LOS ANGELES — CIVIL wars over H2O - hot water, or just hot air?
At no time in California history has one of the highest-profile leisure activities been the center of such controversy as during the past six years of drought: swimming pools.
A 1990 estimate put the number of pools at 647,000 across the entire state, about 75 percent in the south. Averaging about 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters) each, that amounts to 12.9 billion gallons (49 billion liters) - enough to supply a community of over 300,000 for one year. A 1991 study by the Field Institute also found that 18 percent of Californians own water spas or hot tubs.
At the same time, studies have shown that, although two-thirds of the population of the state lives in the south, two-thirds of its water comes from the north. Exacerbating regional rivalries about everything from lifestyles to resource allocation, the backyard, fun-in-sun habits of Angelenos from Beverly Hills to Malibu have invited vilification.
"We cut our families back to 125 gallons a day to make do while southerners are filling their pools and washing cars in the street," said a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission official who asked not to be named. "It's shameful."
In March 1991, the commission made it a crime to fill a swimming pool or to water more than the putting green of a golf course. Public fountains were shut down.
When it came time to consider statewide emergency measures, northerners dug in their heels. "The north did not cause this drought and should not be targeted unfairly in this drought situation," complained Chris Chandler, state assemblyman for the Third District, which includes six northern counties.
In the most drastic act of water conservation in state history, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson halted the flow of northern water from the State Water Project to Los Angeles.
And for its part, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ordered 25 percent cutbacks in water use by households, enforced by significant fines. That meant that filling a 20,000-gallon pool - though still legal - could cost triple for a first offense.
Other key state water officials have stressed keeping cool heads, saying that L.A.'s "wasteful-water" ways are more image than substance. Nearly 80 percent of California's water is used by agriculture, notes David Kennedy, director of the State Department of Water Resources.
"There tends to be a lot of mythology flying around at a time like this," he says.