Six stages of adaptation

Two years ago when rationing was first threatened, the prospect of our water use being slashed in half came as a shock. Experienced local professionals had recently redone all our landscaping with drip irrigation and drought-tolerant plants, so our improvement options seemed limited and our investments at risk.

Incredulously, our local water district was one of only a handful in California that imposed mandatory allocations, and the prevailing wisdom was to simply turn down the irrigation, import water, or drill a well. We decided instead to embrace long-term sustainability.

The six stages of adaptation below reflect how we came to terms with deep, prolonged water loss. They capture the emotional roller coaster we experienced, the radical, data-driven changes we undertook, and the robust new competencies we developed. This can provide a framework, as well as motivation to accomplish what seemed impossible, for others facing similar challenges.

1. Disbelief/shock This isn’t fair. Marked by paralysis, all plantings seem doomed and all experts seem lacking.
2. Resolution Find a way forward. Learn water use, irrigation setup, and plant inventory. Research alternatives. Develop a strategy.
3. Controlled experiments This may work out. Design solutions and allay myths. New changes to irrigation and plantings show promise.
4. Hopeful pivots So far, so good. Re-engineer irrigation and maintenance. Remove 9,000 square feet of lawn. Purge unworthy plants.
5. Dejection Why bother? Ongoing toil and trouble. Plants die. New leaks develop. Allocations drop. Rain doesn’t come.
6. Acceptance/endurance If that’s all there is… This is permanent, not temporary. Just keep on doing best we can and be glad for all that works.

While timing is fluid, our late 2013 disbelief/shock stage was quickly followed by resolution and controlled experiments. We cycled through hopeful pivots throughout 2014 and 2015, facing dejection when rain didn’t materialize or a new leak sprouted. Acceptance‘s unendingness has become blindingly clear as we enter year 3 of our sustainability quest, leading to the endurance appendage. While loss of water is incomparable to loss of a loved one, as in Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model there is no finish line.

With the hottest two years on record and less than half the average annual rainfall since rationing took effect, our arduous transformation had fits and starts, ups and downs, and breakthroughs and setbacks. Ironically, as consumption declined, water rates and overall costs skyrocketed. Even if rains come, water costs will keep rising due to local water municipalities’ economic models and state regulations. More about that in a future blog post.