Water Conservation & The Water Soft Path

Communities around the world are beginning to realize the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water conservation. Planners and water managers are increasingly moving away from supply-side solutions to meet water demand (e.g. expanding physical infrastructure, such as pipes, pumps, dams, and reservoirs) Instead, they are looking toward long-term, comprehensive water management approaches that will ensure adequate quantities of water for the future.

The WSP’s water conservation work is largely focused on ways that communities can effectively implement tailored water soft path stategies to sustainably manage their water resources, now and into the future. The water soft path concept offers a holistic and comprehensive approach to water sustainability planning, and takes into consideration the complex interactions that occur between the natural environment and human activity.


Case Studies

April 2016

On March 3rd, 2016, over 50 water specialists from local government, industry, and academia from across B.C. met at the University of British Columbia for the one-day workshop "Local Drought Preparedness in B.C." The goal of the workshop was twofold:
-To allow local governments and water specialists to share lessons following the 2015 drought; and
-To identify opportunities for collaboration in building drought preparedness.

November 2012

This water soft path case study examines the innovative water strategy planning process used in York Region, Ontario. In 2011, York Region set a forward-looking target of No New Water and is, to the authors’ knowledge, the first community in North America to explicitly approach its water strategy planning process from a soft path perspective. This case study marks the first investigation into the successes and challenges of putting soft path principles into practice.

June 2011

The soft path pilot project for Fergus-Elora was initiated by the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) in partnership with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, the Township of Centre Wellington (TCW), the Elora Environment Centre, and the University of Waterloo.

In Fergus-Elora, population and water use are expected to double between 2008 and 2040. The region is dependent on groundwater and if no conservation measures are taken the existing groundwater supply will likely require expansion by 2028.

The recommended approach for Fergus-Elora is to “use the same water tomorrow we use today,” which accommodates all future population and economic growth to 2040, and beyond, using the same amount of water used in 2008.

Click the links below to download PDF files of the report and technical appendices.

A 2010 report summarizing the results and analysis of a GRCA residential water use survey for Fergus-Elora is also provided. The survey focused on the usage of water-using fixtures and appliances, as well as water conservation efforts made by residents in the community.

March 2010

This Soft Path Strategy for Salt Spring Island was developed by the Water Sustainability Project team in collaboration with the Salt Spring Island Water Council. Salt Spring is the largest and most populous of the Gulf Islands and has a year round population of approximately 10,000 which doubles during the summer with tourists and temporary residents. Water supply and quality are issues on parts of Salt Spring, with some drinking water lakes being close to their capacity to meet current demand and future commitments for additional supply, and difficulties with private wells particularly on the north end of the island.

This strategy offers direction to Salt Spring's growing water use by recommending a commitment to “preserving water supplies for the next generation.” 

September 2009

This case study investigates the water supply contexts and water conservation programs of three large cities in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. It is part of ongoing efforts by the Water Sustainability Project to highlight communities that are incorporating comprehensive demand management and “new water infrastructure” into their water management programs. Each city faces both growing populations and mounting water scarcity due to climate changes, new regulations and environmental concerns. Though they developed as cities in part thanks to supply-side approaches, each is now applying elements of the water soft path approach to address concerns about future water supplies.

August 2009

This Soft Path Strategy for the City of Abbotsford and District of Mission was developed by the Water Sustainability Project team in consultation with Abbotsford Mission Water and Sewer Commission (AMWSC) staff beginning in December 2008. Heavy growth has increasingly strained the region’s water supplies, forcing the AMWSC to choose to either build costly infrastructure or to defer a need for new infrastructure by engaging in long-term water conservation planning.

The Strategy seeks to provide direction to this second option by recommending a commitment to “preserving water supplies for the next generation.” 

February 2007

This case study is a “real world” application of the soft path concept for the Town of Oliver in the Okanagan Basin, British Columbia. In this semi-arid area, the “myth of water abundance” remains firmly entrenched even though the region’s water supplies and aquatic ecosystems are under stress. Fortunately, a new paradigm of water management is emerging—an approach focused primarily on water conservation and efficiency, with the potential to ensure long-term sustainability and social and economic prosperity. This report provides an overview of the soft path approach, an analysis of three potential scenarios in the Okanagan, and recommendations for the community to take steps towards developing a sustainable approach to water management.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

January 2015

Renzetti, S., Brandes, O.M., Dupont, D.P., MacIntyre-Morris, T., & Stinchcombe K. (2015). Using demand elasticity as an alternative approach to modelling future community water demand under a conservation-oriented pricing system: An exploratory investigation. Canadian Water Resources Journal, available online January 26, 2015.

Water managers lack practical and readily available tools to inform them about what impact price changes (or changes in other drivers of water use) will have on demand – and therefore revenue – over both the short and long term. This paper examines how the concept of demand elasticity can be used to model changes in annual aggregate water use in response to future changes in major demand drivers including water and electricity prices, average income, population, level of business activity and climate. It does so by describing a pilot investigation completed in York Region in Southern Ontario, where a range of assumptions about price elasticities were used to calculate the rate of growth for water demand over a 40-year period. This investigation was deliberately exploratory and the findings can only be considered indicative and preliminary. However, with further development, the modelling approach described could provide an additional tool to help water managers understand changes in demand, and communities make the transition to a conservation-oriented water pricing system.

Article Access
To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

January 2015

Brooks, D.B., Maas, C., Brandes, O.M., & Brandes, L. (2015). Applying Water Soft Path Analysis in Small Urban Areas: Four Canadian Case Studies. International Journal of Water Resources Development, available online January 14, 2015.

Water soft paths begin from the vision that future water management has more to gain from reducing demand than from increasing supply. This article reviews three case studies of water soft path analysis in small urban areas in Canada, and one study of an urban planning process incorporating soft path concepts. The analytical studies indicate how communities can avoid the need for expansion of water infrastructure with negligible impacts on lifestyles or livelihoods. The planning study demonstrates that it is possible to introduce water soft paths early in a review, and that this will stimulate more ecologically sensitive thinking among citizens, officials and political leaders. Similar conclusions can be expected from soft path studies in urban areas elsewhere in the developed world.

Article Access
To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

November 2011

Forsyth, S., & Brooks, D.B. (2011). Applying water soft path analysis in an agricultural region of Canada. Water International, 36(7), 894–907.


The current study extends past work on water soft path analysis in breadth and in depth: in breadth by studying an area devoted to large-scale prairie agriculture, and in depth by adding direct interaction with water managers and citizens of the Pembina Valley Conservation District in the Province of Manitoba, Canada. The main conclusion from the study is that the region can continue to be a prosperous and attractive place in which to live and to farm for at least 30 years without a single additional drop of water.

Article Access

To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

April 2011

Brooks, D.B., & Brandes, O.M. (2011). Why a Water Soft Path, Why Now and What Then? International Journal of Water Resources Development, 27(2), 315–344.


The best way to achieve a sustainable future for fresh water is to develop decision-making processes, institutions, and technologies that emphasize both efficiency and conservation. These two terms are commonly treated as synonyms, but, respectively, they reflect anthropogenic and ecological bases for making decisions. Recognizing that both perspectives are valid, this article outlines a new approach to water planning and management called the water soft path. This approach differs fundamentally from conventional, supply-based approaches. The article reviews the transfer of the original soft path concept from energy to water, and summarizes the first applications of water soft path analytics to specific geographic areas: one urban area, one province, and one watershed in Canada. The article concludes with suggestions for further research, as well as steps to improve recognition of the water soft path as a planning tool that can move management and policies towards economic, ecological, and social sustainability.

Article Access

To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

November 2007

Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water, (K.Bakker ed.) Vancouver: UBC Press

July 2006

Brandes, O.M., & Kriwoken, L. (2006). Changing perspectives--changing paradigms: taking the "soft path" to water sustainability in the Okanagan Basin. Canadian Water Resources Journal, 31(2), 75–90.


Access to fresh water is vital to Canada's long-term prosperity. Water is the foundation of our economy and communities, and is essential for all forms of life. Yet despite its critical importance, water is undervalued and often wasted. Perceived as an abundant and virtually limitless resource, the myth of abundance is entrenched even in water-stressed areas such as the Okanagan, where drinking water supplies are at risk, conflicts among water users are common, economic opportunities are threatened, and aquatic ecosystem health and fisheries are declining. Population growth, coupled with the uncertain (yet increasingly evident) impacts of climate change, will only increase these challenges in the future. Water conservation and demand management are critical components in a lasting long-term and sustainable approach to water management. Demand management offers a genuine win-win solution as communities reap both environmental and economic dividends from reducing water use. To demonstrate that conservation is the next best source of "new" water in regions where supply is limited, this paper outlines opportunities to move toward more sustainable water management. A comprehensive and long-term approach to water demand management, referred to as the "soft path," requires active participation by water users and effective strategic planning to create the appropriate mix and timing of conservation measures for the region. Lasting solutions require changes in attitudes and opinions about water and must draw on innovative tools and best practices from other jurisdictions to create a basin-wide and comprehensive "made in the Okanagan" approach to sustainable water management.

Article Access

To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

Policy Papers

December 2013

This guide outlines a seven-step water conservation planning process to help communities of all sizes work towards a healthy water future. It is designed to help small to mid-sized communities identify and realize their water conservation goals, and contains information that larger B.C. communities may also find useful. This guide was co-developed by POLIS, the B.C. Ministry of Community, Sport & Cultural Development, and the Okanagan Basin Water Board. It also features an accompanying workbook with checklists for each step. For a copy of the supplementary Water Conservation Guide worksheets, contact Madelaine Martin at Madelaine.Martin@gov.bc.ca.

This guide is an updated edition of the 2009 publication Water Conservation Planning Guide for British Columbia's Communities

January 2013

Co-authored by the WSP's Carol Maas and Sarah E. Wolfe (Assistant Professor, Department of Environment and Resource Studies, University of Waterloo), this policy paper provides a concise and integrated summary of emerging research on social and process changes in water management.

January 2013

Intended as a resource for water, planning, and building practitioners, this paper summarizes labelling and certification programs and policies for encouraging water efficiency and low-impact development practices in new and redeveloped buildings. It offers a summary of how water-related measures are incorporated into green building programs in Canada.

March 2010

The purpose of the ActionH2O Water Sustainability Charter is to commit local government councils across Canada to achieving local water conservation goals. The ActionH2O Water Sustainability Charter Toolkit gives an overview of how community groups can use the Charter to engage local governments, including quick tips and strategies.

June 2009

The Water Conservation Planning Quick Guide highlights some of the leading available resources that support effective water conservation planning including Planning Manuals and Case Studies.

June 2009

In February 2009, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson launched the Greenest City initiative, with a goal to develop innovative solutions that tie economic growth to new technology, green solutions, environmental stewardship and vision. WSP submitted a series of recommendations to the Water Working Group in June 2009.

March 2009

This seven step "how to" guidebook for British Columbian communities enhances local government capacity to develop and implement effective water conservation plans by summarizing core research on water-wise tools and practices in an easy to use step-by-step guidebook. The guidebook helps municipal water staff and active citizens get started on water conservation planning, and communities who are looking to strengthen existing water conservation plans. This publication is a collaboration between the POLIS Water Sustainability Project and Ministry of Community and Rural Development.

January 2009

A briefing note submitted to federal Minister of Environment Jim Prentice. This initiative was a joint project of POLIS, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, FLOW Canada, and the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA).

June 2007

A report for the Capital Regional District's Water Advisory Committee outlining ways to apply the soft path in a municipal setting.

February 2007

Soft path planning employs backcasting—a planning approach that begins by envisioning possible future states, then works backwards to connect a desired future to the present by integrating policies, programs, and technological innovation. This report applies the Urban Water Soft Path “Back of the Envelope” Backcasting Framework (BEBF) to compare various possible scenarios of future water use at the community scale (e.g. municipal, regional). The framework involves the application of an analytical tool to determine the macro impact of different “packages” of micro measures (e.g. policies, programs, technologies) on total water use. The main goal is to illustrate the potential of a comprehensive approach to water conservation and efficiency, with the initial results pointing to recommendations for specific actions in the future.

May 2006

The WSP's Oliver M. Brandes co-authored a backgrounder on the soft path for water as part of the "Freshwater for the Future" issue of the federal government publication Horizons, published by Policy Horizons Canada (p. 71-74). WSP research is also mentioned in the article on a national freshwater policy framework (p. 4-11).

April 2006

The WSP team contributed to a Foundation Research Bulletin on the topic of Water Conservation in Oliver, BC published by Smart Growth on the Ground in April 2006.

February 2005

The POLIS Water Project and BC's Ministry of Water Land and Air Protection collaborated on this presentation at the CWRA conference "Water - Our Limiting Resource" in Kelowna, BC in February 23-25, 2005.

July 2004

A briefing paper presented at a workshop for BC's Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection on July 20, 2004. The WSP team presented POLIS' proposed action plans for the provincial government to implement urban water demand management.

March 2004

This background paper for Environment Canada provides viable action plans with federal leadership for a comprehensive and long-term approach to freshwater management in Canada.

March 2004

A joint submission briefing note presented to the Prime Minister's Office by the POLIS Project and Friends of the Earth Canada on March 16, 2004 in anticipation of the federal budget.

Research Reports

October 2011

This handbook outlines the problems with conventional stormwater management and examines solutions for moving toward sustainability. It provides a comprehensive blueprint that outlines the crucial steps necessary to change the way communities manage and, importantly, govern stormwater. A main focus is addressing the fragmented responsibility for fresh water across and within jurisdictions—one of the greatest challenges to reinventing rainwater management.

This handbook was developed in partnership with the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria and is based on the ELC's 2010 report Re-inventing Rainwater Management: A Strategy to Protect Health and Restore Nature in the Captical Region.

Check out the October 2011 Peeling Back the Pavement webinar here.

May 2010

Worth Every Penny:  A Primer on Conservation-Oriented Water Pricing provides an overview of conservation-oriented water pricing for decision makers, water utilities and service providers in Canada. It explains how water pricing works, what the benefits are, and how water utilities can implement conservation-oriented water pricing structures as a key tool in the water manager's toolkit. As well, it offers advice on how to address implementation challenges, including how to avoid penalizing low-income families and how to maintain revenue stability for water utilities. Check out the Worth Every Penny webinar here.

June 2009

Making the Most of the Water We Have is the first book to comprehensively present and apply the water soft path approach. Edited by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance’s David B. Brooks and Oliver M. Brandes, and environmental consultant Stephen Gurman, it compiles the writings of more than 20 water scientists, policy advisors and analysts, and political ecologists. The publication focuses on detailed Canadian studies, and also takes a global perspective by looking at examples and experiences from around the world. Making the Most of the Water We Have demonstrates that soft path analyses are both analytical and practical, and emphasizes that soft paths are not only conceptually attractive, but can also be economically and politically feasible.

First published in June 2009, the paperback edition was released in March 2011. It is available at Chapters and Amazon, and can be purchased directly from the publisher for 20% off the list price.

  • Four book reviews, published in The Environmental Forum, Water International, Critical Policy Studies, and Journal AWWA are provided below as downloadable PDFs.
  • This book served as the backbone for an April 2010 Continuing Studies course on Contemporary Issues in Water Management and Protection offered at the University of Victoria. The course information is provided below.
September 2007

The Soft Path for Water in a Nutshell provides an overview of the steps involved in soft path planning, illustrates how soft path planning differs from conventional supply-side management, and discusses the potential for this innovative approach to develop water sustainability in Canada. Originally published in November 2005, a revised and updated version was released in September 2007.

October 2006

This handbook provides a practical resource on how individuals, utilities, and, most importantly, communities can save water and money. Designed for community leaders, water managers, and policy makers, this handbook seeks to inspire and facilitate action. It promotes an expanded definition of "urban water infrastructure" that includes innovative physical components, water sensitive urban design, and conservation programs designed to complement existing water supply networks.

May 2004

This report focuses on identifying benefits as well as the barriers to water demand-side management in Canada. The interconnected and interrelated nature of barriers creates a gridlock that resists the adoption of a comprehensive approach to demand management for urban water in Canada. The report exaplains why a comprehensive and long-term approach to demand-side management is necessary and provides action plans for all levels of government and other stakeholders for implementation.

December 2003

Urban water management poses many logistical and financial challenges in Canadian communities. By increasing water use efficiency, Demand Side Management can mitigate many of the impacts of human water use on overstretched municipal infrastructure and overstressed aquatic systems. Despite these benefits, Demand Side Management is seriously underutilized in Canada. What the Experts Think draws on interviews with Canadian experts in the field of water resource management and initiates a national network of water demand management practitioners.

August 2003

The majority of Canadians live in large urban and regional centres, and municipal water use represents a significant portion (12 percent) of overall water withdrawals in Canada. Urban users in Canada use more than twice as much water as their European counterparts, with significant levels of wastage and inefficiency. Such high levels of urban water use have resulted in expensive supply and disposal infrastructure expansions, ecological impacts in developed areas where environmental stresses are already high, and increasing pressure on water treatment facilities to treat all water to drinking quality standards. Demand-side management (DSM) is an alternative (or, more accurately, complementary) approach to increasing supply infrastructure. It involves decreasing the demand for water through a mix of education, technology, pricing reform, regulation and recycling. This report provides insight into water use and supply in Canadian cities and the potential for demand side management.


WSP Newsletter

Subscribe to the WSP Newsletter to stay informed about water issues and WSP initiatives. You can also check out past issues.

Creative Commons License 2.5

site by Substantive Design | powered by Drupal