Singin' in the Rain

California has an opportunity to revamp its water-use culture in response to the prolonged drought. But indications so far suggest that most officials would rather dream of new dams.
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As California struggles with ongoing drought, the favored solutions are all engineering fixes -- technological responses to a human plight. When it comes to water, this is what we Americans always do: figure out some way to augment existing water supplies rather than learn to live within our existing supplies.

And so it is with California in 2009. New dams, a revamped plumbing system for the Bay-Delta, and desalination plants on the coast are the main items under discussion. If the money needed for these hugely expensive proposals were used to fund conservation and reuse projects, the water shortage problem would be fixed.

But conservation might require Californians to recognize that the state has a water problem and reuse faces the "yuck" factor. Not long ago, the San Diego Tribune editorialized: "Your golden retriever may drink out of the toilet with no ill effects. But that doesn't mean humans should do the same." It's a funny line, even though reclaimed water is suitable for lots of uses other than human consumption.

Some California municipalities have enacted conservation plans. Take San Diego, for example. Just last week Mayor Jerry Sanders gushed about his city's conservation efforts. "Today, we're poised at the beginning of a new era in San Diego's water history." What brought out this burst of civic pride in the mayor? The city is designating specific lawn watering days for all residents and businesses. Residents in odd-numbered houses may only water their lawns on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, while even-numbered houses get to water lawns on three other days.

I suppose this is progress, but "a new era"? Other communities have been far more progressive in water conservation efforts, even Las Vegas, which is hardly known for its water-use consciousness. Yet, it's been paying residents to rip out lawns. This program has succeeded in removing 80 million square feet of water-guzzling turf.

In Tucson, where I live, lawns are few and far between. Most are on golf courses, ball fields, and cemeteries; and, most of these are irrigated with reclaimed water. Yes, some people may be thinking, that's because Tucson is a desert. Well, here's the secret. Promise not to tell anyone? Southern California is also a desert. The area gets 15 inches of rain a year, barely three inches more than Tucson.

Southern California is easy to pick on because the area merits it, but folks up north can be equally obtuse when it comes to water. Take Sacramento, which for years has rebelled against installing water meters, which might actually document how much water residents and farmers use. Last year, when Sacramento residents, Anne Hartridge and Matt George, decided to pitch in and not water their lawn, the city threatened to fine them $748 for failing to "irrigate and maintain" their front yard.

Over the last couple of weeks as showers offered some relief in Northern California, sprinklers in many Sacramento neighborhoods were operating while it rained. Yet, the Sacramento Bee reported that the city does not plan to ban watering in the rain. The city does prohibit "wasting" water, which is water that runs off into a street. But if it's raining already, the city can't determine whether the water in the street is coming from the sprinkler.

California has an opportunity to revamp its water-use culture in response to the prolonged drought. But indications so far suggest that most officials would rather dream of new dams and desal plants than lead the way to a truly new era.

For more on the water crisis in California and around the country, readers may enjoy my new book, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. It's available from independent booksellers and online at Island Press and Amazon.

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