The first drought period saw barely any publicity or increased web searches. “There were other things on people’s minds,” said Quesnel, referring to a historic election season and the Great Recession, both of which dominated media coverage at the time. The second drought, however, generated hundreds of news articles per month describing dry conditions, historic mandatory water conservation measures and rising water prices statewide.

Quesnel compared the water demands of single-family households in the Bay Area to factors including unemployment, weather, household income and, of course, media coverage. From her models, she found that economic hardship from the high unemployment rates during the Great Recession correlated with water savings during the first drought. In both droughts, higher summer temperatures corresponded to higher seasonal water use. Strikingly, their models also found that for every 100-article increase over a two-month period, there was an 11 percent to 18 percent decrease in demand for water. With an enormous spike in media attention during the second drought, water savings across all studied areas were dramatic.

Web portal

The question for the team was whether these changes would last.

“In arid and semi-arid places like California, over half of the water use in single-family homes is outdoors, for landscaping, so a lot of this change could have been due to households choosing to not water their lawns a few times per week, for example, or to more permanent changes such as residents removing their lawns completely,” Quesnel said.

“Some of the short-term water saving behaviors prompted by the drought might just vanish,” said Ajami, who is also a senior research scientist with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Their group recently created a web portal that allows people to interact with drought data, watching district-level water usage in addition to tracking drought-related media and public interest. Since the time period studied in this paper, the drought has been declared over. Longer-term changes like replaced appliances, drought-tolerant landscaping and gray water systems remain, but mandatory water restrictions have been rescinded, media coverage has declined and water use has rebounded in many of the areas studied.

Despite the rebound, Ajami said this research suggests people do respond to information in the media. “If you provide the right set of knowledge and information to consumers, they do actually react and respond to that message. The drought really raised the profile of water issues faced by the state, an invaluable outcome,” Ajami said.