One month ago, San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor risked the reputation of her native city in a high-stakes gamble on the elements.
As the rest of San Diego County and the region adopted mandatory conservation measures in response to the drought, she alone stuck with voluntary methods--her civic-minded constituents, she said, would rise to the occasion and conserve 30%.
In the ensuing weeks, she was embarrassed by revelations about her own water consumption--The Times discovered a second, previously unacknowledged water meter on her property that placed her among the city’s top 100 residential water users. She was ridiculed--painted by cartoonists as a naive, hypocritical zealot and chastised by one Los Angeles water official as obnoxious and insensitive.
But, as the month draws to a close, O’Connor says she’s been right all along. It has rained 12 of the past 29 days, depositing nearly 7 inches of water and making this San Diego’s second wettest March on record. The city of San Diego has met its 30% conservation goal. And the County Water Authority has opted to delay its call for 50% cuts--action that O’Connor says has “vindicated” her stand.
Some people are calling it the mayor’s Miracle March.
“Heavenly intervention is where she’s one up on me. . . . If she pulls off one more miracle, I’m going to convert to Catholicism,” said former City Manager John Lockwood, a Methodist, who publicly questioned whether voluntary conservation could achieve 30% cuts shortly before he retired this month. “I’ll never contest her again. If she says it’s going to snow on Mt. Helix, by gosh, I’ll get my skis out.”
Councilman Bruce Henderson, the mayor’s firmest ally on the voluntary conservation issue, lauded her for her bravery.
“She knows she doesn’t have a direct pipeline to God,” he said. “It takes tremendous courage to put your neck out like that. She was lucky it did rain hard. But, in truth, it wasn’t luck, it was a willingness to go to the Nth degree to make sure people’s jobs aren’t lost.”
He added: “If you’re going to make a bet with people’s lives, you look at the odds, because if the odds are it’s going to rain, that’s the way you go. . . . She looked at the odds. The odds were the drought would end.”
In fact, state and local water experts have said repeatedly that, although immediate deliveries to Southern California are likely to improve slightly as a result of the rain, the drought is far from over. By one estimate, it will take more than three years of normal rainfall to restore statewide water storage to desirable levels.
And, if and when it stops raining in San Diego County, which is still striving to save 30%, residents of the city of San Diego--the county’s largest water user--are expected to feel the pinch.
This week, however, San Diego’s mayor has taken time out from the crisis to revel in what she clearly regards as a personal victory.
“They literally threw the kitchen sink and my house meter at me,” O’Connor said happily this week. “The people do want to stand up and be counted. I don’t care what they’re saying about San Diego up and down the state. I’m proud to be your mayor.”
It’s not the first time O’Connor has defied both her critics and Mother Nature at once. In the fall of 1989, on the first day of the mayor’s prized Soviet arts festival, the noon kick-off opened to a drizzling reception. Just as San Diego’s image-makers began to worry that the $6-million festival’s soggy beginnings boded poorly for its 21-day run, O’Connor saved the day.
“Please,” she asked the crowd at the outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion, as dozens of Soviet Georgian Child Folk Dancers stood fidgeting on the wet stage behind her. “I told these dancers to come over in October because it would be sunny. I don’t care if it’s raining, it’s shining on San Diego.”
With that, the audience sat down and the rain stopped falling.
Lockwood, the former city manager, still remembers remarking on O’Connor’s canniness--and her luck.
“She announces a Russian arts festival, perestroika hits and the world changes,” he said. “If it had been a year earlier, it wouldn’t have worked. If it was a year later, there would have been the Lithuania situation. The window of opportunity was there, and she hit right in the middle of it.”
He added: “If airplanes didn’t exist, and she decided to go to London, inertia would take us all over there. . . . She does talk to somebody at a higher level than I do.”
There is good-natured debate over whether the mayor’s good fortune is a product of serendipity, Catholicism or educated guessing. But there is agreement on this point: the past month has been the ultimate test of her good luck streak, and she’s put it to good advantage.
At the end of February, as the first heavy rain in months began to fall, the mayor “strongly” suggested what other cities had required for months: San Diegans, she said, should turn off their automatic sprinkler systems.
A few days later, after the storm had deposited more than 3 inches of rain over San Diego, O’Connor praised San Diegans for saving an average of 34% during the first three days of March.
“The people are listening,” she said, dismissing the cautionary words of some of her colleagues, who said they doubted the saving potential of her voluntary program. “They are trying to solve this problem.”
Later that week, Mike Gage, the president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, was quoted widely criticizing the mayor. He lamented what he called San Diego’s “fairly obnoxious disregard for their fellow Southern California cities” and was openly puzzled by O’Connor’s approach.
“I’ve always kind of liked her,” he said, "(but) I don’t know where she’s going on this one.”
The next day, O’Connor telephoned Gage, whom she had never met, and introduced herself as “the Wicked Witch of the South.” She made an appointment to correct Gage’s “misperceptions” and arrived armed with charts showing that San Diegans had conserved 34% during the first 11 days of March, while Los Angeles residents had cut back only 25%.
In the meantime, it had begun to rain. At a news conference in San Diego, the mayor made a prediction.
“I am an optimistic person, and I realize that,” she said. “But I’m beginning to think that the weather is a-changing, and you might be seeing the tail end of the drought, even though there isn’t anybody in the state that seems to want to admit that today.”
Evidently inspired by this statement, a San Diego Tribune cartoonist drew the mayor dressed in long robes holding a sign that said, “The Drought Will End Today.” Underneath, the caption read, “Her Honor the Optimist.”
But it rained the night of her news conference, and there was some drizzle the next day, a Thursday. It rained again Friday, and it poured on Monday. On Tuesday, there was so much rain that it set a new record for the date, March 19.
How had O’Connor known?
“A lot of people from the outside said she just said it was going to rain and crossed her fingers, and she got lucky,” Councilman Henderson said. “But that’s not how it was. She was talking to people who were observing weather patterns. It wasn’t as though she didn’t have some advice.”
As it turned out, the mayor’s sole adviser on local rainfall was a meteorologist named Harold Throckmorton, who teaches at Mesa College with O’Connor’s sister, Colleen. Throckmorton did not claim to be one of the region’s leading weather experts. In fact, he said he got a lot of his weather information secondhand, from the cable Weather Channel and the National Weather Service.
But he had a hunch--a “gut feeling,” he called it--that March was going to be a refreshingly wet month. And the mayor had taken that hunch and run with it.
She didn’t get far, however, before The Times discovered that she and her husband had consumed more than twice as much water as she had previously acknowledged. Because of a second meter on the mayor’s Point Loma property, more than half of her household’s water use had gone unnoticed for months.
The scandal became known around city hall as “water-gate” and now, a few weeks later, the jokes have begun. At an America’s Cup luncheon at the San Diego Convention Center this week, the emcee told the 800 guests that the door prize would be “a guided tour of Mayor O’Connor’s water meters.”
But the mayor was not fazed by the furor. Reached in Hawaii, where she was lobbying for San Diego to be the site for the 1993 Super Bowl, O’Connor said she was conserving 60% at home. Besides, she said, “Based on the present rains, and as far as I’m concerned, the drought is over. . . . A 50% cutback is not necessary based on the current rain we’re receiving that all the experts said would not come.”
This week, after the county water authority board voted to delay the imposition of a 50% cutback until at least April 15, O’Connor’s spokesman, Paul Downey, could barely contain his glee. The board made clear that its action in no way signaled the end of the drought. But Downey said their reaffirmation of the 30% conservation goal proved the mayor right.
“All along, she has been advocating staying at the 30%,” he said, repeating O’Connor’s oft-stated contention that 50% cuts should be avoided because they would mean the loss of jobs. “The people were laughing at her. And now everybody is having to come around to her way of thinking.”
“She’s extremely happy and feels that the water officials are finally vindicating her position. The public has always been on her side. . . . She’s known she was on the right track all along. She just hopes that some of the people up and down the state who have been bashing her may take a moment to thank her.”
Henderson said, “Maureen risked her head. And, in fact, if it hadn’t rained everybody would be pointing at her and calling for her removal because she hadn’t acted quickly enough. But, in fact, they acted too quickly.”
Meanwhile, at least one San Diego County resident expressed anything but gratitude for the mayor’s approach. Having grown up dependent on well water on a farm in Lancaster, Calif., lawyer Bob Geile of Cardiff told the county water authority board this week that he was appalled by O’Connor’s gamble, which he compared to a father taking his family’s yearly food money to the race track.
“You judge his actions not by whether he wins or loses,” Geile said. “The sin is committed when he lays down the bet.”
This weekend, there is a “very slim” chance of rain, according to National Weather Service forecaster Perry Schmeichel.