The drought warning

Though rain is falling through the East, as for easing the drought, it is, well, just a drop in the bucket.

The federal government has declared disaster emergencies in nine states - Pennsylvania's precipitation, for example, is only 54 percent of normal levels. The usually brilliant fall foliage will have only two hues this year, mud-yellow and brown, and farmers are crying "uncle" - Uncle Sam, that is - for temporary relief.

What is somewhat odd though is the ever-present undertone that this is something to be endured only until the rains come again.

The prescriptions for reducing water-use are all temporary measures: Stop watering your lawn (it will come back as soon as you are able to water again). Wash your car with a bucket (is anyone going to do that after the drought ends?). Don't top off your swimming pool (but don't fill it in either).

Even the federal aid for farmers is for loans to ease their setback temporarily and not for longer-term solutions to change the way water is used. Already we have seen that with the first sign of rain (and we'll need much more than that to ease the drought), commitment to water conservation is waning.

Yes, these measures make sense. Emergencies require fast action. Policymakers can't stop to build consensus for fundamental change as water supplies get ever lower.

But emergencies should also prompt all of us to evaluate how we ever got into this mess in the first place.

Reducing the effect of another drought is only one reason to change our approach to water conservation. Obviously, if we use water more efficiently, we can reduce the serious effects droughts have on us.

This will be even more important in the future if, as scientists forecast, droughts in many parts of the US become more common, first as a result of urban sprawl, but later because of global warming.

By improving water conservation, we can improve our resilience to drought.

If lawns are watered less often, for example, roots grow deeper and can withstand dry conditions more effectively. By purchasing appliances that use less water, we are less affected when the authorities restrict its use.

But if these benefits aren't compelling enough to change water use habits, then consider the benefits of water conservation on water pollution.

President Clinton announced this month that he would recharge the Clean Water Act by insisting that water quality be measured not just by the level of discharge into a body of water but by the level of pollutants in the water itself.

The main motivation here is to understand the effects that "nonpoint" sources of pollution such as road, crop, and lawn runoff have on water quality.

The more we irrigate our farmlands and water our lawns, the greater the pollutant-laden runoff that gets into the water table and leaches into the lakes and rivers.

However you look at it, a more active water conservation posture makes sense.

To develop such a program in the East, we should look to the Western states where perpetual water shortages have forced states to experiment with a mixture of water conservation tools.

Westerners as a whole are well-evolved water savers. From them we can learn what works. Water is metered through much of the West, and the pricing structure is tiered even in times of ample supply. Increasing prices by 10 percent leads to a decrease in water use by about the same amount.

Studies on urban conservation programs such as retrofit kits, water audits, toilet and showerhead replacement programs, and education campaigns show that they have had real and lasting effects.

In Washington State, one pilot program which encouraged the use of low-flow showerheads reduced residential indoor use by 6.4 percent. In San Pablo, Calif., one apartment complex replaced its conventional toilets with low-flow ones and reduced its water consumption by 4 percent.

This might be one of those times when it pays not to have gone first. We can take the good ideas from the Western states and throw out the bad.

But it also won't pay to wait. We now have a sense of how devastating and disruptive droughts can be.

Let's put that newfound appreciation of water to good use.

*Amy Richardson, a native Californian who grew up in severe drought conditions, is a market researcher in Pittsburgh.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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