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Children cool down in the fountain at Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, July 2, 2009. The Metro Vancouver region is now enacting water restrictions in the face of a hot summer.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Public-opinion research is a necessity for developing effective water-conservation measures in current dry conditions, but few municipalities are seeking such information, says a Simon Fraser University scientist.

Steve Conrad says an online poll or in-person survey, asking whether individuals are following water restrictions and where they would be willing to reduce water use, would be a good start for the Metro Vancouver region, now enacting water restrictions in the face of a hot summer.

"That would give planners and politicians better information about whether individuals are following [mandatory restrictions]," said Mr. Conrad, a research fellow with the School of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU.

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"We set our plans in place without having a complete picture," said Mr. Conrad, who also sits on the board of directors of the B.C. chapter of the American Water Works Association, a professional organization of water-utility professionals. "The municipalities need to do a survey like this to understand where their water users are willing to cut back."

His observations come as British Columbia is facing exceptionally dry and hot weather, and Washington State has enacted a state-wide drought emergency.

Mr. Conrad has studied the issue in the Okanagan by conducting wide-ranging online and in-person surveys on 1,500 members of the public and 320 farmers in the Kelowna region in 2012 and 2013.

But he said it's a different situation in the Vancouver region. "I would say there's very limited data, if any at all," Mr. Conrad said. "It's an issue across Metro Vancouver."

Spokespersons for the City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver said on Friday that they do not rely on survey data for setting their water-conservation policy.

Last week, the City of Vancouver said a record-low snowpack on regional mountains this spring has necessitated lawn-watering restrictions and a fine of $250 for watering outside of permitted outdoors.

The restrictions, the city said, are in effect to conserve water during dry summer months when rainfall is especially low as water demand, driven by lawn sprinkling and outdoor water use, doubles.

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Other "water wise" ideas advanced by the city include allowing lawns to go brown by not watering them and ensuring irrigation systems are not overwatering.

The restrictions are set, overall, by Metro Vancouver, which last month, linked lawn-sprinkling regulations to a 27 per cent decline in per capita water use between 1993 and 2011.

"We make assumptions on how much people are willing to cut back. In fact, what if they're not? It's sort of like having a party and you expect somebody to bring dessert. But they show up at the party and there's no dessert."

The situation leaves planners assuming the public will save water without the public's agreement to meet that need.

In his Okanagan research, Mr. Conrad found, among other things, that residents ranked water use for agricultural irrigation, personal health and the environment over landscape watering.

Also, few residents thought their neighbours would be opposed to landscape changes that reduced their area of lawns.

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Although there was little enthusiasm for adopting water-efficient household fixtures, residents were willing to reduce lawn watering rather than personal needs such as washing clothes, flushing toilets and showering and bathing.

Mr. Conrad said, over all, he learned from the Okanagan that officials can't count on conservation when they need it.

While he did not think such measures necessary for British Columbia, he said more aggressive means could include smaller lawns and mandatory retrofits of indoor plumbing such as low-flush toilets.

But he said said metering would help because few municipalities measure individual water use. "I do not know how much water I use in a month. The average Vancouverite probably would not know how much water they use in a month."

Mr. Conrad said, based on current conditions, that tighter water restrictions – such as banning all lawn sprinklers – will have to be enacted by the end of the summer.

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