Without Water, Life Would be Pretty Dry: The City of Thornton’s Water Conservation Program in Colorado (USA)



Water levels and drought concerns in the semi-arid climate of Colorado have prompted state and city leaders to look for proven ways to influence ongoing behaviors around water use. Specifically, the City of Thornton, Colorado, has turned to community-based social marketing to prompt residents to conserve water. According to Tonya Peters, owner of Orange Circle Consulting who has been working with members of Thornton’s water resources division since 2007, “They really got hooked on community based social marketing.”

To engage citizens in water conservation, Peters most recently worked with Thornton to develop a social marketing campaign known as “Without Water, Life Would be Pretty Dry.” The campaign features the “voice of water” making witty statements that appeal to residents of the city, particularly those who fall into a “high water use” category.

                                    Thornton residents show their commitment to saving water by posting fun photos on Social Media.

The program takes aim at a number of water-wasting behaviors, indoors and out, but prioritizes lawn watering and irrigation as activities that often lead to water waste. The program aims to simplify complex messages and reduce barriers to conservation action. In 2015 the city specifically focused on a “cycle and soak” message above all else.

With the “cycle and soak” method residents find that they can water their lawn fewer days each week. Suburban homeowners love lush, green lawns but the perception is that it takes a lot of water to do that. Watering only two days per week, running three short cycles per zone, means that grass roots will be stronger, and the grass will be greener, for example.

Tonya said of the strategy for the marketing mix, “It’s like a recipe.” Tonya works with a media planner to determine the paid media plan. In the 2015 campaign season, Thornton experimented by promoting the city’s water conservation messages on Pandora. The campaign saw very high click-through rates, meaning listeners were engaging and going to the website to learn more.

Yet Tonya and the City do not only rely on paid media. She said, “The more personal contact, the more likelihood they [the water users] will shift some behaviors.” The City takes a balanced approach to reach residents, through a mix of direct outreach and promotion. Events, classes, at-home consultations, tours, volunteer activities and similar tactics spark engagement.


The program evaluates the campaign annually and has also conducted primary formative research to better understand community members and their actions. Tonya said the evaluations have helped prove that this initiative is a good investment. Further, the research findings have helped get city leadership buy-in on a continued basis by validating the need for city dollars to be re-allocated to water conservation initiatives and messaging.

                                    Outdoor Water Consultations are one of the free services that Thornton Water includes in their outreach programming to help residents learn how to best irrigate their landscape.


Tonya said of the most recent round of formative research, “What surprised me early on about people is that they think they’re doing all they can. There is a misperception that there is nothing else they can do to save water.”

Research has identified the city’s target audience as “cautious conservatives”— established, suburban homeowners who have college to post-graduate education and a household income over $75,000. The High Water Use respondents tend to come from a higher age bracket, 45 – 64+.

With the insights from this research, the program has focused on getting a return on investment by showing residents how to get a bigger “bang for their buck,” if they irrigate less, or differently. 


Tonya said last year they saw “dramatic changes in awareness about the ‘cycle and soak’ technique from 19 to 46 percent. It really was exciting.” When asked specifically about using a “Cycle and Soak method for watering their lawn”, 50% of residents report having used this technique, up from 37% in 2014. Additionally, in their first year of following “high water use” households, 46% of these residents decreased water use from 2014 to 2015, based on actual water use data. 

Tonya said of the program’s success, “I’ve been blessed by a client that is so invested in the research and the results as well as their commitment to the CBSM (community-based social marketing) concept.”





Tonya Peters, Orange Circle Consulting


Thornton Water Website