The Culture and Language of Drought Response

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Written by: Dominique Gomez

The current drought in California is making headlines, but it’s not the only state that has experienced severe drought in recent years. In the past decade states from Georgia to Kansas have also experienced mild to severe droughts.  The recent flooding and severe weather in Texas makes it easy to forget that until recently much of that state was in a drought that rivaled California’s. And despite recent rains many of Texas’ reservoirs are still low.

Unsurprisingly, given the vast cultural and political differences between different regions of our country, the way policy makers in different states have chosen to respond to these droughts - and the language they use to describe their actions - varies widely.  Restrictions, rationing, rebates, fines, tiered rates, voluntary reductions? A brief look at some of the key terms makes it clear why the average resident may be so confused on what’s expected of them.

Water Rationing

This commonly referenced term may produce the most angst, and certainly the most confusion. In April MSNBC led with the headline “California orders unprecedented water rationing to combat drought.”  The LA Times ran a similar article two weeks later with the headline “Water rationing cut of 15% in SoCal could bring higher bills.”  As early as 2013, the Sacramento Bee reported that the “Drought brings water rationing orders.”

“Rationing” in this context is probably not what most people imagine.  To ration, by definition, is to control the amount of something that people are allowed to have.  Rationing during World War II included food, nylons and gasoline.  Families had to apply for individual ration books, and specific amounts of rationed commodities were given based on the number of eligible men, women and children in that family. The plan to address drought and water shortages in Brazil, where municipal water in São Paulo may be completely shut off four out of six days, can legitimately be called rationing.  A small number of mostly rural, isolated towns in California where wells have literally run dry are experiencing severe rationing (limited emergency water supplies are being trucked in for residents), but this type of forced reduction is uncommon.

Irrigation Restrictions, Tiered Pricing & Reduction Requirements

Part of the confusion is that “water rationing,” as used in dozens of articles over the past few years, may refer to any number of drought measures. Often, “rationing” is used to describe what is more commonly referred to as irrigation restrictions.  These are rules about when a person can irrigate their landscape – often limited to a certain number of days, certain days of the week, or specific times of the day. Irrigation restrictions are a common approach to drought in many parts of the country (see for instance this map of Texas irrigation restrictions).  California has now required small systems and non-residential users to restrict irrigation to two days a week and many other utilities are moving towards implementing irrigation restrictions if they don't already have them.

Utilities have other ways to address drought. Water suppliers can limit other water uses including washing cars or sidewalks. They can implement tiered pricing which makes higher water users pay more (though utilities’ ability to do so in California has been called into question by a recent court ruling). Utilities may also offer incentives: rebates to install more water efficient appliances or to replace grass with less thirsty vegetation.  Lastly, water utilities can implement something closer to what most people typically think of as “rationing” by limiting homes to a set amount of water, perhaps on a per capita basis, and levying fines if that amount is exceeded.

The Inevitable Confusion


Regardless of the tactics a utility uses to address water scarcity, all suppliers need to be able to communicate what’s happening with their customers.  After seeing headlines like those above, the typical resident may be a bit worried and more than a bit confused.  Is there only a certain amount of water we can use per day? How much reduction am I responsible for?  How much do we use now?  Our son and grandkids just moved in with us, so how will the utility know we have more people?  Are we going to be fined?

The kind of clear, personalized messaging that is needed to clarify and calm these valid concerns is what WaterSmart specializes in.  The forty utilities we serve coast-to-coast all have different approaches to addressing the challenges they face, and our software as a service platform enables them to communicate customized, targeted messages to different user segments. From engaging customers to complying with drought requirements, WaterSmart can help a utility communicate with customers and get beyond the confusing vocabulary and on to meeting their goals.

Did you know? drought response irrigation restrictions tiered water rates customer engagement mandatory restrictions water rationing

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