If you're not at least a little panicky, then you're not paying attention. California is in a state of slow-moving emergency. The governor, Jerry Brown, made it official last week: Rainfall is pitiable, snowpack and reservoir levels deplorable. We have the worst drought on record, the record being about 100 years. The worst.
Think of it as Carmageddon for water, and plan accordingly.
I don't think the scale of the crisis has sunk in. TV weathercasters still warble about the beautiful weather (which it is, in a kind of end-of-the-world way) without noting that it would be great for May or October but not January, when we should be carrying umbrellas.
Maybe the people of Pompeii stood there looking at Mt. Vesuvius and saying, "Wow, would you get a load of that beautiful lava!"
Every night, every TV weatherperson should be saying, "It's beautiful, but it's not what we need." Each of them should be warning us to turn off the water while we're brushing our teeth and not to sing Coldplay's entire repertoire in the shower.
This bugs me about Brown's news conference Friday announcing the state of emergency: He called on all of us to cut back our water use "at least 20%" but also said it would be "voluntary." Not mandatory.
Maybe he's keeping mandatory on his emergency options list if things get worse, and that his subliminal message is really "volunteer — before we draft you." But things seem pretty dire already.
Don't for a second fool yourself into thinking this doesn't matter. A harrowing drought in Civil War-era California destroyed the state's cattle-based economy, and when the cattle died, it killed off the grand, seigneurial California rancho lifestyle. Such an upending could happen again.
L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley tried to require mandatory rationing via heavy fines in the droughts of the late 1970s and the early 1990s, but without much to show for it. What Los Angeles, like other places, did do was order mandatory low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads, which saved thousands of acre-feet of water automatically.
But those savings must be pretty well maxed out by now.
And now Mayor Eric Garcetti should step into that Tom Bradley role to get Angelenos on board the water-saving bandwagon and revive some of the spirit of decades past.
Garcetti is already an environmentalist who's lived in energy-efficient and water-sensitive homes, so he can't be accused of not practicing what he preaches (except perhaps at Getty House, the mayor's official residence, which may still have Ethel Bradley's lovely, thirsty rose garden).
Here's where Garcetti can call in civic favors from his friends in L.A.'s "creative community" to do some funny-or-die-style public service videos — cheeky, over the top, but with unmistakable messages like:
- Co-showering. Twice the affection with half the water.
- A couple of colleagues suggested nudism as a means of sparing laundry water demands. I’m for it, if they go first.
- Kill your lawn. About 60% of L.A.’s water — excellent, clean, drinkable water — gets used outdoors, on lawns and flowers and plants. A lawn in a drought is as silly as a rice paddy in the Central Valley. If you want to see a big greensward, watch “Downton Abbey.” Or go to Descanso Gardens or the county arboretum, or a park. Use low-impact or drip sprinklers, and water deeply, only at night, a couple of times a week.
- Turn off the hose. Speaking of parks, in 2008, as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was touting rigorous water-saving measures, city employees were spotted hosing down tennis courts at a city park. Time to revive the old drought regulations, with fines: Absolutely no hosing down driveways or sidewalks — or tennis courts. Get reacquainted with a broom. And when you wash your car, fill a couple of buckets or use a trigger nozzle; you can’t leave the hose running.
- Water = bucks. Garcetti needs to make the connection between water and money very clear, as solar panels have done with electricity. Start disincentive pricing at the DWP to reward savers and penalize wasters.
- Royal flushes. “Poo do, pee don’t” went one piece of drought advice. Low-flush toilets have helped immensely, but surely we can eke out a little more conservation.
- Water, with water back. Many restaurants have fallen back into the wasteful habit of pouring glasses of water for diners without asking whether they want it. And diners, don’t ask for it unless you’re going to drink it. I have mortified my friends at the end of meals by gathering up all the glasses of untouched water at the table, carrying them outside and dumping the water on plants or bushes. Every glass of water at a restaurant requires at least two more glasses to wash it.
- Turn on, tune in, turn it off. Don’t leave the water running while you’re staring dreamily into the mirror with a toothbrush in your mouth. Don’t use a full cycle in the washing machine just to launder a dirty T-shirt.
- Drought 911. Ask citizens to watch for waste, and kick the DWP into gear to reinvigorate drought-busters to investigate and solve water breaks.
- Never, ever throw away a bottle of water, empty, full or anywhere in between. Empty the water into a planter or the grass, and recycle the bottle.
OK, Hollywood, there's your civic assignment. Create some amusing PSAs about rules that should drive us not to drink.