Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The pyschology of water

On Wednesday, March 30, California Governor Jerry Brown is expected to declare the state's drought over.

And with this declaration, so goes a piece of leverage effectively used by water districts and others with a stake in California's water future.

Is it political leverage? Or, should officials simply be commended for take advantage of the tools in front of them?

Indeed, it seems logical to end the drought declaration in California. We have record snow pack and rainfall. Our reservoirs are brimming. Yet, as any scientist will tell you, one good year doesn't mean a true drought is over.

Some environmental groups and others opposed to proposed massive water projects and the bonds needed to finance them have been critical of how a politician, like our former Governor, used the word "drought" to sway opinion.

Yes, a scary word like "drought" does have impact. It gets people's attention. So, why not use it to your advantage? As a public relations or communications professional, you must tap into the concerns of the public, know what's on their mind and figure how best to make them pay attention to your issue and your arguments.

That is why we conduct polls and other research. That is why certain water bonds and measures win voter approval and some do not. This is how campaigns are conducted to get people to make changes in their lifestyle to save water.

It's no different from a candidate or an elected official using polling to determine what matters most to the public, then "speaking" directly at them about it. President Reagan was a master of polling to get legislation passed.

If you are not from California, it would seem rational to assume that a majority of Californians would approve financial efforts to keep our state's plumbing working. California is an economic powerhouse because of our massive water delivery systems. The fixes now on the table are to correct environmental impacts, prepare for climate change and prepare ourselves for the population growth we know is coming. About every 30 years, the state builds massive water projects. The last one was completed in the 1960s, so we're overdue.

Logical, right?

Guess again. Right up there with immigration and labor unions, water is a topic of angst and emotion in California. The debate, therefore, gets as muddy as the Sacramento River after a rainstorm.

Hence, the need to use key words to wage a campaign. Like the word, "drought."

Drought is simple to understand. It's also scary. And, it comes with pain (water rationing) and stark visual images (dry, cracked lake beds).

When I was managing a communications team at the Metropolitan Water District, we were about to launch a new water conservation campaign. I told my bosses that we had an advantage, a "leg up" on this effort because of all the recent stories about water shortages (the previous "dry" period before our latest drought).

The public, I said, was ready for our campaign because water was "top of mind." Our research showed this. So, I said, now that we had the public's attention, our chance for success was vastly improved. The public was already "primed" for our messages.

It would be much harder had we launched a water conservation campaign when it was raining, or water was not in the news. The public would be concerned with other pressing issues. It would take a strong "preliminary" effort to get water back in the news and, thus, "top of mind" for our audience to have them pay attention and listen to the "ask" we were about to make.

One California water bond many years ago was successful because they tapped into people's heightened concern - at the time - for the environment and, in particular, our famous coastlines. Part of the bond money would go for restoring wetlands, protecting coastlines, and such, while also providing millions for state and local water projects. Adding beneficiaries other than water projects was important because research showed overwhelming concern for the coastline, wetlands and parks.

Taking advantage of the public's current concerns, or to utilize existing conditions - like a drought - to help your campaign or issue is common practice.

So, now that the drought is over, what will water districts and water bond proponents use to win the hearts and minds? The public is probably "over" the drought. One less thing to worry about, right?. Today, they (we) remain concerned with, what, higher gas prices and food prices? Taxes? Personal safety? Education?

Yes, it will remain: "about the money." A bad economy postponed the last big water bond...to this year. So, what is the "leverage" to be used?

1 comment:

California Farm Water Coalition said...

Governor Jerry Brown is expected today to declare an end to the drought declaration by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. While it is good news, it is important to remember that this water won't last forever. Currently the State's reservoirs are at 85% capacity and pumps have been turned off because there is nowhere to store additional supplies. That means if California turns dry again next year, today's abundance is lost. California is in need of more reservoirs for water storage. Almost 300 thousand acre-feet per day is being released to the Pacific Ocean, enough to serve the domestic needs of 1 to 2 million Californians for an entire year. This need for increased storage emphasizes the need for an improved conveyance system that will deliver the water to all water users in our state.

This year's abundant water supply gives us hope. New storage and improved conveyance will give us the assurance that adequate water should be available when the state faces another dry year in the future.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition