A fool and his water are soon parted

Water is like money. You can’t spend what you don’t have. You store up excess in times of plenty in anticipation of bad times to come. You set your spending rate today based on your memory of lean years, not on your hope that things will be better this year and even better the year after that. Don’t be gallon-wise and acre-foot foolish. A bucket saved is a bucket earned.

So it’s with decidedly mixed emotions that Californians ought to greet the news that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and another 342 of the state’s 411 water districts reported having enough water to return to 2013 levels of usage and will not impose new mandatory cutbacks (“zero conservation”).

It certainly is a relief to know that family, friends and neighbors won’t have to stop showering (but still no longer than five minutes at a time, please). Washing machines will still wash. Toilets will still flush. These are good things.

Besides, we’re talking about 2013 levels. That was a severe drought year, so returning to the practices in place then does not mean it’s time to hose down the driveway or start raising alfalfa in the backyard. Zero-conservation does not mean watering like it’s 1999 (a fairly wet year). Water districts still have to keep an eye on their customers’ usage. So do the customers.

But by the time the message seeps down from state and local water officials to the hands on local faucets, it could easily sound like wet times are back. Certainly all of us ought to know better.

July was the planet’s hottest month since people started keeping track of such things in 1880. In Southern California, the driest period ever recorded is the one that began in 2011 and is continuing today.

California’s drought may not be a drought at all, but rather the end of an abnormally wet period that just happens to coincide with the time the state was built and populated by people accustomed to lush lawns and wet winters. The zero-conservation targets set by local agencies are not a function of any rain that fell in these parts recently, but of moderate levels of snow that fell in the Rockies several years ago and that now feed the still-sinking water levels in reservoirs on the Colorado River, and of last winter’s moderate rainfall and snowmelt in the Sierras and the Cascades. 

The state can support its current population and provide room for economic growth besides, but not on outdated water-spending habits. Most of those water districts that are imposing zero-conservation targets are working on ways to permanently decrease demand while capturing storm runoff and reclaiming sewage, and that’s as it should be. But they will be more likely to succeed if they keep some level of conservation — something above zero — as part of their regular practice, especially in bone-dry times of the sort Southern California continues to experience. We will need to keep saving water. We ought to get used to it, and stay used to it.

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