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March 20, 2014

You Never Miss the Water Until the Well Runs Dry

Image courtesy of Flickr/Wonderlane


As a Californian GlobeScanner, I have first-hand experience of our state’s concern about access to fresh water. My water district in Marin County is likely just days away from implementing mandatory water rationing, as it and other water districts throughout the state struggle to deal with a protracted and severe drought. California just experienced not only the driest year on record, but also the warmest winter on record, which has seriously affected the extent of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of our main supplies of water.

It is not surprising, then, to find that when asked about fresh water in GlobeScan’s most recent Radar research, a majority of respondents from the Western US view shortages as a “very serious” issue (54%).

But what about the rest of the country? Are people east of us paying attention to California’s severe drought and also viewing the issue as very serious? The answer is... not really. When we remove the respondents from the Western US from the equation, only 30% of respondents view shortages of fresh water as a “very serious” issue, leading to the lowest level of concern (just 35% view it as “very serious” nationally) we have seen for the US since GlobeScan started measuring this issue in 2003 (see chart below).

Why the historically low figure? Especially when the US drought monitor still shows large areas of the US – beyond California – under abnormally dry conditions or experiencing drought.

Well, one answer might just stem from when we asked respondents the question. For the 2014 research, the fieldwork was conducted between January 10 and February 17. This was a time when the US (and my Canadian colleagues!) was suffering under the polar vortex - an event that was preceded in many areas by heavy rain, and left large swathes of the US under deep snow. Asked under these conditions about how serious the shortage of fresh water is, it perhaps is not surprising that people viewed the issue as less serious.

However, if we flash back 12 months, when people were still experiencing significant or severe drought conditions that had blighted much of the US  throughout 2012, we saw high levels of concern about shortages of fresh water in all regions (54% nationally). Is the old saying literally true, do we only ever miss the water when the well runs dry?

This volatility in concern is important for all organizations for whom the use of fresh water is a material issue. For government and policy-makers, it presents a challenge in encouraging residents to voluntarily conserve water when drought conditions are not apparent. And for businesses, who are often substantial individual users of fresh water, it signifies a renewed need for the responsible use of water. As public concern about the shortages of fresh water ebb and flow, businesses must remain vigilant, lest they risk ire of a parched public.

Reservoir image courtesy of Flickr/Wonderlane
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