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The Heat is On: Maintaining a Conservation Mindset

Here in Texas, we’re no strangers to drought. But we’re also not alone, many states west of the 100th meridian -such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah – are also very familiar with the variability of rainfall and the cloud of doubt it casts over local water availability. Though the western half of the country is most vulnerable, droughts have also been known to occur in all parts of the US with varying levels of severity and duration. Indeed, for many communities nationwide it's not a matter of whether there will be another drought but when. Because of this reality, the question for many water utilities becomes: how can the future supply of water be adequately planned for with such variability?

When droughts occur, conservation measures often represent the first line of defense for protecting critical supplies. While these efforts can be effective, they are also reactionary. For this reason they can be a challenge to implement effectively and influence water use behavior only temporarily. Instead, to adequately plan for droughts before they occur, proactive and on-going water conservation efforts should be in place to secure long-term reductions in demand. The key to doing so requires transforming these temporary behavioral changes into a permanent attitude and set of habits. It is a conservation mindset that needs to be maintained and supported long after a drought has ended and long before the next one arrives.

The last major drought to hit the US took place in California - punctuated by the years 2013 through 2016. Since it ended 2017, much of the country was safely saturated, with drought spells in the US relatively isolated and less severe. Unfortunately, these periods can be fleeting and as the US Drought Monitor maps below show, the circumstances can quickly change:

Around this time last year there were only a few scattered and isolated pockets of areas experiencing abnormally dry to severe bouts of drought. Yet in just under a year we can see a dramatic shift, with a large swath of the western half of the country now in extreme to exceptional conditions. Even in parts of southern California, severe drought has returned. Meanwhile summer has only just begun, and these conditions may not let up any time soon.

If this situation continues or worsens, we will again begin to see conservation measures enacted and water use behaviors change in response to drought. These are the conditions that beget the conservation mindset. It is a mentality that brings a sense of urgency and inclination among many people to buckle down and cut back on their water use. Additionally heightened media attention covering a drought raises awareness for residents of the nature and importance of their water supplies and the techniques by which they can help save. Furthermore the enforcement of drought-related restrictions serve as a more tangible reminder to individuals to ensure they are following mandatory water-saving measures. These factors, among others, can effectively protect critical water supplies yet why must it take an extreme drought -when it may be too late- to garner these results? If we were able to champion and maintain a conservation mindset before these droughts arrive would they represent the same degree of danger?

When drought conditions let up, so does the sense of urgency, the call to action, and consequently any water savings gained from behavior change. Lakes are full, lawns are no longer parched, news coverage has shifted, and drought-related restrictions are withdrawn. We often feel as though we’ve done our part and can go back to our old watering habits. This is in fact exactly what happened with the most recent drought in California. In April 2015, at the height of the ordeal, Governor Brown found it necessary to order a 25% reduction in water usage statewide. This drastic measure worked and by May 2016, Californians decreased their water usage by a staggering 24.5%. In the months after the drought ended, however, state water savings steadily dropped as Californians reverted to their old watering habits. By January 2018, residential water savings were a mere .8% compared to 20.7% in January 2017 and now in parts of southern California, including Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego, water use has actually increased by 3.8%. Today, despite the significant change in water use behavior they were able to realize, California may be just as vulnerable when -and not if- the next significant drought arrives.

What occurred in California can happen elsewhere when the push to save water is amplified during periods of drought. But how do we get the conservation mindset to be the reality regardless of the conditions outside? How do we inspire individuals to value conservation as a way of life rather than as a temporary change to their daily watering habits? In next month’s newsletter, we will discuss strategies on how to ensure that this mentality does not just evaporate when the drought dissipates.

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