With more local and state governments enforcing water conservation mandates in California, property managers there are retrofitting their units with the best new green appliances and plumbing fixtures.

Kids at Chinatown CDC created posters in English and Chinese to encourage residents to save water.

Such capital improvements, however, only go so far. Instead, when trying to conserve water, why not go directly to the source of use—your residents? That’s exactly what California affordable housing nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center (CDC) is doing.

Chinatown CDC first took advantage of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s program to install low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerators in 2011. Using WegoWise, an online energy and water tracking tool, the organization was able to monitor its success. While the decrease in water consumption was significant, Joanna Ladd, a project manager at Chinatown CDC, says that, at some buildings, water use still exceeded 100 gallons per bedroom per day—a relatively high amount for a state going through an excessive drought.

In an effort to curb those numbers further, Chinatown CDC started a competition between its residents. First, property managers rolled out a four-month education phase to show residents how much water they were using and teach them how they could save water daily. The managers worked with resident youths to create posters and flyers with tips for water conservation, including using less water to boil vegetables, taking shorter showers, turning the water off while brushing one's teeth, and using cold water to wash clothes. The visuals also showed residents just how high their water use was, and, says Ladd, the data really shocked them.

Realizing how motivated those numbers made the residents, Chinatown CDC kicked off a pilot competition between three properties and used the data from WegoWise to chart their progress.

“Every month, we'd post an update about how each building was doing with respect to the other buildings,” says Ladd. “We didn’t actually realize that the data would be [so] compelling to residents.”

The group also used the resident engagement campaign to focus tenants on property management issues.

“Undetected toilet leaks are a huge source of water wasting,” says Ladd. “So we used the campaign to get the word out to residents about how you can check your toilet for leaks and make sure you send a work order to property management if you find one.”

Overall, the campaign was a huge success. The first building saved 16%, the second saved 18%, and the final building saved more than 6%. Ladd says the "losing" property became even more motivated after the contest. She says they’re now seeing a 15% to 18% savings at that building.

California governor Jerry Brown has been implementing executive orders on water savings since January 2014, and the mandates are getting increasingly strict, with a 10% year-over-year mandate for all residents going into effect this past June.

“We got a little bit of a head start piloting this water engagement program,” says Ladd. “Now that we’ve seen that it works and the results we’ve seen are even better than what the city and state are asking us to do, the task at hand is to just roll that out to as many buildings as possible.”