Column: One rainy season doesn’t mean California’s drought problems are over


Drought? What drought?

The big fear in the world of water management is that this big gulp of wet weather will lead some Californians to think that the drought is dead. Politicians from President Donald Trump to Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who displayed a snowball on the Senate floor to “disprove” global warming, willfully try to conflate climate change with weather. But one rainy season is not California’s last-reel rescue from drought.

In a few weeks, the state’s Department of Water Resources will be sending out its new water-saving messages, and Niki Woodard, who is No. 2 in the department’s public affairs office, sizes up how her department can navigate around that waterlogged state of mind.

It has been raining like crazy. It has been snowing like crazy. How on earth do you tell people there's still a drought and they still need to save water?

That's a good question, and we get that question a lot here at the Department of Water Resources. While our snowpack right now is about 140% of average for this time, that's our reservoir. And we want to preserve as much water in the system as we possibly can.

In California we have such a variable climate that we never know when the next drought’s around the corner. We're still recovering from a major four-year drought that was quite devastating in parts of the state.

So we never know when those conditions are coming back, and we can all work to keep that water in the “bank.”

Do you think there's anyone who's lived in California for more than six months who doesn't know that we have had a prolonged state of drought and are still facing it?

Oh, I'm sure there are people who either didn't know that we had a long drought or didn't feel the effects of it. We have one of the most variable climates in the world. It can rain like we've been seeing this intense month of February, massive amounts of rain, and then it can go dry for years. And in that dry period we deplete our groundwater reservoirs, we deplete our reservoirs that we see. And it gets really scary, and we need to do all that we can to keep those reservoirs healthy, whether we can see them or not.

I recently was in the car — I live in Sacramento — and one of the music radio station hosts came on. He was talking about how much rain we're getting and how much snow in the mountains, and this is great news because he's going to water his lawn every day this summer.

And I did just kind of cringe a little bit because we're trying to get people to understand that when the conditions are great and we have a super water year like we're shaping up to have right now, it doesn't mean you turn off your wiser self that tells you to hold back a little bit on watering your lawn every day. And hearing messages like that on the radio — it does bum me out, because I know they have a reach.

I've been looking at the Save Our Water campaign and pages and it has a lot of messages about water conservation, but this seems passive, in the sense that people have to look for you to look for this information. What do you do to go out to people, that they're going to hear on the radio, see on television or read in the newspaper — whether they're looking for it or not?

Save Our Water over time has done ad campaigns throughout the state. With the water that we've been getting from Mother Nature this year, we've taken a pause on that. Come later in the spring, you can expect to see a new campaign coming out that is going to focus on saving water for a rainless day. We hope to do some radio and social media campaigns that will get this information into the eyes and ears and minds of Californians up and down the state.

Are you holding off on those because it has been a very rainy season?

In the past, the Save Our Water campaign tends to do an ad campaign in the fall and then another one in the spring. The last campaign we did was pushing out the mantra of making conservation a habit.

And that was a pretty fun campaign, where we focused on California’s unique style and how conservation fits into that unique style.

But coming in the spring, we're going to focus on the why: why it's important to keep being water-wise even when it's raining.

What are those ads or messages that play on our lifestyles?

One of the ads that comes to mind on social media is someone sitting on a washing machine with roller skates on and wildly striped socks.

Ah, the Linda Ronstadt shot.

The message was playing up the uniqueness of Californians’ approach to life, and pairing that up with conservation as part of the California lifestyle.

Have you brought in focus groups to find out what works and what doesn't?

We have worked with focus groups in the past, and in the future we will look to do some focus groups on what can inspire water conservation and smart water use even when it's raining, because hopefully this rainy trend continues.

I did hear that one result from focus groups is that people are beginning to balk at the word “conservation” because it may convey a sense of mandate or compulsion.

There is some truth to the idea that conservation connotes required measures, so looking ahead we are shifting our messaging away from the word “conservation” and again emphasizing people's agency in this, and the importance of being smart and making smart choices.

Is the hardest mind to change the one that says, I want a lawn, I need a lawn, even if I never set foot on it?

Green is a beautiful color. We love our lawns because we're enriched by the color green. It's the reason we go to the mountains. But if people can be open to seeing the beauty [of dry landscaping], I think that they'll make the transition to implement a re-landscaping project on their beautiful green lawn.

It really does save a massive amount of water. A 1,000-square-foot lawn in Southern California uses about 35,000 gallons of water in a year. ... If that entire 1,000-square-foot garden went to low-water plants, they could use 12,000 gallons or less in a year, which is pretty incredible.

I have a drought-tolerant landscape out front in my yard. And the biggest benefit to me is less maintenance. So instead of watering my lawn to then spend my weekends mowing the lawn, I may pick a few weeds, a few times, throughout the summer. I've got different colors of flowers blooming at different times, all kinds of birds and insects coming to pollinate.

Have you broken down data to find out whether there’s a demographic group that's better or worse about this? Older people, better or worse? Women/men, better or worse?

Anecdotally, younger age groups are more willing to accept change. And by younger I think that's anyone under 50, although my parents, who live in Visalia, recently re-landscaped with an artificial lawn because they couldn't quite get rid of the green. But they did want to reduce their water use. And they love it. They love not having to take care of it, but they can still do everything they want outside; they play bocce ball and beanbag toss.

Charitable organizations know about a phenomenon called compassion fatigue. Is there drought messaging fatigue? Do you find that people just don't want to hear it any more?

I do worry that people are tired of hearing the message, especially to conserve. They’ve been hearing that message and they associate it with drought. The message we want to share with Californians is, it's not just conserving water for drought. It's about changing our approach to how we use water.

We like to talk about dry conditions rather than drought because in the rest of the country there is a tool called the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it measures a drought differently than how we do in California. In most of the rest of the United States they receive water throughout the year, even in the summer, which is just not the case with us.

So we have a little bit of a different relationship with precipitation here in California, and drought is measured differently. And it's hard to draw the line of when we enter into a period of drought. That's why we tend to just talk about it in terms of dryness because this is just a just a fact of life in California.

In the 1980s, there were humorous messages here in Southern California having to do with flushing and water wasting. One was, “Poo do, pee don’t.” And “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” How about using humor as a tool for your messages?

We try to keep the messages playful, but in this day and age with social media, people can get pretty vociferous if they don't agree with how you're saying something. I think that that's a little bit tired at this point, maybe due for another clever play off of that.

You grew up in Visalia, in the Central Valley, where one of the great water users is agriculture. In Visalia when you were growing up, did people talk about water in the sense of personal responsibility and personal action, or was it all big-scale?

I lived on 8 acres of oranges and was surrounded by larger farms with oranges and was always told that oranges are one of the lower water users. I think farms across that region are really doing a lot to implement new technologies.

Growing up in the Central Valley, I remember hearing on the radio at one point — probably around 2015 — that wells in east Porterville were going dry, hundreds of wells, and people were having to take bucket baths to bathe because they didn't have running water.

It reminded me of what I experienced when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. That's when I really learned how precious water is, and how not to take it for granted that you're just going to get water out of your tap.

For those two years, on average, I probably received about 20 minutes of running water a day, which I had to capture in a large barrel. And that's what I had for the next 24 or sometimes 48 sometimes 72 hours.

So I kind of made it a game of how long I could stretch the water.

For Californians, it doesn't have to be that extreme. But there are lots of ways that we can stretch water, and it's just about really recognizing the value of water and how precious it is and to stop taking it for granted.

We’re lucky that it comes out of the tap and we can reliably turn the faucet on and off, but others around the world are not so lucky.

What pains you personally to see about water usage as you're driving down the street?

Oh, the thing that pains me the most is seeing water just careening down the sidewalk, or in the curb down the gutter to the storm drains. It makes my blood curdle.

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