Study: Media Coverage of Drought Spurred California Water Conservation

During California’s five-year drought, residents started saving water long before the water agencies required it. That’s because they were motivated by heavy media coverage, says Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) water conservation technician Rachel Garza inspects a water meter with homeowner Michael Shain as she performs a water conservation audit on April 7, 2015, in Walnut Creek, California. A new Stanford University study found that Bay Area residents began conserving water long before they were ordered to do so, largely because they responded to media coverage of the drought.Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

When the California drought began to take hold in 2011, a mysterious thing happened: People began cutting back drastically on their water consumption – even before mandatory conservation was ordered by their local water agencies and state government.

Newsha Ajamidirector of Urban Water Policy with Stanford University’s Water in the West program, started hearing about this from water utilities during the drought. After the drought ended, she and a team of graduate students started to investigate why it happened.

They ended up conducting an unprecedented study of media coverage during the drought. They found that the more people read about the drought, the more water they conserved. And as their interest in reading about the drought increased, the more the media covered the crisis, creating a kind of positive feedback loop.

The study, published in October by the journal Science Advances, was conducted by first gathering water consumption data from the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a coalition of more than two dozen utilities. Then the team created a new web-scraping search algorithm to analyze coverage of the drought by nine major state and nine national newspapers.

The search tool, which they named Articulate, has since been made available online for free, for other researchers who may want to use it for similar kinds of media analysis.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Ajami to learn more about the study.

Water Deeply: How big a role did the media play in water conservation during the drought?

Newsha Ajami: We found the media to be a very significant factor in declining water use. We found an increase of 100 drought-related articles in a bi-monthly period was leading to about an 11–18 percent drop in water use for single-family residential. And that was pretty significant.

The fact the drought was covered so extensively was really unprecedented, at least in my professional lifetime. The country was in a pretty calm situation. We had no national or other local issues that were taking precedence over the drought in California. So it was a hot topic at the time. I think if the drought was going on now, maybe we would not have gotten as much coverage. This was California water’s lucky few years, because nothing else was going on. The California drought was a huge deal and everybody was talking about it. This doesn’t happen too often.

Water Deeply: What surprised you about the results of your study?

Ajami: A couple things happened that were interesting for me personally. A lot of these articles were talking about where water was coming from, how the California water system works, the importance of snowpack, the role of reservoirs, groundwater levels dropping. There was a lot of valuable information that some people did not have beforehand. It was being handed to them right there through the media. I think that was very important.

Another thing was, I have worked in this field for the past 15 or 20 years, and I have never seen as much interest in the topic as I saw in those years. In social situations, as soon as I would mention what I do, everyone would be very interested and try to engage, tell me what it is they are doing to help us deal with the drought. And I found that to be very valuable and I think that was also driven by the media. I was not surprised, but it is sort of a demonstration of the power that the media holds and how they can provide such valuable information to the public, and mobilize public understanding in such exceptional circumstances like we were in.

Water Deeply: And you found that water conservation by the public began well before any official conservation mandates. How did that happen?

Ajami: That was very important. People voluntarily increased their conservation because of what they saw in the media. This was before the governor actually put out his call for mandatory water conservation. And before that, many water agencies didn’t necessarily go through an extensive water conservation requirement. They were mostly doing voluntary water conservation and not necessarily putting in place a lot of their forceful water conservation measures.

Another thing we saw was that we actually followed Google Trends for “water conservation” and “California drought” to see if there was a connection between the two. You would see media coverage go up on “California drought” and water use would drop. And the media was responding to public interest. The more people read about the drought, the more coverage we saw.

Water Deeply: Do you think all this coverage helped people understand the complexity of the drought and of water management?

Ajami: They were raising public awareness, changing public perceptions about water systems. Different members of the public, they don’t necessarily go out there and read scientific articles or journal articles. They interact with this kind of information as it comes. Scientific communication is extremely important in increasing public awareness, increasing public knowledge. If you ask people where your water is coming from, how the water system works, many people don’t know.

I think before this drought, a lot more people didn’t know how their water system works. The ability to communicate that in a simple way – provide it in an intelligent way that people can interact with and understand – is an art that not everybody does well.

Traditionally, we all have been interacting with our water system from the top down. You open your faucet, water comes out, you use it, you’re done and you pay the bill at the end of the month, and you don’t need to think about where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That’s not your daily concern. Water sort of has this disadvantage, which is that it is hidden infrastructure. People don’t see it on a daily basis. So this was, in a way, a great opportunity to help people understand what is going on. It also was a demonstration that the public does respond. If you give them good information, they use it and they use it well. So it’s extremely important.

Water Deeply: It seems all this coverage also became important to governing. Did it help prime the public to respond once the government did more?

Ajami: Yes, and not just governing for conservation and efficiency. It’s governing for everything. The way we manage our rates, our capital improvements, the way we manage our system breaks and improvements – now the public knows more. In a way, it demonstrates that when utilities spend more time with communication, they can see the public respond to whatever decisions they make.

There was a lot of discussion around the same time as the drought about rates and pricing and how we need to price water. If you don’t know what it takes for a utility to provide you with a service, why would you even want to pay more for it? So helping them understand what is going on with the prices helps them to be more willing to pay more – if you give them the right information.

Water Deeply: What is the Articulate search tool that you created as part of this project?

Ajami: What really enabled us to do this was creating a dataset that didn’t exist before, and bringing it into our analysis. There are a lot of conversations going on about big data and how it interacts with our resources, and this is a great demonstration of that.

Me and my team, we are engineers. When we do water analysis, we approach it from an engineering or scientific side. The models basically incorporate things that traditionally have been shown to be important when you are trying to understand patterns in water demand. Communication has not necessarily been something that has been included in that sort of analysis. So my students actually suggested we create our own search method using web-scraping to collect this data ourselves.

We ended up developing this search algorithm and decided to focus on highly circulated national and state newspapers: nine national, and nine at the state level. There was some overlap, so we ended up with a dozen or so news outlets. We basically created another dataset we could combine with the existing data we had, which was water use at different water agencies, price data, unemployment data, climate data, temperature and precipitation, the drought index and median household income.

The Articulate database is now open-source. Everybody can use it and it can be used for many different things.

Water Deeply: What are some other ways this search tool can be used?

Ajami: For example, if somebody wants to see how global coverage around climate change has impacted the way different countries are engaging around mitigation efforts they can collect that information. They can collect a lot of data about how many articles have been written about climate change in the past year because we pulled out of the Paris Accord, and relate that to how public opinion is changing about climate change.

Water Deeply: You noticed changes in temperature were more likely to influence water use than changes in precipitation. Why is that?

Ajami: We think it’s partly because when it’s hotter, people connect with that more, especially in regard to outdoor watering.

On a daily basis, you don’t think about precipitation as much. Not everybody is tracking the rainfall process, and if it’s raining enough or not. They do that more with temperature. Imagine if you have longer summers or if in the middle of January it’s hot, you end up interacting with that experience more. When it’s hot, people interacted more with their outdoor space because they may have noticed their grass needed watering in the middle of January.

Water Deeply: You also noticed that wealthier people were less receptive to conservation messages.

Ajami: We tried to understand how different people responded to the information provided to them. Then we noticed that the role of the media wasn’t necessarily as significant for higher-income people as for the lower- and median-income clusters we have. We think – and this is just speculation – that this might be because some of these higher-income communities hire landscapers and basically outsource some of their outdoor water use. So there is less direct influence on changing behavior. They just don’t interact with their water use the way other people do.

We did a similar study for Sonoma County Water Agency. One of the recommendations we had was, when it comes to higher-income communities, you have to provide more information to the landscapers and others who provide the service, in addition to homeowners. It’s a new area of outreach for water utilities. You need to engage with the people who impact water use.

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