October 1, 2008

Use ‘Carrot’ for Conservation

ALL Pasadenans - and much of the San Gabriel Valley - have seen those clever ads, in the papers, on our Web site and on bus stops around town - aimed at goading citizens into conserving water during the current version of California's permanent drought.

You know the ones - the mock mug shots of Tap-On Tina, Busted- Sprinkler Bruno and Light-Load Loretta.

Their criminal offenses? Running the faucet while brushing their teeth, dumping 500 gallons a month because they put off fixing the garden pipe, throwing one pair of jeans in the wash when it might use 50 gallons to do so.

Yes, wasting water is a serious offense, and many of us get the picture - we'll go straight, come clean, realize the error of our ways.

Problem is, as the Pasadena City Council lectured Water & Power Department managers, that during the current conservation campaign, city water usage has actually gone up 3 percent.

And if that's a crime, which it figuratively is, the council laid into plans to make it literally one.

Something's gone badly wrong if we had come to the point at which the city's public utility was considering severe penalties for the little guys among the city's water users - the households - when the big tappers keep spraying a gusher out of their spigots.

We're glad that the council ordered the managers to come back with a new plan - though a little disappointed that the deadline is a lax six months.

With the Metropolitan Water District threatening to cut allocations to the city by 10 percent, the problem is in the here and now.

Long-term, city leaders are already taking appropriate steps - finally, for instance, providing funding to pipe in recycled water Pasadena has long had access to from a shared facility with Glendale and Los Angeles. That water will eventually irrigate Brookside Golf Course and parks and other public properties throughout the city and even into San Marino's Huntington Gardens.

But that project will take years, whereas the conservation need is now.

After all these years of water politics in the West, there is still a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of many residents - and of some knee-jerk city critics who just don't get it - about where most of California's water goes. Most of it, from the flooded rice fields of the northern Central Valley to your non-xeriscaped, lush front yard, goes right back into the ground from whence it sprung. Irrigation, whether for commercial agriculture or for your Connecticut of a lawn, makes up the lion's share of our usage.

If you've got five teenagers in the house who all take half-hour showers, yes, your family is part of the problem. But most households in their actual houses use more or less the same amount of water.

The advertising campaign is right - being more thoughtful in all the areas it chides us about can make a real difference.

But when we have no power over the Caltrans sprinklers and other untouchable irritants, we don't want to see the city coming down with too many punitive measures just yet.

The education campaign must be intensified. People must start taking personal responsibility. And we like the positive suggestion from one Web site, apparently run by City Hall gadfly Wayne Lusvardi, that borrows from an energy conservation plan currently being tried up north: "The Sacramento Municipal Utility Distict is running a pilot experiment on 35,000 homes of similar size and similar heating systems. Each month it sends an energy report card to each home showing how much energy each customer used compared to the average customer. Homes exceeding the average get an unsmiling face and homes that beat the average a smiley face.

"Sounds better than setting up a Soviet-style informer system in neighborhoods whereby neighbors can retaliate against each other if they are seen hosing walks or washing cars in their driveway."

It does indeed sound better. Informal neighborhood groups and the larger associations can aid the cause. Neighbors with green thumbs can help others who rely on too much turf because it's easier than drought-tolerant planting schemes. Though a time may come for new restrictions and for more usage-tiered payment systems, we'll continue to believe in the carrot over the stick as we find ways to live more sustainably in Southern California.

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