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Gary Horton: Water conservation must be just

Posted: August 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.

In California, water is life. Water access and rights have always been a fight for life, with farming interests warring against consumer water districts, while end consumers demand abundant water to maintain a lush Southern Californian suburban lifestyle.

Along comes our epic drought, and whatever friction over limited supply has rocketed as the water supply itself has plummeted.

Practical and even moral aspects exist to rationing or restricting water. Under drought conditions, how much water should any one person, family, or entity be allotted (or allowed to buy) — compared to others of differing circumstances?

And, as water is essential to life, shall allocations remain biased toward the financially capable, or shall some sort of “water justice” also apply when the shortage gets sufficiently short?

How do we reallocate such a life-precious resource efficaciously and justly?

Various agencies adjacent to the SCV have adopted differing approaches to water conservation in response to California’s extended drought.

Some have simply mandated 20 percent water usage reductions across the board with no concern for actual need, current efficiencies in place, or prior conservation investment.

Others have used old tricks from gas-rationing days, restricting outdoor sprinklers to even-odd-numbered days depending on your street address.

Some have even restricted all outdoor watering during winter months, effectively ruining all aesthetic landscape investment.

None of these is sufficiently thoughtful to address prior conservation investment, long-term ramifications, and certainly not consideration of “water justice.”

Let’ consider the plight of local widow Mrs. “Lovey” Thurston Howell III who — since Thurston’s untimely death by runaway golf cart on the family’s Sand Canyon private nine-hole course — now spends endless days gazing from her 20,000-square-foot mansion across lush green fairways to the spot of Thurston’s demise.

Water bills were never an issue for the Howells, and now Lovey is determined to pay whatever rationing fines may be imposed rather than lose tangible memories of her beloved Thurston.

Across town, an aged professor and his long-time live-in companion, Mary Ann, struggle making ends meet. Every dollar is precious and budgeted.

The aged professor labors 40 hours as a WalMart greeter, while Mary Ann strains arthritic hands cleaning Mrs. Howell’s Sand Canyon mansion.

Together, they share a modest 1,200-square-foot Canyon Country home where the professor, in healthier days, replaced all backyard landscaping with water-efficient porous concrete, leaving the front lawn green as a warm welcome to their humble home.

They’ve already saved tons of dear money on water bills, but now the city’s proposed every-other-day watering would kill the last remaining patch of green the professor and Mary Ann appreciate so much.

A rise in water rates would mean a reduction in bathing and other life essentials.

In truth, while such extremes exist, most of us fall someplace in between. Some have already made great conservation investments far beyond the norm, while others continue with expansive lawns and swimming pools and sprinklers running seemingly forever.

Some have money to waste, while others are on tight budgets.

Shouldn’t we recognize that what one person wastes in excess impacts the whole body of the rest of us? There is a certain “water justice” component to be considered when talk of rationing comes to the forefront.

Given the importance of getting this right for horticultural, practical, and just considerations, let’s demand our city and water agencies avoid knee-jerk reactions to sky-falling-down hysteria.

Pragmatic solutions do exist without killing our valuable landscape assets or dividing us needlessly between “haves” and “have nots.”

If the “Loveys” of our valley can afford watering at levels sufficient for a short nine-hole course, perhaps given the right structure, they might be induced or compelled to aesthetically substitute water-hogging fairways with drought resistant shrubs.

Given Mrs. Howell consumes 100 times the water of professorial types, might there be a compelling noblesse oblige for change, given the severity of our water shortage?

Conversely, water records indicate our poor professor has already cut his water usage significantly and therefore currently consumes at half the rate of his neighbors.

Might we allow exceptions from mandated cutbacks based on actual water consumption per square foot or person vs. community average?

Some water agencies already provide a modest $2 per-square-foot lawn swap-out incentive to move consumers to water-efficient gardens.

Might such incentives be expanded further, or might water agencies provide “water loans,” repayable through monthly water bills, providing homeowners immediate funds for specific and approved water conservation investments installed by contractors certified for such programs?

And rather than degrade our very high water usage Garden City public spaces and parks, might we issue “water reconstruction bonds” to provide funds for reconstruction of our most water-inefficient landscapes, with bond payback funded by water saved?

Or, given the emergency, can’t we re-allocate public works funds to first invest in emergency water conservation construction over other public works, again repaid through the water savings captured by the project?

Creative answers to reduced water availability will allow all of the SCV to participate in highly effective, just, and non-destructive water conservation actions.

As consumers and SCV residents, let’s demand thoughtful, long-term thinking over short-term mandates, which are horticulturally harmful, detrimental to landscape investments, and more often than not, are unjust in implementation.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.



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