Lessons of the 1970s Shape Water Rationing Plans : Drought: Users will respond if they believe the emergency is real and the cutback applies to everyone.


When Goleta launched its model mandatory water rationing program in 1989, the experts were skeptical. The drought, while serious, was not mainstream dinner table conversation, and many officials figured that consumers--including thousands of students packed into apartments near UC Santa Barbara--would rebel and refuse to conserve.

Nonetheless, Goleta proceeded gamely, directing its 74,000 customers to cut water use and giving them the low-flow shower heads and other nifty devices to do it. The reaction was nothing short of astounding. Asked to reduce usage by 15%, the Central Coast community delivered twice that.

“The key here was that rather than telling people, ‘Reduce water or we’re going to punish you,’ we said, ‘Reduce water and here’s how we’re going to help you,’ ” said Larry Farwell, conservation coordinator for the Goleta Water District. “They believed the need to save was real, and just like people waving their little yellow ribbons in support of the war, everybody got on board.”


With cloudless skies warning ominously that California can expect no reprieve from bone-dry conditions this year, communities across the state are gradually following Goleta’s lead and adopting mandatory conservation programs not widely seen since the last great drought 14 years ago. The Los Angeles City Council votes on its water rationing plan today.

Unlike the last dry spell, when cities and water agencies relied mostly on instincts to devise ways to get consumers to live with less, architects of today’s rationing schemes have help--ample historical evidence of what works and what does not.

As they sift through the lessons learned in Goleta and other communities that weathered the 1976-77 drought, experts agree that one guiding principle stands out: Consumers will respond to pleas for help, but they must be convinced that a water emergency exists and they must believe that the pain of conserving is borne equally by all.

Once they embrace rationing, many water users become downright passionate about it--often saving far more than what is asked of them.

“You can get people to conserve by appealing to their sense of civic duty, but the problem is . . . they will only do it if they believe others are conserving and being inconvenienced as well,” said Richard Berk, a UCLA sociologist who co-authored a book about conservation patterns during the last drought. “You have to make sure people feel they aren’t being taken for a sucker. Otherwise, they’ll fall off the wagon.”

As they did during the water crisis of the 1970s, conservation programs will vary dramatically in California, a consequence of available supplies, geography, political courage and other factors. For consumers in a water district blessed with backup ground water supplies, the drought might mean nothing more than sprinkling the pansies only during prescribed hours. Residents of a water-strapped district might be forced to sacrifice the dichondra and wait longer between showers.


Stark differences could develop between Northern and Southern California--a contrast that would mirror the last drought, when the Southland got relief from the Colorado River while resentful northerners had to scrape by.

In Los Angeles, the plan expected to be approved by the council today requires residents to cut usage by 10% from 1986 levels beginning March 1 and by 15% on May 1. Installing low-flow shower heads and making other plumbing adjustments--combined with more careful attention to water habits--should enable Angelenos to reach that goal without major discomfort, Department of Water and Power officials said.

Indeed, rationing L.A.-style sounds almost luxurious compared with the rules in Marin County, home of the most severe limits approved in the state so far. Beginning next month, Marin residents will be limited to 50 gallons apiece per day--barely enough, one grumpy bartender in Tiburon lamented, “for a decent shower and a shave.” Flagrant scofflaws could face a fine of $1,000 and a month in the slammer, and even those who obey the law will pay--through a 30% increase in their basic water rate.

“It’s brutal,” groaned Richard Mayfield, 34, manager of the Cantina Mexican restaurant in Mill Valley. “We’ve already started using biodegradable laundry soap so we can use the wash water to flush the toilet and keep our garden alive. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

A survey by the Assn. of California Water Agencies shows that most cities and water districts have steered clear of so-called mandatory rationing--the practice of assigning customers an allotment of water and threatening them with fines, interruption of service or other punishment if they use more.

As of Feb. 4, the informal survey--which polled 400 agencies that account for 90% of the water delivered in California--showed that 29% had resorted to rationing. Another 31% had launched mandatory conservation programs, which restrict lawn watering and other practices and essentially coax customers toward a stated water-savings goal.


Other districts, association spokeswoman Lisa Lien said, were doing little beyond “trying to establish a conservation ethic through things like sticking a flyer in the water bill.”

Many of those agencies may soon put down the carrot and pick up the stick. In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District’s recent 31% cut in water that it supplies to 27 member agencies will force most onto a strict water diet. In places such as San Diego, which imports 95% of its water, profligates will not be safe from the law much longer.

Gov. Pete Wilson, while stopping short of ordering communities to ration, warned Friday that he would invoke his emergency power to require rationing “if the local agencies are not capable of coping” through strict conservation measures. “This is the time for sacrifice,” Wilson declared.

“Most of the areas of the state . . . will be on some form of rationing before long,” predicted Jonas Minton, chief of conservation for the state Department of Water Resources. “By summer, I would not be surprised if most had launched mandatory programs.”

As they scurry to develop strategies to husband dwindling supplies, many water agency managers are tapping the experiences of the 1976-77 drought. A look at that record, researchers say, should provide cause for hope.

“There is a very optimistic and simple policy conclusion here,” said UCLA’s Berk, whose book surveyed 50 water districts throughout the state. “The more effort you make to turn people around, the more they will conserve.”


William Bruvold, chief of the behavioral sciences program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, confirmed that assessment with his study of Bay Area water consumption between 1970 and 1982. Bruvold tracked nine water districts--three that employed rigorous conservation programs, three that had moderate programs and three that made little attempt to achieve water savings.

“We found the conservation effort was amazingly successful in the three districts that had rigorous programs--those that asked for dramatic reductions in use and threatened to sock you with heavy fines if you didn’t comply,” Bruvold said.

He added: “People conserved so much that it economically stressed the districts,” some of which were already suffering because of increased costs related to advertising campaigns, loss of income from idled hydroelectric plants and the purchase of supplemental water.

Marin Municipal Water District, which serves 170,000 people, had one of the three strictest programs studied. Aiming for a 57% overall reduction in water consumption, the district got a 62% cut, a spokesman said. Each resident was allowed 47 gallons a day; instead, Marinites gulped an average of just 35 gallons apiece.

The situation was less grave in Los Angeles in 1977, but residents here showed some pluck and enthusiasm as well. The city asked for a 10% cut in water usage, and customers responded with a reduction almost double that figure.

The reasons behind the success stories are many, but basically, the experts say, everything boils down to honesty and fairness.


“Equity and credibility, those are the cornerstones,” said Michael Ricker, water demand manager for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which has been rationing since 1989. “If people feel those in Brentwood are getting more because they have better lobbyists than the people in Pomona, then you’re going to get resentment.”

Persuading customers that they are not enduring more than their fair share of hardship is tricky, but many districts--Marin among them--believe that providing a specific allotment of water, rather than imposing a percentage reduction over an earlier year’s use, is a good start.

“There are a jillion plans out there, but at least with a per-person allotment, a guy knows his neighbor isn’t getting a break,” said Jules Tham, spokesman for the Marin municipal district.

One vulnerability of Marin’s 50-gallon-per-person system--and that of similar programs in Monterey, Mariposa and elsewhere--is its reliance on the honor system: To determine how many members are in each household, and how much water to assign, the district asked its customers, sending out a census card in January. The results were surprising.

“The tally from those little cards was within 3,000 of our population estimate for the district,” Tham said. “You’d be surprised at the level of peer pressure that exists in a time like this. . . . If we need to, we can also do some spot auditing of households.”

Once a program is in place, the threat of harsh punishment greatly helps it achieve success, Tham said. It encourages cooperation and also lets “the good guys know that the cheaters will be caught and punished.” Moreover, experience shows that a threat is typically all that is required. In 1976-77, Marin collected thousands of dollars in fines and issued numerous warnings to those who exceeded their limit. Only in five cases were customers reckless enough to merit the harsher treatment--having the flow of water to their homes reduced to a trickle.


One thing that can jeopardize a program’s credibility, drought veterans say, is growth. The logic is simple: Add new households to an overtaxed water system and the patience of people being asked to live on 50 gallons a day will not last long.

“If a resident feels they are saving so there’s enough water for someone moving here from Alabama, well, they’re going to be mad,” Ricker said.

Many areas--including Marin, Monterey and other Central Coast communities--have responded by adopting a moratorium on new water service hookups. Last week, the booming city of Lake Elsinore passed a moratorium and shut down 57 construction projects because of the shortage. Officials in many other regions are under pressure to take similar steps.

To ease the pain of rationing--and increase the odds of compliance--experts recommend giving consumers help and incentives. Some things--such as free shower heads, “water miser” awards and rebates for customers who install efficient toilets--are simple and obvious. Others--such as Marin’s policy allowing residents to “bank” water during winter months and use the reserve when guests visit in summertime--are more burdensome but worth the effort in the goodwill and water savings obtained, researchers say.

Flexibility appears to be another important element of successful programs: “If someone doesn’t care about showering and wants to save his roses instead, that’s fine with us,” said Tham. “You have to let people make choices.”

Bruvold and Berk agree that providing customers with feedback on how much they are saving--not in confusing terms such as “units” but in plain English--encourages public interest and cooperation.


On the downside, one fact of life during drought is that even the stiffest penalties will not be enough to change some people’s behavior. Some will craftily hunt for ways around the law. Wealthy residents will try to buy their way out of the drought, preferring to leave the suffering to their poorer countrymen.

A case in point can be found in Montecito, where billionaire corporate raider Harold Simmons continued to blithely douse his 23-acre estate with an endless stream of water, despite the critical shortage there. In 1989, Simmons was fined $25,000 for using an amount of water that officials estimated was enough to supply a family of four for 28 years. When that failed to get his attention, the local district restricted the flow of water to his estate.

Undeterred, the billionaire simply drilled a well on his property--a step taken by more than 100 other Montecito residents and by rich property owners in the Bay Area. He also bought truckloads of water hauled in by a private company to keep his landscape looking lush.

Simmons is the exception. For the most part, people want to do the right thing when crisis strikes--even if they do not have to. Just ask John O. Nelson, general manager of the North Marin Water District.

There is no need for rationing yet in the northern region of Marin, which wisely built a large storage reservoir since the last drought. Nonetheless, Nelson predicts that his customers will cut water usage by 20% this year.

“There’s not a darn thing I can do about it,” said Nelson, who calls the phenomenon “empathy rationing.” Like those who saved tinfoil during World War II, “the average citizen wants to do his part. People want to help.”



The Assn. of California Water Agencies has 400 member agencies that, altogether, distribute 90% of all water supplies in the state--to farms, homes and elsewhere. Of those, 240 responded to an association questionnaire that asked about conservation levels. Here is what they reported as of Feb. 4:

* 69 districts, or 29%, have mandatory rationing programs in place, meaning they limit people in the amount of water they use and threaten fines or disconnection for lack of compliance.

* 74 districts, or 31%, have mandatory conservation programs in place that identify goals for lowered water use and ask customers to make cutbacks to help accomplish those goals. These districts, however, do not impose penalties or limit users to specific allotments of water.

* 144 districts, or 60%, use voluntary conservation programs, which try to spread a conservation ethic among customers through public education but do not mandate specific reductions in water use.

Source: Assn. of California Water Agencies.