ARIZONA, USA — The driest grounds California ever experienced were perfectly fertile for conspiracy theories.
The state was in the midst of its worst water crisis in over 1,200 years during a mid-2010s drought. California's governor, in response, put a mandatory 25% water cut across the board, affecting countless residents. Farmers were fighting farmers after pumping restrictions were placed on rivers and groundwater. Fishers protested after officials banned the practice in the name of conservation.
Fear, anger and conspiracy beliefs were flowing in California when water wasn't. The debunked "chemtrail" conspiracy theory was searched more in the state, and the nation as a whole, during the midst of the water cuts when compared to any other time before or after, Google Trends data shows.
Arizona may be headed in the same direction.
Researchers who study conspiracy theories said the state is ripe for new water-based misinformation to spread as the Southwest U.S. water crisis worsens. Those researchers also said understanding three reasons behind why the beliefs spread may be the key to preventing them.
Theories about "unlimited water" are, slowly, making their way from the fringes of the Internet to more prominent places on social media. Here's how experts say officials can stop the lies from flowing.
1) "Conspiracy thrives in uncertainty"
Saying Arizona water rights are complicated is an understatement.
The "mind-numbing" nature of water law, a lengthy history of complex legal agreements and disputes, and thousands of wells and pumping stations with different regulations turn every drop of Arizona's water into a multi-group collaboration.
Water officials know how elaborate the state's water system is. The Arizona Department of Water Resources's website said "nothing is more complicated than water."
"Water is a very complex, adaptive system and it's hard to understand," Kyl Center for Water Policy Director Sarah Porter said. "The misunderstanding has to do with people not having a chance to learn all the intricacies of the complex system."
But, researchers say the void misunderstanding creates can be filled by the more dramatic and digestible stories that conspiracy theories offer.
"Conspiratorial explanations work because they can tell a coherent story... in spaces where reality is too complex to build a good story," ASU researcher Anna Muldoon said.
Muldoon's current focus is conspiracy, misinformation, and apocalypticism around infectious disease outbreaks like COVID-19. But, she recently fell down the rabbit hole of looking into utopian water conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories were given an easy way into the mainstream thanks to the chaos and lack of information during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muldoon said. A systemic lack of public health policies is what allowed COVID-19 to spread into a global endemic. Conspiracy theories, however, told a much simpler story of there being one person or one group of people controlling the virus in the shadows.
There are similar trends happening in the budding water conspiracy theories surrounding the Southwest's megadrought. The theories point to one simple solution to Arizona's water crisis, and are often much more appealing than the real, but complex, issues surrounding the state's water supply.
"Then, all of a sudden, we need to learn why and how the water is getting cut. This process of trying to make sense of complicated things in a complicated world, with special interests and a lot of obscuring of knowledge...is the primary pursuit of most people."
Roschke is currently teaching a class on misinformation to prepare students to fight against it as it evolves. In a world where misinformation is becoming more difficult to spot, she sees conspiracy theories being more than just some people believing wacky things.
"It's a disservice to segment a whole population and say 'What's wrong with them? Why can't they understand this is a conspiracy theory?'. Even if the belief isn't logical, believing in a conspiracy theory is a real response to the complicated times we live in."
That's a signal for Muldoon that water experts need to not only continue being truthful, but also need to get rid of the jargon and technical terms when delivering updates to the public on the water crisis. As long as conspiracies provide better stories, they will win out.
"Conspiracy thrives in uncertainty," Muldoon said. "If we could build better stories about what's real, we'd have an easier time cutting off the conspiratorial explanations."
2) As distrust rises, so do conspiracy beliefs
It's unreasonable to expect people who don't have years of experience in Arizona water policy to have the resources or time to learn the intricacies of how water works in the state.
Elected water officials and water researchers have historically been the ones people turn to for the most accurate information.
But, what happens when trust in the experts goes away?
Distrust in government, mainstream media and/or accredited researchers is a common trait among conspiracy believers. A study looking into the beliefs and worldviews of people who believe in the "chemtrail" conspiracy theory found people used the belief as a piece of supporting evidence for their larger ideas around society.
The distrust towards authority mostly comes from past experiences, including witnessing corruption or dysfunction in local government, disagreements on how national governments have handled situations historically and family members' own distrust.
A good story alone isn't what makes conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. When someone is wronged or harmed by the actions of official sources, they become more susceptible to buying into false beliefs.
"Yes, it's necessary for people to be exposed to information in order to start believing in the conspiracy theory, but it doesn't work alone," co-author of the study, Sijia Xiao, said. "When people interpret the information, it's always within their existing beliefs and worldviews."
That distrust may worsen in Arizona as more at-risk and impoverished communities are harmed by future water cuts.
Upcoming restrictions in the state's water supply and water deliveries are expected to hit farmers, and their rural communities' economies, the hardest.
"The biggest impacts of water cuts will probably be felt by Arizona's rural communities," Porter said. "A large cut in water could mean a big cut in economic activity. There are ramifications for the whole community because there's less employment, there's less money to spend, and food prices see increases."
If conditions continue to worsen and further water cuts are implemented, research shows minimizing harm among the people most affected by the cuts should be officials' top priority.
When more people are harmed, feelings of distrust rise and clear the way for conspiracy beliefs to fester. When the conspiracy takes hold and people do believe there are false simple solutions to complex issues, the believers feel they have a moral obligation to spread the theory to as many people as they can.
If you thought what you knew could save the world, wouldn't you do the same?
3) When grifting turns into proselytizing
The water conspiracy theory gaining the most traction in Arizona is a perfect example of the "simple solution" trend that these conspiracies share, and it's gaining influence.
First off, here's what is true.
The way water works on the Earth's surface is known as the rain cycle. Water evaporates from the planet's oceans, lakes and rivers, rises into the atmosphere, cools and condenses into clouds, which then falls back to Earth as either rain or snow.
Arizona has an immense amount of groundwater beneath the surface, but it acts a bit differently than surface water replenished by the rain cycle. The Valley is known for its arid climate, so aquifers are hardly ever replenished by rain.
The vast majority of water in aquifers across the state can be described as "old savings," with the average water age being around 10,000 years old.
While aquifers are artificially replenished today by cities and businesses, research shows the last time aquifers were majorly replenished was during the last ice age, when large amounts of ice melted and seeped into the ground.
Now, the misinformation.
A Scottsdale resident named Matt has gotten millions of views and over 100,000 followers spreading the theory on TikTok. We reached out to Matt multiple times for comment, but he never responded.
Matt has been sharing a conspiracy theory that claims the Earth naturally creates an endless supply of clean water underground that can be easily reached by humans. Matt also claims the government and mainstream media don't want people to know about the water source so they can "control" the population.
He's not the only one sharing the conspiracy theory. Numerous "institutes" online are also spreading misinformation.
There are numerous falsehoods in this claim.
The first false claim: No, Earth does not naturally regenerate water underground. Modern hydrologists agree that there is a large amount of groundwater throughout the Earth. Hydrologists have also found that groundwater is recycled water from the surface that has ended up underground due to shifting plate tectonics throughout Earth's 4.6 billion-year history.
Additionally, there are countless examples of groundwater being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, indicating that the Earth doesn't create the resource out of thin air.
The second false claim: No, much of the water underground is not readily fit for human consumption. A great deal of water pumped from underground needs to be treated before being used by humans due to having too high of mineral content or having naturally occurring contaminants.
The third false claim: No, a large portion of groundwater can't be reached by humans easily. Groundwater can be found up to 30,000 feet underground, and with wells on average costing around $20-$44 per foot in Arizona, the price can start adding up.
The situation gets worse as groundwater is used faster than it is replenished. As underground water levels get lower, the sediment and rock that has to be drilled through get deeper and tougher, further increasing drilling costs.
Even though Matt has created a large following by pushing this conspiracy theory and others online, Muldoon is hesitant to label him as a "bad actor," or someone knowingly pushing false information for their own gain.
"These are people that have bought into stories that make more sense to them than crisis," Muldoon said. "I'm not sure that most of these believers are bad actors because they can't possibly make enough money off of it. They sell everything they own and move to lakes in California that are supposedly the best spot to get to this water. The people who push QAnon make so much money. But these water conspiracy theorists are so committed and so obscure, I think they really believe it."
Once this kind of utopian water conspiracy belief takes hold, the people who have bought into it feel a moral obligation to spread what they see as "the answer" to as many people as possible.
Muldoon found there is already a group of people who believe in this conspiracy and have a utopian vision of the water crisis ending if the government would spread this information. As the crisis worsens, she expects the belief to get more popular.
"Because we're in this moment of fear, it's spreading," Muldoon said. "The conspiracy belief is a real response to this fear, uncertainty and constant anxiety people have about whether we're going to have water."
Roschke knows there are difficult decisions coming in Arizona's water crisis, whether that be how much water to cut or who gets hit the hardest. But, she said government officials, researchers and journalists need to be prepared to deal with the rising tide of water conspiracy theories as those decisions are made.
"If the folks in charge of helping society aren't prepared with compelling, credible, easily-digestible information...that's on the experts," Roschke said. "We've seen the failure of public health officials, federal government officials and local officials during COVID in handling conspiracy theories. We're going to see this again and again if the officials aren't equipped to compete."
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