practices, southwestern Ontario