The great state of California remains nearly as dry as an Interstate 5 tumbleweed, but the drought has come to a glorious end under the roof of 71-year-old widow Doris Tillman of South Los Angeles.
The Scripture-quoting Tillman endured nine months without running water after she lost a job, fell behind in her payments and had her service cut off by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
But now the water is flowing again, thanks to the generosity of readers who saw Tillman's story and sent donations to her. A down payment on the unpaid balance did the trick, and DWP is investigating Tillman's claim that her high water bills were partly due to rotting pipes that cost her $7,000 to fix.
"The first thing I did was take a bath," said Tillman, who had resorted to sponge baths and taking yoga and swimming classes so she could use the shower facilities.
"I was so relaxed and so comfortable, I felt myself going to sleep," added Tillman, who cut the bath short fearing she'd nod off and drown, and my follow-up column would have to be an obituary.
Tillman had recently strained her back lugging 5-gallon jugs of water through her house for cooking and cleaning, so the good Samaritans brought welcome relief.
"Oh my gosh, it's unbelievable," said Tillman during one of my visits to deliver donations. "For people to be so touched by someone else's plight and want to help, that's amazing."
Two of those people, Tom and Betsy Coleman of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, sent a donation and an observation. They had studied their own water bill and determined that their cost for water was less than one cent per gallon. (DWP puts the first-tier cost at six-tenths of a penny.) So the Colemans encouraged Mrs. Tillman to fill her jugs at a neighbor's home rather than pay $1.25, or 25 cents a gallon, at the vending machine she'd been using.
Mrs. Tillman told me she had tried that very thing, but a neighbor wasn't very cooperative, and she didn't want to impose on others. So she kept refining her conservation methods, learning how to get by on just under 50 gallons a week, and vowing never to waste a drop of water if her service was restored.
The Colemans do their own part to conserve. Even though water is cheap — unless DWP screws up your bill, as it has for many customers — the Colemans treat it like every drop is precious, very much aware of the drought and the fact that millions of people in the world have no access to safe running water.
"My husband and I are very, very water conscious. He puts huge trash barrels out when it rains," said Betsy, who uses recycled water for irrigation and flushing toilets. "We've been recycle-conscious for all our married lives, and we've been married 53 years. ... We feel like that's our responsibility as people."
There may soon be even more of a financial incentive to conserve, too. The DWP is talking about raising rates to pay for the repair of rupturing water lines and other needs, and greater forces in California and beyond might also jack up the cost of water.
"To me, it's inevitable in a world with a growing population that we're going to have to start thinking about water more and more the way we look at every other good — that it's a valuable commodity and we need to pay more for it," said Frank Wolak, professor of commodity price studies at Stanford University.
If you're looking for ways to beat higher costs and get by on less water, check out GreywaterAction.org for tips on how to green your house.
"We use the same quality water for everything, and that doesn't make any sense," said Greywater's Laura Allen.
She's right. We use the same highly purified water to drink, flush the toilet, wash the car and water the bougainvillea. Allen gave one example of how to avoid that. For about $200, she said, and without taking out permits, a homeowner can legally rig a system that uses washing machine water to irrigate a garden with a drip line instead of letting all that water go down the drain.
But don't try this if you don't know what you're doing. Marty Adams of DWP said he's all for taking a bucket into the shower and then using it to water the garden, but when you mess with plumbing, you have to make sure non-potable water doesn't get sucked into the potable water lines and present a health hazard.
Doris Tillman, whose misfortune has turned her into an accidental authority on conservation, shared a few pointers:
• After boiling an egg, add bleach and soap to the water and make your own cleaning agent.
•Use a dish pan instead of filling the sink, and pre-clean dishes and cookware with towels so food particles don't dirty the pan. Then use the water again in the garden.
•If you make pasta or boil potatoes, reuse the water for steaming vegetables, and then reuse it again for watering plants.
Mrs. Tillman, a volunteer at her church, is still trying to get a clothing and crafts business established to keep up with her bills. Readers who have asked me about purchasing goods can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She'll be busy for a while, though, making shoulder sling water bottle carriers for all the readers who sent her a donation.
"That's what I'm going to do," she said. "A 'thank you' is not enough. It's just not enough."