Where ‘wa­ter hogs’ stalk the thirsty

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRU­DEN

WANAHEIM, CALIF. ater, wa­ter, ev­ery­where, and not a drop to drink. The An­cient Mariner would feel right at home in Cal­i­for­nia. There’s enough to drink, but not nec­es­sar­ily enough to wa­ter a lawn, or fill a swimming pool, or scrub down the drive­way. A burnt-orange lawn is the em­blem of good cit­i­zen­ship in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

A swimming pool, once the mark of the good life on the left coast, is a mark now of the self-in­dul­gent life, like driv­ing a gas-guz­zler. Drought is the scary prospect in all of Cal­i­for­nia, big­ger than a fear of war in the Mid­dle East, a fear big­ger than the ter­ror of Ebola. The drought is not re­mote.

The se­vere drought is now four years old, and there was a bit of good news this week, not as good as the news of the ap­proach of a mon­soon, or even an all-night down­pour, but the state board of wa­ter re­sources says Cal­i­for­ni­ans are lis­ten­ing to pleas to save wa­ter. The or­di­nary cit­i­zen is pay­ing at­ten­tion. The Au­gust con­sump­tion of wa­ter is down by nearly 8 per­cent in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia over Au­gust of last year. Daily sav­ings were sig­nif­i­cant all sum­mer.

Though still be­low the goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown, Cal­i­for­ni­ans over­all cut their con­sump­tion by more than 11 per­cent over Au­gust of last year, a cut of 27 bil­lion gal­lons. That’s a lot of wet. This is par­tic­u­larly heart­en­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, home to half the state’s pop­u­la­tion. What hap­pens here is largely the story of what hap­pens in Cal­i­for­nia. “We wish this had hap­pened ear­lier,” says Max Gomberg, the wa­ter con­trol board’s chief en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist, “but peo­ple are re­spond­ing.”

If hard times will make a mon­key eat red pep­per, scarcity of wa­ter in the desert — and much of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia lies in a nat­u­ral desert — might per­suade re­luc­tant res­i­dents to put up with dra­co­nian mea­sures to save wa­ter. They’ll soon have to learn another num­ber to re­mem­ber with their So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber, com­puter pass­words and other data to live by. It’s a “drought num­ber,” rep­re­sent­ing the amount of wa­ter each per­son is en­ti­tled to con­sume each day. For­get­ting th­ese num­bers could be costly. “Wa­ter hogs” will pay through the snout, up to $500 per vi­o­la­tion.

The state has de­vised what it calls “al­lo­ca­tion-based rate struc­tures,” which is a bu­reau­cratic talk for “wa­ter ra­tioning.” Us­ing cen­sus records, aerial pho­tog­ra­phy and even satel­lite im­agery, a lo­cal wa­ter dis­trict will plot how much wa­ter each house­hold is en­ti­tled to use, pre­scrib­ing in spe­cific de­tail the wa­ter needed for wash­ing dishes and clothes, show­ers, flush­ing a toi­let and wa­ter­ing a lawn. The Irvine Ranch Wa­ter Dis­trict will even take into ac­count the house­hold’s med­i­cal needs. “We want you to stay within bud­get,” the Orange County wa­ter agency tells res­i­dents in a web­site video. “That way we know you are us­ing wa­ter in an ef­fi­cient way.”

This rubs some peo­ple the wrong way, and it’s a dry rub. “While some call it a more equal way to me­ter out manda­tory wa­ter con­ser­va­tion,” ob­serves The San Gabriel Val­ley Times, “oth­ers call it so­cial en­gi­neer­ing. Some say the idea sim­ply will not work.” But ev­ery­one seems to agree that the sit­u­a­tion is dire, if not des­per­ate. “We were con­cerned with the lack of alarm,” says Feli­cia Mar­cus, chair­man of the State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board. “Our reser­voirs are low. Half of the state’s stor­age is gone. It’s a fright­en­ing sit­u­a­tion.”

Of­fi­cials pre­sid­ing over the wa­ter­works seem pleased by the ev­i­dence of good cit­i­zen­ship and civic de­port­ment, but wary of the follow-through. The gov­er­nor says Cal­i­for­ni­ans must cut their con­sump­tion by 20 per­cent, and they’re just over half­way there. “The in­cre­ments [in sav­ings] are big­ger in each jump,” says Mzz Mar­cus, “and that’s telling us that folks are kick­ing into gear. Can we get to an av­er­age 20 per­cent? Ab­so­lutely. But it won’t hap­pen in a nanosec­ond.”

The prospect of win­ter rains, as wel­come as they will be, strikes cau­tion in the bu­reau­cratic bo­som. Rain show­ers short of sus­tained down­pours won’t do much, if any­thing, for the reser­voirs, but might en­cour­age ev­ery­one to ease up in their wa­ter-sav­ings ways, per­suaded that the drought has been bro­ken. That won’t hap­pen un­til there’s a cold win­ter in the high sier­ras, with bliz­zards and snow­storms to send the wa­ter down to the south with the spring thaw. That’s where South­ern Cal­i­for­nia gets its wa­ter.

Some of the sav­ings are so common-sensical that even a cave man (no of­fense to cave-dwellers) could do it. In Los An­ge­les, wa­ter run­ning through an al­ley will in­vite a “wa­ter cop” to check out a runoff, or a sprin­kler left run­ning in the rain. The con­ser­va­tion mind­set re­places the search for the Cal­i­for­nia lo­tus. Wes­ley Pru­den is ed­i­tor emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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