(The people I’m generalizing about in this post are residential water users who grew up in a modern urban water system, with a district providing them with flawless water reliability. I know that’s not the case for most of the world, but I want to make a point about my peers.)
Drought, for most urban users in California, is not about water. Furthermore, residential users in California do not care how much water they use. People in California are not emotionally attached to using a certain number of gallons per day; no one wakes up and ponders, ‘do I want to use 135 or 145 gpd today? I need a little pick-me-up. 145 it is!’. People can be trained, through their water bill, to start thinking of gallons per day, but no one feels better just for using any amount of water. Rather, residential users want a number of aesthetic experiences for which they need some water. My guess is that they appreciate, from most utils to least utils, a shower with water pressure*, drinking water, washing dishes with the water running, growing some houseplants, having a green landscape, washing driveways. They also use water in ways that they derive no satisfaction from. Carrying human waste away, leaking from faucets, overwatering plants, washing clothes in it. The results of those things are nice, neutral or annoying, but if the nice things could be achieved with something besides water, it would make no difference to people.
Because most urban Californians will never experience an interruption of water service, nor rations small enough to threaten their bodily uses of water, what drought really means to most people is that they have to pay attention. What they really want is a few daily experiences (that don’t have to take much actual wet water) and that they don’t have to think about it. In a society as rich as ours, a drought starts the moment casual users have to think about it. The marker of the start of a drought is completely independent of snowpack or precip. For most people, a drought starts when they get a bill insert or see something about it in the news. At that point, the privilege of living in such a wealthy society that you don’t have to fix your broken sprinkler is gone**. That is what drought will mean to most people.
Water managers focus on meteorology and absolute amounts of water, but the way to alleviate the experience of drought for most Californians is to reassure them that they can keep the water experiences they value and to make giving up the other ones trivially easy.
This is not a particularly focused prescription, and it is the real effect of most of the conservation measures that cities and districts are employing. (Put a nozzle on your hose when you wash your car, don’t serve water unless it is requested.) It also suggests that scaring people about drought is itself the drought for most people, but I don’t mean to argue that they shouldn’t be aware of it***. My point here is that what is important to people is their subjective experience. That is as true for their uses of water as it is for their perception of drought. We have to manage water, but it might be more important to manage the casual user’s experience of drought****.
*A very fancy shower I once took had two columns of nozzles that could be adjusted with different knobs. I guess it was supposed to be a pleasant massage, but I mostly felt like a piglet approaching a nursing sow. This kinda ruined the luxurious feeling.
**This transition, from such abundance that you don’t have to pay attention to finessing details, is very like moving down in socioeconomic class. The burden of worrying and stretching supplies is the same. This is what will feel yucky about a drought, not most of the changes in water use.
***On other occasions, I’ve thought that districts do too good a job of insulating most users from natural climate variability.
****This would mean that the engineers who run water in the state would have to notice and pay attention to social scientists. That idea is the funniest joke I’ve ever told; just typing it is a ridiculous waste of pixels. I’m sorry I wasted your time with that sentence.
(Also, this idea is a variant of a concept that my dad built his career on. I’m not going to write it here, but the idea that it isn’t the stimulus but the response to the stimulus that matters must have come from him.)