Innovation Earth: A Very Low-Tech Way To Stop Water-Wasters

I live in California, where we're now entering our fourth consecutive year of a drought so severe you can see it from space. But every morning when I go for a run around my neighborhood in central Los Angeles, I'm struck by the pervasiveness of the drought denial: Kelly green lawns neatly frame each home like it's the backlot of a suburban sitcom. Errant sprinklers even have the audacity to uselessly spray the concrete as I and my sneakers splash past.

So when I see some of the high-tech water-saving solutions that come across my email in any given week (bluetooth-enabled shower meter, smartphone controlled watering system), I often think: Wow, that's neat, but is this really going to get people to stop their wasteful ways?

After all, preserving what is arguably mankind's most essential resource -- as well as ensuring its access for all -- will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Over 1 billion earthlings already live in a water-scarce environment, and that number is poised to increase 40 percent in the coming decades because of climate change.

And while some may point to agriculture as the greatest user (nay, squanderer) of water, I say personal conservation counts for a lot, if at the very least to set the tone for what we care about as a society. What does it say about our ability to tackle the monumental issue of safeguarding water for the world if we can't even shut off our sprinklers?

So when the other day, I took a new morning route and ran past a patch of lovely homes save for their uncharacteristically brown and barren lawns, I circled back to get a closer look. Dry, dry, dry. One homeowner had even torn out the front lawn and replaced it with a spread of gravel. And there, staked firmly in the ground in front of each house, was this:


Now, a sign is about as low-tech a solution as you can get. But it caught my eye. And given the cluster of green-grassless homes in front of me (as well as scattered throughout the neighborhood, I later discovered), it seemed to be an effective, if not contagious one, as well.

It turns out the campaign is the brainchild of Omelet, an LA ad agency, and it also turns out I wasn't the only one getting frustrated at all the lavish greenery. Alex Delyle, the agency's senior copywriter, had witnessed one too many neighbors overwatering their lawns and hosing down their sidewalks.

"I searched the internet in vain for an informational flyer," she says, "something I could distribute to my neighbors to help educate them." She couldn't find one. So Delyle raised the issue at work, found out others felt the same way, and the #H2No campaign was born.

"We solve problems for our clients every day, so we rallied the troops and decided to take on this issue ourselves," says Sarah Ceglarski, Omelet's senior director of marketing. The company is also partnering with landscape architecture firm ML+A as well as human rights organization DigDeep to bolster the effort.

The campaign kicked off on October 29 with more than 1,000 signs delivered to already brown and drought-tolerant landscaped lawns throughout LA. The goal: to applaud residents already saving water while encouraging their neighbors to do the same. (Another goal was to support a "yes" vote in the November 4 election on California's Proposition 1, a $7.5-billion water bond measure to fund state water supply infrastructure projects. The measure passed.)

The neighborly encouragement is working: In just a few weeks, #H2No has already received requests for an additional 50 signs -- including from as far north as San Jose and as far south as San Diego.

For now, though, those wanting to stake a sign will have to wait, since the low-tech but catchy campaign has, for the moment, run into a very low-tech glitch: raising the cash to print more signs.

While they regroup, it's worth thinking about how the positive peer pressure approach might apply to other environmental issues. Word has it that another LA-sprung movement, the Dirty for the Drought car pledge, is also gaining ground. Send your ideas my way and I'll post the best of them here!

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