IN her Friday water bill, Susie Sirota was warned that if she didn't cut her household water use by half, she would be fined: $3 for every 750 additional gallons plus 15 percent of her full, two-month water bill. Second and third offenses would carry higher fines - 50 and 75 percent - and a fourth could cut off her water completely. Wife and mother of two, Ms. Sirota had already spent the last year in a conservation regimen that might entitle her to civic decoration: catching rain runoff in barrels, saving bath and laundry water for her lawn and plants, regauging toilet water levels, installing shower savers. Still, her savings of 32 cubic feet per two-month billing period - about 24,000 gallons - will be about 22,000 gallons over her allotment and triple her water bill. First offense.
``My only chance is appeal,'' says Ms. Sirota. ``Otherwise, there is no way my family can live like human beings.''
After four years of screaming headlines about drought devastation to California farmers and crops, statewide water wars are finally hitting the major cities full force:
On March 1, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ordered a 10 percent cutback to households based on 1986 usage levels. By May, the cutback will be 15-25 percent with more to follow. Hotlines to report water abusers in six different categories from car washing to hosing off sidewalks will alert patrolling ``drought busters'' to levy fines. ``In the last two weeks we've seen a much bleaker situation than we anticipated,'' says Daniel Waters, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Wat er and Power (DWP). In the most drastic water conservation act in state history, Gov. Pete Wilson halted the flow of northern water from the State Water Project to Los Angeles.
San Francisco last week ordered 2.6 million water users in the Bay Area to cut consumption 45 percent below pre-drought levels. The city water department said the water supply would run dry within 18 months without cuts. The Public Utilities Commission made it a crime to fill a swimming pool or water more than the putting green of a golf course. As of yesterday, customers will be unable to wash cars at home or fill hot tubs. Parks that use water for irrigation will lose 90 percent of their supply.
The San Diego City Council declared a drought state of emergency approving a 30 percent cutback citywide by April 1. Mayor Maureen O'Connor says she'll support mandatory measures if goals aren't met.
The only other time time water rationing was imposed on Los Angeles, in 1977, water runoff from mountains was 42 percent of normal. Restrictions were rescinded after seven months because of heavy rains. Though record rainfalls have come in recent days to several areas, officials say the rain doesn't replenish reservoirs enough to dent four years of drought. This year, runoff is expected to be 28-45 percent of normal.
As a community service, newspaper columns north and south are suddenly filled with consciousness-raising tips on how to save water, how to read a water meter, how to appeal water allotments. Besides sending fliers to customers explaining new procedures in detail and asking cooperation, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is operating a 24-hour, 800 number for questions on everything from abuse to laundry facilities in apartment complexes to finding car washes that recycle water.
Since Los Angeles-area allotment levels are based on 1986 usage levels, many will appeal based on increased occupancy. Businesses will need to document increases in production or customers. Sirota, for instance, purchased her four-bedroom home from an elderly woman who lived alone.
``I've been taking my laundry to my neighbor's house where four people have dwindled to one,'' says Sirota. But she is hopeful the DWP will see the light and grant a more reasonable allotment. Ninety-two percent of appeals were granted in the 1977 drought here.
`A lot of quick showers'
``Hey, we're hurtin' up here,'' says Joel Walker, an assistant professional at the Harding Park Golf Course, a public facility in San Francisco. The grass is green for now, he ways, but thin and sparse and will continue to brown without watering. Public fountains have been dry for more than a year. But Mr. Walker is more concerned about water allotment for his family of three: 125 gallons per day for his Knob Hill apartment. ``That's a lot of quick showers,'' he says.
``[These cutbacks] will have a significant impact on every individual who lives in San Francisco or who has a business enterprise that is connected to San Francisco,'' said Water Department General Manager John Mullane. San Francisco's water supply comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park, which stands at 9 percent of capacity.
For his part, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley took the offensive in a City Hall address broadcast over several radio and television stations. ``Truly, this drought is a natural disaster, an environmental crisis and an economic calamity,'' he said. ``But the people of Los Angeles have prevailed over disasters before - from earthquakes to droughts to energy shortages.''