People, Not Water Are Problem Here

As rains came, lawns grew greener and newts got the right of way - a letter from (soggy) California

SPIKE JONES, the leader of a zany orchestra in the 1940s and '50s, had a line in one of his songs that went, "Turn on the water in the sink; everybody have a drink." Spike would love it now in rainy California. All over the state faucets are gurgling. The long-running drought has ended. Guilt is gone. Lawns are green again. The reservoirs are filling. Everybody have a drink.

But hold on to your weather forecast. What we have here is a case of deception. Yes, the rains fell for most of March. In Santa Barbara I even heard a woman exclaim, "Look, a puddle by the roadside!" revealing how a drought can lead to giddy observations. And maybe a few people will still feel a little guilty when they brush their teeth and leave the faucet going.

But this water thing, this end-of-drought euphoria clouds (pun intended) the real issue. California does not have a water problem; it has a people problem: millions and millions of people are using too much of the limited water nature provides.

Odd things happen in California because there are too many people with cars, freeways, houses, farms, and swimming pools all producing trash, noise, smog, etc. They disrupt whatever is left of the natural balance between the BIG FIVE: people, air, animals, land, and water. For instance, amorous newts in Berkeley.

When the rains came last month the little critters left the hillsides near Tilden Park to move resolutely across a busy roadway to mate along nearby streams. But because huge and heavy cars can do terrible things to innocent newts, the park officials closed the road for a few days to prevent massive newt carnage.

Sadly, this scenario is oft-repeated one way or another in California: First came the land, then some newts (or animals), then some people, then a road for the cars, then the rains came, then the newts needed protection from the cars, then the newt road was shut down, then the people in their cars got angry, and on and on. ... But I say, be grateful for small things; somebody still has the sense to protect a few newts from marauding cars.

Water, however, is now a different story. In California gold is no longer gold; water is. Here's a basic fact: Water is a limited resource in the West; people are not. Thus, a federal water policy that subsidizes water for major corporate farms to grow California crops like rice, alfalfa, or cotton and then turns around to subsidize many of these crops, is a bit screwy.

After all, people and homes need water. And here are two Californians who really need water: Gov. Pete Wilson and San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor. On a two-acre, wooded home with an irrigation system, Mayor O'Connor's daily water use averaged 3,248 gallons last year. The average San Diego single-family home uses 349 gallons each day. This embarrassing disclosure recently was not embarrassing to O'Connor. She explained she has two meters and had actually cut her daily usage by 477 gallons between 1989 a nd 1990. At least she was conscious of her usage.

Governor Wilson, on the other hand, living in an upper-class mansion free-of-charge, used 1,170 gallons a day. He lives in 3,200 square feet of home with his wife and no children. Wilson's press secretary said the governor had stopped all watering of the landscape and does not let the water run while he's shaving. But in essence he had no idea why the amount was so high.

Wilson and O'Connor are like a lot of people who assume falsely that water is like the alphabet - unlimited. The drought has awakened municipalities and people across the state. Marin County told homeowners they had to cut back to 50 gallons of water a day. And in Los Altos Hills water customers were told to cut back 68 percent even as the drought appeared to be ending.

Human nature benignly assumes abundant resources when there is a full tank of gas in the car or a full water heater at home. But in California, the path to enforceable water conservation starts with people restraint, not hoping for more water.

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