For starters, the name's all wrong.
They're not Drought Busters. Nobody can accomplish that. Nobody who works at a desk at the Department of Water and Power or zips around town in an official Prius can end the drought that's dried up L.A. like King Tut's mummy. Even the governor of Georgia, praying for rain and confessing the Peachtree State's own water-wasting ways at a mass pray-in last week, can't pull off a trick like that.
What the DWP is really trying to field is waste busters, a team of six working to bring the water profligates to heel -- the reckless sprinklers and the lazy hosers and the open-tap tooth brushers.
Let's do the math: Six enforcers, nearly 500 square miles of city -- it'd take a miracle of loaves-and-fishes proportions to make this much more than a gesture. Which brings me to the second thing that's wrong with Drought Busters.
They're toothless. They're nice-guy, if-you-please enforcers who can't enforce regulations that are on the books but carry no penalties, like hosing off driveways or watering lawns during the heat of the day. What can a Drought Buster do if confronted with such a crime? He can . . . tell you to stop. Ooooh, you're scaring me. What next, Mr. Water Cop -- Guantanamo?
Maybe that's what we need -- a lot of scaring. We could try more movie-poster-ominous billboards and alarming public service announcements on TV, but if Angelenos don't know by now that there's a drought, no boogey-boogey ad campaign will do it. Myself, I'd entertain the idea of random water-outs, like the rolling brown-outs during California's power crises, just to hammer home the point. So you're mad that you couldn't take a shower this morning? Well, how'd you like that happening three or four times a week?OK then, stop hosing down your driveway, doofus. But no politician is willing to put on that fright mask; L.A. won't even make water cuts mandatory, as Mayor Tom Bradley once did and as Long Beach has done.
We could try ratting out the miscreants ourselves. Thirty years ago, in the first, frightening modern drought here, L.A. tried a citizens' water patrol. The hot line was an immediate success, getting 300 calls a day, like: "I called you last week and the gentleman is still wasting water. That's disturbing me. He's even wiping leaves off the curb with the water." And another: "She was hosing down her driveway, and she was very nasty when I mentioned it. She said to me, 'It's none of your business. If they want, let them come out and tell me to stop.' "
As I said, it was an immediate success -- with residents. The city barely paid any attention. Of the 35 violation notices a day that the city issued, none came from citizen tips. A DWP official admitted that it wasn't a violation unless the DWP witnessed it. So what's the point of asking residents to pitch in? If nothing happens, it only frustrates people and cements their conviction that government does bupkus.
So what's left in our water-war arsenal? Shame. Public humiliation. Some cities publish the names of johns arrested for soliciting sex. Why not headline the names of flagrant water wasters?
This wouldn't work on everyone. Some people are beyond shame, like Harold Simmons, the Texas billionaire corporate raider who, in 1989, kept his Montecito estate green while others were letting theirs go patriotically brown. He paid $25,000 in fines for over-using water that would have kept a family of four going for 28 years, and when the water district finally turned down his taps, he trucked in more. Let them drink Evian.
But our civic leaders, philanthropists, corporate citizens -- shouldn't their water bills get a public once-over? In Georgia, where the governor prayed for conservation, a TV station revealed that a leading citizen, Chris G. Carlos, used 440,000 gallons of water at his home in September -- about 14,700 gallons a day, almost 100 times the average use of each American. The outcry prompted him to hire a PR man, turn down the taps and apologize.
Why don't we try that here?
As it turns out, we can't. The California Public Records Act and the DWP's own administrative manual policy mean I can't get hold of any of that information.
Now maybe "leak" isn't the right word to use in a column about water waste, but if anyone wants to leak that information to me, here I am.