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Drought? I'll drink to that

March 4, 2009 | 10:23 am

It's raining. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is at 80% of normal, not including today's storms. And Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a statewide drought emergency.

Those things aren't necessarily contradictory. But the playing of water politics that muddies the real drought message.

Say "drought emergency" and you could get federal money. Say "drought" and Republicans think it's time to lift endangered species protections and build more dams. Say "drought" and you don't have to understand the nuances and history of California water.

Drought has changed California more than earthquakes; drought in the 19th century killed off the cattle culture. Drought, and the defiance of it, dictate where the water goes and where it doesn't. It draws political lines between farmers and city people, between developers and environmentalists.

Southern California officials have been bragging about how L.A. is making do with about the same water it had 20 years and millions of people ago. Absolutely true, but a good bit of those savings have been passive, through low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads. We still use a lot more water outside our houses than we do inside, for grassy lawns and mossy gardens that are as unsuited to this climate as giraffes in the Yukon.

When the words "drought emergency" gets uttered, the words "cuts" and "rationing" have followed closely behind. My colleague Bettina Boxall wrote about the political stratagems behind drought.

We've gamed California water for years. Los Angeles civic leaders -- including the first publisher of this newspaper -- finagled and frightened Angelenos into believing the city would dry up and blow away without an aqueduct, and voters approved bond measures to build it, and suck the water out of the Owens Valley.

Since then, we've turned many of our rivers into flood control channels; we wastefully flush away enough water to keep thousands of families clean and laundered, and rather than figuring out how to capture the water we have, some politicians would rather play drought politics.

So of course we're hearing about mandatory cutbacks. I am a big believer in water-saving; millions of Californians are. But while mandatory cutbacks of 10 or 20 percent sound politically bold and brave, they do nothing to acknowledge the people who are already careful with water -- nor do they really punish the profligate, who won't feel a pinch at all by cutting back 10 or 20 percent.

Before such mandatory cuts can be credible and feasible, all public officials have to take into account that there are a lot of ways to save at every point in the water system -- and not just at the bathroom sink. By the way, if you're not already turning off the water while you stand there brushing your teeth -- start now. Even thought it's raining.

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