- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANAHEIM, Calif. | Water, 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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