A survey was developed and conducted with residential water users in the City of Guelph, ON, Canada, with the objective of assessing their awareness, preferences, concerns, motivations, and priorities. The overall goal of this data is to improve the water system on different fronts: infrastructure, conservation programs, communication with users, and long-term strategies. Results highlight the local concerns with water scarcity, currently addressed by conservation programs, as well as water quality, aging infrastructure, and costs. Correlations between user type and answers were seldom found, showing that different residential customer segments share concerns and motivations. Even so, feedback must be sought from all customer segments, residential as well as industrial, commercial, and institutional, through different channels. The findings will allow the utility to identify preferred solutions to current issues and openness to change, as well as gaps in user and utility knowledge.

Water utilities are seeking to manage water systems that increasingly face a number of issues, such as aging infrastructure, water scarcity, high costs, and leakage, while still providing a sustainable and reliable service to users. According to Whelton et al. (2007), an important resource for water utilities and one that is often overlooked is customer feedback. Users naturally pay at least some attention to the water they draw, informally monitoring water quality, public health and infrastructure.

On a global scale, the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, which is developed from a survey of over 1,000 experts from industry, government, academia, and civil society, revealed that water supply stresses are considered highly likely and have a large risk of impacts. Water stress is considered more likely to occur in the next 10 years than major systemic financial failure, yet has a slightly smaller impact (World Economic Forum 2013). In a survey led by the Royal Bank of Canada (2013), Canadians were found to rank the economy as the most important national issue, while water pollution and supply were among the lowest. Concern over the quality of surface water and the long-term supply of fresh water is, however, high. Ten years from now, Canadians expect the greatest water related issues, in decreasing order of importance, to be: water pollution, safety of drinking water, state of the water supply system, shortages of drinking water, state of wastewater treatment systems, flooding caused by extreme weather, and state of storm water systems.

While the City of Guelph, ON, Canada, has already conducted surveys of water user opinions related to programs and by-laws, the present study assesses system-wide expectations in order to gauge and augment the relationships between user and utility concerns, with the goal of informing their current Water Supply Master Plan Update. Guelph seeks to update major components of the Water Supply Master Plan,–e.g., public consultation, population and water demand projections, water supply capacity, water supply alternatives, and implementation recommendations. Water user input is needed on the level of service, concerns, water supply alternatives (demand management, groundwater sources within or outside the city, local surface water sources), conservation goals, recovery and use of treated contaminated water, priority programs, and community engagement.

Groundwater is currently the primary water source for Guelph. Recent analysis by the local municipal utility has confirmed, however, that the existing water supply capacity will not meet future needs. The city has a population of around 120,000 and covers approximately 86 km2. Although the population has increased consistently, recent conservation initiatives have reduced residential consumption to nearly 180 liters per capita per day. Residential water use represents about 55% of total consumption, of which single-family detached households take nearly 70%. In the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors, the largest water consumers are manufacturers, distilleries, office buildings, shopping centers, post secondary schools, and hospitals.

The survey was designed to solicit feedback on service expectations, preferences in community water servicing approaches, and desired community resource stewardship actions. It was conducted by telephone with 400 residential water users in the city. A market research firm selected by the City of Guelph completed the calls. The survey takes about 15 minutes to answer and comprises five types of questions: open ended, yes or no, multiple choice, ranking, and rating. Survey questions were originally edited and simplified based on a sample survey of 10 households.

Questions fall into eight categories: user characteristics, user awareness, concerns and issues, user initiative and motivation, user priorities, business model, user communication, and demographics. Subjects span water system components and properties, including water source, quality, infrastructure, conservation, and costs. Respondents were classified according to their demographics and user characteristics. These were compared to the other answers in order to evaluate the relationship between user characteristics and other parameters. Because the frequencies of certain alternative answers were found to be low, Fisher's exact test was applied to the analysis of the contingency tables. If a probability of less than or equal to 0.05 was found, the null hypothesis, equivalent to the independence of answers, was rejected.

The pre-survey, conducted with 10 households, allowed for revision of the questionnaire, given the comments of the market research firm and respondents, as well as the knowledge level (regarding water systems) of interviewers and interviewees. The full interviews were recorded and analyzed. This underlined the need for simple, short and clear questions not involving jargon. Interviewers must be unbiased when asking questions and interpreting responses, so as not to influence the results. Many questions are intentionally open ended for this reason. A basic understanding of the subject is also essential, so that the interviewer can correctly punctuate and emphasize words, or answer questions of clarification, facilitating the interviewee's comprehension.

Amongst the 400 respondents to the full survey, the majority lives in a residence with one other adult, and no children. While 63% reported that they did not live with children, the 2012 Statistics Canada (Statistics Canada, 2012) census shows that 61% of Guelphites do reside with children. In fact, older residents owning detached houses, living alone or with another adult, and having at least a university degree, were found to be more likely to respond to the telephone survey, revealing the difficulty in creating a representative sample. Nonetheless, responses were cross-tabulated by category, to confirm any relationships between user characteristics and other answers regarding the water supply system.

According to the survey participants, the top issues facing Guelph water systems, are water scarcity (25%), threats to water quality (24%), aging infrastructure (15%), and costs (14%), as shown in Figure 1. The use of water from a limited groundwater supply in Guelph has prompted water conservation initiatives and studies by the utility, such as the current assessment of water supply alternatives as part of the Master Plan Update. This also underlines concerns about leakage and overuse by large corporations in the city. The reasons why water users are also concerned about water quality, aging infrastructure, and costs, as well as how these could be addressed, should be explored. When asked to predict the biggest water related problem ten years from now, interviewees overwhelmingly (70%) selected water scarcity. Therefore, Guelph water users rank water issues differently from the average Canadian, as assessed by the Royal Bank of Canada (2013). Across Canada, the greatest concern is water pollution, whereas in Ontario, it is the safety of drinking water.

The majority of respondents (68%) affirmed that they try hard to conserve water. They showed a focus on installing efficient appliances and accessories indoors, as well as reducing lawn watering. Fewer respondents undertake water efficient landscaping, rainwater use, and leakage checks, actions that could be promoted to further reduce water consumption. In order to avert scarcity, the majority of respondents agreed with increasing conservation (80%), restricting water use for urban development (68%), improving (76%) and building (56%) new infrastructure, as well as procuring new groundwater sources inside (69%) and outside the city (51%). However, respondents aged 55 and above, when compared with younger interviewees, agree less with using water from new groundwater sources outside the city.

In times of scarcity, water use for household indoor needs, municipal operations, wildlife and the natural environment are most important to the majority of respondents. This is reflected in their opinions on water restrictions. Interviewees agree more with restrictions on private lawn watering, and use by industry or business. Households that directly pay their water bill believe that water for municipal operations is more important than other respondents. They also agree more with restricting the amount of water that can be used on private lawns or landscapes, and are less likely to agree to the draining of local natural reservoirs.

The majority of respondents, 63%, are aware that their drinking water comes from groundwater wells. Although 36% cannot estimate how much water they use, approximately half of the remaining respondents made correct estimates. Not surprisingly, respondents are generally more aware of the quality and quantity of water used, than they are of infrastructure conditions and resource protection. Approximately 75% believe the provision of good quality water in sufficient quantity is good or excellent in Guelph. However, about 40% are unable to evaluate how effectively the utility rehabilitates and upgrades the infrastructure. Resolving issues in a timely manner is rated highly, even though 44% of interviewees did not know how to evaluate this criterion, which might indicate that they have not dealt directly with the City on water issues.

Pricing to cover full costs is quite highly rated. However, nearly 40% of users did not know how to evaluate cost coverage. The failure to cover costs could imply a potential increase in billing, something fewer users would agree with. Nevertheless, most are unaware of all that they pay for through their bills. In decreasing order of awareness, i.e. the proportion of respondents who were aware of items incorporated in their bills, the cost components are: drinking water (85%) and wastewater treatment (80%), maintenance (70%), infrastructure (65%), resource protection and conservation (42%), and storm water management (38%). More information on the costs covered by water bills could contribute to a better understanding of the services provided and what can be expected. Water is currently billed in Guelph through a single water rate, yet respondents also agree with other rate structures: increasing block rates (the rate per cubic meter increases as total water use increases), 53%, and by user type (different types of customers, such as industrial, commercial, and residential, are charged different rates), 61%. The majority of interviewees, 57%, disagree with flat fees, through which users pay the same total fee, regardless of use. Compared to permanent residents, seasonal or part time residents agree even less with flat fees.

Interviewed users prefer to be informed of changes to the water system, infrastructure, rates, programs, etc., through water bill inserts, newspapers, emails, and the Guelph website. They would rather provide feedback through surveys, open meetings, and focus groups. The respondents of this study, however, are obviously partial to surveys. Furthermore, individuals with higher incomes were found to agree less with the concept of communicating through focus groups. This highlights the need to use different communication methods to reach different user types and receive feedback from them. Although only residential water users were interviewed, industrial, commercial, and institutional opinions would be likely to differ, and representatives of these groups should be included in the decision making process as well.

Often overlooked, stakeholder feedback is an important tool in water systems decision-making. Users, located throughout the system, can act as monitors for water quality, public health, and infrastructure. Although average residential water users do not have the expertise to assess technical factors, they can gauge changes in water pressure and quality, disruptions to service, impacts of construction or repairs, affordability, and aesthetics. Utility planners and engineers can then critically analyze this feedback to identify differences between utility and user opinion, and cases where either party lacks information.

In this survey, older users were found to be more likely to participate. Nevertheless, answers were analyzed according to user categories and most responses were found to be independent of user type. Because users prefer different communication and feedback practices, an assortment of methods must be used to reach and receive information from all customer segments. The survey results highlight user concern with the scarcity of water in the city, an issue that has been regularly addressed by the local utility and is the focus of its latest Water Supply Master Plan Update. Other main issues identified by the respondents and that must also receive attention from the utility are water quality, aging infrastructure, and costs.
Figure 1

Most important issues presently facing Guelph's water system according to respondents.

Figure 1

Most important issues presently facing Guelph's water system according to respondents.

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