Monday, February 16, 2009

Water Water Everywhere

It was a dark and stormy day.

Snow fell on the San Gabriel Mountains. Mud flowed into Sierra Madre. A cold, hard rain pelted us without stop.

Suddenly, a press conference broke out.

It was none other than Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who picked one of the wettest days of the year to call for increased water restrictions and the adoption of a tiered water rate that would punish Department of Water and Power customers who fail to conserve.

Sprinkler use would be restricted, Hizzoner said, to two days a week under the proposal and could be cut to one day a week if the drought continues. The restrictions and rate changes could be enacted by spring if approved by the City Council and DWP.

Sometimes it's hard to take Villaraigosa seriously. He grapples with a city in perpetual gridlock while his transportation deputy cruises around town in a Hummer.

He calls for water restrictions while, according to a Los Angeles Times article, the mayor and several other top city officials have long been heavy water users themselves.

In Villaraigosa's case, even if he had made a 10 percent reduction at the two homes where he has lived since winning election in 2005, he still would have used nearly twice as much water as comparable properties in the vicinity, the Times article said.

But timing and track record aside, Villaraigosa is on target this time.

We are in a drought, a serious one. The Metropolitan Water District - the nation's largest water agency and supplier of wholesale water to L.A., the San Gabriel Valley and all of Southern California - has warned that it may be forced to cut water deliveries by 15 percent to 25 percent.

Court rulings to protect the delta smelt in the Sacramento River Delta and a prolonged drought along the Colorado Basin also have reduced Southern California's water supplies from Northern California and the Colorado River.

According to Bill Patzert, a NASA climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "Mother Nature is converging with human nature. With population growth and the decline in water there are the elements in the equation which you could call the perfect drought."

State officials are even more blunt.

"We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

None of this should take us by surprise. I remember some years back putting bricks in the toilet tanks to cut back on water use and collecting water in buckets from our showers to use on outdoor plants.

We put water restrictors in the faucets. We learned to brush our teeth and shave without continually running water. We took shorter showers. We stopped hosing off the driveway and sidewalks.

Over the years, we bought more energy efficient appliances and used many of them at off-peak hours.

Now, it is time to relearn those lessons. And more.

Conservation efforts are increasingly focused on outdoor water use. That's because the majority of residential water use occurs outdoors.

A study by the Pacific Institute determined that outdoor water use could be reduced by at least 32 percent by using better irrigation schedules, smart irrigation controllers and drip irrigation systems. Further significant reductions could be made by the use of drought-tolerant or California native plants for landscaping.

The same study concluded that an estimated that 12 percent of indoor water use in California can be attributed to leaks. Since toilets use the most water indoors, replacing inefficient older toilets with newer, high-efficiency models would result in significant water savings. The report concluded that indoor water use could be reduced by 40 percent if everyone would fix their leaks, replace showerheads and inefficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers.

Well and good. But will these efforts be enough this time? Or do we face brown lawns and dirty cars for the rest of our days?

The Pacific Institute concluded that California's urban water needs can be met in the foreseeable future by reducing water waste through cost-effective water saving technologies, revised economic policies, appropriate state and local regulations and public education.

That's a lot to ask for. But there aren't a lot of options.

In the meantime, enjoy the rainy season. It won't last for long.

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