New water law makes work for the Maytag man

California decrees efficient washers for all. Other drought-conscious states may follow.

Conservation-weary Californians are watching out for the spin doctors on this one.

Make that spin-cycle doctors.

In the latest California environmental mandate that could make its way across the US, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill on Sunday requiring water efficiency in clothes washers. The law is the first of its kind in the nation.

Opponents, balking at the cost of new washing machines, want to hang the idea out to dry. Supporters say this is no time for airing dirty laundry – and insist the washers' cost will be recouped in savings on water and energy.

Either way, the new law – requiring old, thirsty washers to be replaced with efficient ones by 2007 – is expected to jostle legislators in other states off their chairs, like a phone call to the hibernating Maytag repairman. Already Washington and Texas have tightened washing-machine standards, which will affect newly purchased appliances.

Puns aside, the fuss over water conservation in California and the rest of the West is serious. The populous southern half of the Golden State is moving toward its fourth straight year of drought after receiving just half its normal rainfall.

NOW, the largest water transfer in history is pending, pushed by neighboring states wanting a bigger share of the Colorado River water that California has guzzled for over a decade. That transfer could alter the agricultural future of California's Imperial Valley – and, by extension, the variety of fruits and vegetables on US dinner tables.

"The state has overbuilt for how much water we are going to be able to get out of the ground and surface rivers. We ... simply ... have to save water," says Gail Delihant, researcher for Assemblyman David Kelley (R) of Palm Desert, author of the bill. Her office has been flooded with calls from those in water-rich northern counties griping at the cost of new washers, estimated at $80 to $250.

But some officials say the cost will be made up in as little as five years through lower water bills, many of which now approach $300 (for two months) around Los Angeles.

They remind residents that vast savings – of both water and money – are possible, as shown in the early 1990s, when a seven-year drought led to the widespread use of ultra-low-flush toilets, water-saving showerheads, and other conservation steps. Californians cut water use by almost 20 percent.

"The kinds of savings we realized then is the equivalent of not having to build another reservoir, or dam another river," says Ben Clay, lobbyist for the San Diego Water Authority, which has been seeking new water contracts to serve 350,000 residents a year. The San Diego area alone conserved enough with low-flow toilets last year to serve suburban Poway (pop. 80,000) for one year.

SUPPORTERS of the new law say California could save about 1 billion gallons annually. Each water-efficient washer would use about 7,000 fewer gallons per year. Overall those washers' savings could supply 6,000 households statewide for a year. The savings come from meeting a new standard of using 9.5 gallons to wash one cubic foot of laundry – far less than the average washer sold in 1994, which used 13.3 gallons, according to the Consortium for Energy Efficiency.

Besides California's perennial need to save water, the bill was pushed forward because of federal energy standards approved last year. Since new washing machines were going to have to be redesigned to save electricity, officials said the time was ripe for designs to save water, too.

Observers say that because less water is used, less gas and electricity is needed to heat that water. More vigorous spin cycles also mean clothes get wrung out more thoroughly, reducing the cost of running clothes driers. According to William Rukeyser, assistant secretary of the state Environmental Protection Agency, the dual savings of energy and water would be about $48 per machineper year.

Still, bill sponsors realize that a period of frustration – and public education – is ahead, as in the early days of pushing for efficient shower heads and low-flush toilets.

When complainers call Assemblyman Kelley's office, for instance, Ms. Delihant tries to smooth their feathers.

"I tell them I used a water-efficient model while on vacation in Lake Tahoe," she says. "I couldn't believe how clean they got the clothes, and they were practically dry when finished."

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