Building on Water, Working in RAIN

Hello all! I am a current Masters student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. My research focuses on water and storm water management and, as such, I am also part of the Collaborative Water Program (CWP) through the Water Institute*. I’m a big fan of this program and so thrilled to be a part of it! So thrilled, in fact, that I am the current Vice Chair Operations for the Water Institute student group, SWIGS (Students of the Water Institute Graduate Section)**.

So, what am I researching exactly? This actually builds quite nicely from Shane’s post earlier this month. I am working with a local group (REEP Green Solutions) and Green Communities Canada (GCC) and assessing the RAIN Home Visit program from a community based social marketing perspective. Specifically, I am working to identify the barriers for homeowners to implement the storm water management actions suggested to them during their home visit. As a reminder, the RAIN program involves homeowners requesting a home visit from a RAIN specialist to identify areas of concern and/or improvement for water management on their property. This visit teaches homeowners about their property and about household storm water management. Even if the home has never experienced flooding or excessive run off during heavy rains, it does not mean it will never happen. This is especially poignant in a world with a changing climate and more extreme weather patterns. A house originally built in a relatively safe area may now be in a flood prone region due to changing weather patterns.

Old storm water infrastructure

Ageing storm water infrastructure

Further, cities are old! Even without increasing levels of storm water entering storm water drains and city water systems, the infrastructure of many cities is in need of repair. In the USA, it has been estimated that 5.9 billion gallons of drinking water is lostthrough pipe leaks each day! Leaking water can weaken the ground under buildings and roads, causing collapses and other expensive problems. Repairing these pipes is costly and timely – many are buried under cement, roads, or buildings. They are not easy to access! By lessening the demand and stress municipalities place on this system, the lifetime of the infrastructure can be, at least somewhat, extended. How many of you were aware that this was an issue to deal with?

This brings us to another feature of my research – perception of risk. Climate change is somewhat of an abstract problem – its causes and consequences are not immediately seen. If individuals have not already experienced something such as a flooded basement, it is difficult for them to understand their actual level of risk. Of course, direct experience is a costly way to increase perception of risk – financially and emotionally.

Flooding in Toronto

Flooding in Toronto

Basement flooding not only destroys physical property, but also personal items that hold meaning. Increasing one’s perception of environmental risks will increase the likelihood they will take on the pro-environmental behaviours that programs such as RAIN encourage. Even if you are concerned of flooding or storm water damage on your property, what can you do to protect your home? In the past, insurance companies have not offered flood insurance coverage. With housing damages increasing due to extreme weather (consider the recent Calgary and Toronto floodings!), homeowners are more interested in purchasing coverage to help protect against these kinds of damages. When insurance companies pay out on expensive ‘natural disaster’ claims, they may be in a compromised position and need to reach out to re-insurance organizations to help foot the bills. As these instances are becoming more common (and less ‘natural’) insurance companies may reassess their rates for homeowners. However, the homeowner may feel it is not their fault that their home that was once in a safe area to live is now in a flood prone area, and are reluctant to pay greater rates (let alone move!). How do these damages get paid for? Who is responsible? Clearly, this is a very complex situation.

If homeowners can adopt behaviours that better manage the storm water flowing from their properties, the demand can be lessened. This also saves money! Homeowners will have better protected property and experience less flood damage, cities will have less stressed water infrastructure, and insurance companies will have fewer claims to pay out on. By structuring a behavioural change program that includes aspects of social marketing (look back on those 10 Rules!), long-lasting changes can be made – and, hopefully, the better practices will spread! As Shane noted, some social marketing concepts could be worked into the existing program in hopes to have more impactful results. Shane specifically noted #5 Pledge Allegiance and I agree this would likely help commitment to the program in future. But where do we go from here? It must be noted that this is a complex task, and to accomplish it in the best way possible will take time. So, my research involves meeting with past participants of the program and discussing their experiences with it. What challenges did they encounter when trying to follow through on suggestions made during their home visit? Were they able to follow through on any at all? What differentiates those who adopted the recommended practices from those who did not? I am hoping to identify the different barriers for differently motivated people, in hopes to design a plan that can get the most impactful results for the greatest amount of people. Someone who already cares about the environment and storm water management, for example, is likely motivated differently than one who is less devoted or who does not feel themselves to be at risk of extreme weather damage. Can we learn how to bolster those needing more encouragement from the environmental champions? If real changes are to be made, both groups need to be assessed so we can determine barriers for both.


Photo Credit: Field Outdoor Spaces

*This program connects students, researchers, academics, and professionals from different faculties and departments to create an interdisciplinary learning experience. Engineers, hydrogeologists, biologists, architects, ecologists, mathematicians, economists and more are all involved in this program to assess water issues from various perspectives. We address the physical and technical aspects of water management issues, consider the environmental and social impacts, and discuss what type of policy or governmental choices could help resolve these issues. With so much interesting research going on, it is important that the various fields talk to each other about the problems each are trying to solve. Combining efforts, and learning how to communicate one’s specialty to other fields, is integral for tackling water issues and presenting problems (and solutions!) to policy makers.

**This group allows students to connect and network in a more casual setting, organizes water related events and excursions, and reaches out to the community and other educational institutions to spread the word of the Water Institute and CWP. From monthly Blue Drinks to canoe trips and camping to connecting with visiting academics, SWIGS helps ensure learning continues beyond the classroom and research labs by connecting students and other academics or professionals. [Shameless plug, if you’re in the Waterloo region and interested in learning more, come out to the next Blue Drinks at the UW Grad House from 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm!]

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