Opinion

Oh, dry up -- being a good Californian in bad times

Time for Californians to declare war on drought--and act accordingly.

All right, San Juan Capistrano folks. You won. Now, declare victory and turn off the garden hoses.

A California court of appeal ruled that San Juan Capistrano can’t, under the state constitution, charge more for water than it costs the city to provide the water. (Linking higher water use to higher user fees is how many water districts plan to help limit water use during the drought, and this ruling may be appealed.)

Now that you’ve proven your point, Capistranans, be patriotic Californians and live within the state limits. Doing an end-zone victory dance by keeping your sprinklers and hoses flowing like Niagara would be in poor taste.

(Paradoxically, one of the ratepayers who worked on the lawsuit intended to make sure water districts aren’t pricing water arbitrarily has an exemplary drought-tolerant garden.)  

Drought is settling in for a long and devastating siege, and from Klamath to Calexico, we have to go drier for the duration. The drought is a fine instance of the argument that just because you can buy something – in this case, as much water as you like, even with penalty pricing – doesn't mean you should.

During the two world wars, Americans stepped up admirably to the challenges of rationing and shortages. Campaigns and posters -- like this one that hangs in my kitchen, “Food Is Ammunition – Don’t Waste It” -- equated food and fuel to vital war materiel. The Roosevelts planted vegetables on the White House lawn, and the royal Windsors cut hot water use by inking stop-here lines on the palace bathtubs.

California needs to put itself on a war footing with drought. Drought is not an enemy that will be beaten easily. We have to defeat our own habits to win the war.

People who can afford to waste water should lead the way in doing the opposite. Time to bring “noblesse oblige” down from the attic.

Not everyone is inclined to share the burden.  Last summer, in Politico Magazine, Ann Louise Bardach wrote about “drought lifestyles of the rich and parched” in the expensive banlieue of Montecito, near Santa Barbara.

Montecito has gone through roller-coaster droughts over the past 20-plus years, and in the current one, many, many residents have cut their water use by nearly half; a dead lawn is a civically laudable lawn.

Still, Bardach writes, a few let-them-drink-Perrier residents are trucking in floods of water to keep their greenswards verdant, and others are simply paying the penalty for watering beyond allotments – more than a half-million dollars in fines last May alone, with the Montecito Water District on track to collect something like $4 million a year from these excess waterers.

Montecito saw this before. In the late 1980s, Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, the corporate raider who helped to bankroll the "swift boat" attack ads against presidential candidate John Kerry, kept sprinklers going on a vast estate that he visited once in a while.

He paid $25,000 in fines for overusing water – about 10 million gallons’ worth, water officials estimated, enough to keep a family of four going for 28 years. And then, after the water district turned off his taps, he drilled a well and even trucked in water.

A hundred-plus years ago, Gilded Age plutocrats were so desperate to show off their wealth that they paneled walls in 22k gold, gave out cigars wrapped in $100 bills as party favors and served oysters with pearls planted in them.

Will a wet, green lawn be the new Gilded Age accessory of excess? Or will well-to-do Californians choose to apply Ben Franklin's warning that we must all hang together or we will assuredly hang separately – or in this case, dry up and blow away?

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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