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Turn the Faucet Off--It’s Prudent-User Time : Water district forces Southern California to face reality

For months, Southern California has debated whether it must ration water to cope with the four driest years in the state’s recorded history. At the Metropolitan Water District, the region’s biggest water agency, the debate has ended.

The MWD itself will not get enough water to go around next year, and rationing will start in February for the 27 local agencies it supplies.

There is no cause for panic. In many cities, water consumption already is down, and some specialists say people can push it down further and scarcely notice a difference. Even with a few more dry years, the prudent use of water can postpone anything approaching drastic action.

Still, prudent use means that areas without standby authority to impose rationing should get the legal machinery in place. Areas with laws already on the books may have to use them before the drought ends.

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The MWD will get substantially less water from the Colorado River next year than it did last year. It will get just about the same from the State Water Project, less than the MWD wanted. The shortfall works out to what 500,000 families use in a year. With those kinds of numbers in hand--grim enough to be changed only if the weather turns soggy--the MWD had to reduce the flow.

MWD will cut deliveries of water for urban use--in homes, shops and factories--by 5% and for water used by growers by 20%. Local water agencies, which buy water at cut rates and use it to recharge underground sources to keep wells from running dry, will also take 20% cuts.

Reductions in urban supplies will be adjusted for population growth, and the MWD also will adjust rations in fairness to communities where conservation efforts have already brought substantial cuts in water use.

The MWD will use its 5% and 20% quotas to determine the total amount of water a local agency will get, but local agencies can divide up the water as they see fit, a wise move in light of sharp differences in living patterns in the region. What will remain constant, though, is that every acre-foot of water that goes over the aggregate limit will cost three times as much, a real incentive for consumers and agencies to save money by rationing.

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In Los Angeles County, agriculture more often than not means nurseries that grow trees for landscaping and flowers for gardens. It means something else in Ventura County, the largest citrus producer in Southern California. They may well want to allocate available supplies differently. The shortage will mean different things to other communities in Southern California as well.

LOS ANGELES: Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who rightly has urged mandatory rationing since last spring, says the city can afford to wait until February--when the MWD will cut back--before it has to decide whether to impose rationing. That logic would vanish if the drought drags on and the City Council keeps stalling. It shouldn’t.

ORANGE COUNTY: Dependence on the MWD varies sharply in Orange County alone. San Clemente gets all of its water from the MWD; Huntington Beach gets less than one-third. But as in Los Angeles, water officials generally planned to rely on voluntary measures, which have been working fairly well, turning to rationing plans only if the drought persists. That’s fine--as long as voluntary efforts continue to work.

SAN DIEGO: San Diego depends on the MWD for 95% of its water supply, so it is no surprise that most of that county’s local water agencies have mandatory conservation plans. The surprise is that the city of San Diego, the biggest user of water, does not. The city should reconsider its wait-and-see approach. Other cities in Southern California seem to have some grace time. San Diego may not.

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Southern Californians may look at the MWD move with varying degrees of urgency, but they have one thing in common: All are now on notice.


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