A flood of drought news can reduce water use

Drought-stricken California conserved more when media coverage spiked.

 

You’re probably familiar with the recent 5-year drought in California. That’s likely due in part to the intense media attention it attracted. At the peak of the coverage, there were nearly 30 times more drought-focused newspaper stories written per month than during an earlier Golden State drought that lasted from 2007 to 2009.

During the latest drought, even before California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide in 2015, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were consuming less water than they had a few years earlier. “The question was, what was driving them to reduce their water use?” asked Nicole Sandkulla, the CEO and general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts.

New research suggests that newspapers were, in fact, part of the answer. Media attention — and the public awareness and engagement that follows — is one way to get people to use less water.

California’s recent 5-year drought lowered reservoirs across the state, including Don Pedro Lake, about 100 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Researchers suspected that spikes in media coverage could be driving the drops in water consumption Sandkulla and others were seeing. To find out, Kimberly Quesnel and Newsha Ajami of Stanford University studied a decade’s worth of water use data, from 2005 to 2015, from 20 of the water agencies that belong to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. (The agency helped fund the study.)

The scientists also counted the number of articles related to drought that nine national and regional newspapers ran during the same period. There was less drought-centered coverage during the earlier drought, perhaps as a result of news coverage focused on the economic recession and the 2008 presidential election. The more recent dry spell, however, captured statewide and even national attention: The number of drought-focused articles published every month rose precipitously starting in 2014. “Drought in California was interesting, and it was the news of the day,” says Ajami, the director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program.

Media coverage of the recent California drought surged in 2014, coinciding with a drop in household water consumption. (Water use is measured in hundreds of cubic feet (CCF); analysis from Quesnel & Ajami 2017).
Geoff McGhee / Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

To elucidate the link between news stories and turning off the tap, the researchers estimated how much water households used based on combinations of factors including climate and weather parameters, demographic elements, water price and number of drought-focused newspaper articles. Then they compared the results to average rates of actual consumption. Simulations that included the media measure more closely matched reality than those that didn’t include it, suggesting that newspaper coverage was a contributor to domestic water conservation. An increase of about 100 drought stories over two months was associated with a drop of 11 to 18 percent in typical household water use.

But were people actually reading the news stories? When the scientists conducted an analysis of Google search data over the same years, they found a connection between media reports and public interest in drought. Searches for the term “California drought” surged in the San Francisco Bay Area during the same time period that the number of newspaper stories on drought went up.

“For future droughts, there’s no question that we learned that there is a role for media to play,” Sandkulla says. During the recent drought, her agency and others bought ads, wrote press releases and met with community groups and reporters to alert the public to the dire need to conserve water — and to let them know how they could help, by doing things like turning off sprinklers and shortening showers.

And those efforts were successful: Between June 2014 and April 2017, Bay Area water agencies reduced their water use by 10 to 35 percent. The role that public awareness likely played in those reductions is encouraging, Ajami says. “People do care if you give them the right set of information — they react, they respond, they change their behavior.”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!