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Curse of Amnesiac Dogs

From Drought to Moratorium to Rationing in One Painful Lesson


Thursday, February 13, 2014

HOLE IN MY BUCKET: In hindsight, the biblical prophet Moses wishes he could be me. And I see his point. After all, Moses traipsed through the desert 40 long years in hopes of leading his people to the Promised Land. That’s a hard act to pull off, natives being famous for their tendency to grow restless. This Moses managed to quell by having his now consecrated one-way conversation with the Burning Bush, on the mountain where he would later get the Ten Commandments. But eventually, Moses’s endless exhortations against coveting ​— ​thy neighbor’s wife, thy neighbor’s ass, and the ass of thy neighbor’s wife ​— ​grew seriously old. Shaken up by a plummeting approval rating, an exasperated Moses flung his walking stick against a nearby rock, and water ​— ​miraculously ​— ​sprung forth. By contrast, when I step into the shower stall, I can ​— ​with a criminally unconscious flick of my wrist ​— ​instantly issue the flows of faraway rivers in quantities sufficient to kill off whole genetic strains of trout, salmon, and smelt. Better yet, I don’t have to think twice.

Angry Poodle

But now I do.

And after three extremely dry years back to back to back ​— ​last year being the most parched in recorded history ​— ​so do we all. I’ll leave it to the theologians to parse whether my morning showers qualify as truly miraculous or merely amazing. In either case, the situation ain’t sustainable. As it turns out, there are only so many water molecules that fall on the State of California in a given year. And there’s a stubbornly finite number of ways they can be carved up, no matter how many Ginsu knives we’re packing. This reality, however obvious, always dawns as violent as a revelation. In recent weeks, drought has become the new dread D word. Governor Jerry Brown declared one statewide two weeks ago; the Santa Barbara City Council did the same Tuesday, calling on residents to cut back by 20 percent below normal. Montecito, ever ostentatious about overdoing everything, has taken matters even further.

This Tuesday, the Montecito Water Board warned residents that without rain or unexpected infusions of state water, their spigots could go dry after July if they immediately didn’t cut back by a full 30 percent. “Dry in July” might make for a catchy slogan, but the water board also enacted a moratorium ​— ​that’s the dread M word ​— ​on issuing new water meters. In recent years, the water district has been issuing about one to two new water meters a year, but as word of the moratorium leaked out, the district offices have been flooded with 40 last-minute requests for new water meters. They, for the record, will not be processed. And on Wednesday, the Montecito district broached the dread R word ​— ​as in “rationing” ​— ​which had allegedly been forever banned from polite discourse 23 years ago when voters opted to import H₂O from the State Water Project. The precise details of what that means have yet to be worked out, but it sounds like Montecito households will be put on a health-and-safety diet of about 260 gallons a day. Those descendants of Moses now dwelling in Israel, by contrast, manage to get by on a mere 84. But then, they don’t have the vast oceans of landscaping to sustain that the guzzling gazillionaires of Montecito do. Rather than adopt a policy of genocide against all the innocent shrubs and bushes residing in the 93108, the district is working out a per-acre formula for allotting reduced quantities of irrigation water. F. Scott Fitzgerald may famously have never written, “Montecitans are different from you and me,” but he may as well have. People with enough money to commute by helicopter or private jet can ​— ​and many do ​— ​spend $8,000 a month to water their lawns. They will not feel any pinch from the prohibitively higher water rates now lurking on the district’s drawing boards. For those who insist on keeping their lawns as green as their bank accounts, the water board will soon empanel a citizens’ posse comitatus armed with flow restrictors to shut them down. Things could get seriously testy.

South Coast residents can be excused for thinking the last great drought was the drought to end all droughts. After all, that’s when we opted to shell out $50 million a year to buy the pumps and pipes needed to import state water. But for the first time ever, the state water system will not deliver a single drop this year. That’s not just staggering; it’s downright biblical. It’s worth noting that when the state water system was first unveiled, California had a population of 16 million. By the time we hooked up, the state population was nearly 30 million. Today, it’s hovering at 38 million. Critics of the state water system insist that its supplies are oversubscribed by a factor of 5-to-1. Maybe that’s extreme. But system administrators acknowledge that even in a good year, it can only deliver 58 percent of what it’s contractually obligated to. That may be the best we can reasonably hope to expect. But from my short-sighted perspective, that seems like a really expensive game of craps.

Little wonder then that Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider was out there boogying down for rain last Sunday along with Father Larry from the Santa Barbara Mission and about 300 others and a few drum-thumping elders affiliated with the Salinan tribe. Event organizers insist they didn’t really believe they could make it rain. But the last two times they’d come together, they pointed out, precipitation followed soon thereafter. Sometimes, miracles are necessary. Moses knew this. And so, too, does every manager of every water district on the South Coast. That’s why they were all out there Sunday, shaking their asses for rain. What Moses didn’t know is that people with automatic irrigation timers can cut water consumption by 30 percent simply by turning their timers off. Some things, it turns out, the Burning Bush never got around to revealing.

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