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
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • 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...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 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...