Water rationing isn't in Bakersfield's (immediate) future

Editorial:

Water rationing isn't in Bakersfield's (immediate) future

The Bakersfield Californian - 5/4/08

By Robert Price

Rationing is an unpleasant word. It conjures up images of angry mobs pillaging relief trucks and humanitarian workers abandoning their distribution stations and running for their lives.

The word sounds considerably more palatable through the prism of the American experience. In fact, it has patriotic overtones.

No sugar, no coffee, no tires, no fuel oil? That'll be pretty tough, but our boys in uniform need those things. We can manage.

California is not facing anything quite as dire as those two extreme rationing scenarios suggest. Not yet, anyway. But wait.

Water rationing could be in California's immediate future -- if not this summer, quite possibly in summers not far distant. The Sierra snowpack is significantly down this year -- again. It's so far down that state and regional water officials have broached the subject of enforced consumption limits.

But not in Bakersfield. We've got more water than the typical California city. Surprised? Me too. We're used to getting the short end of things here. The worst air, high rates of asthma, diabetes, infant mortality, you name it. I look at the dry riverbed we call the Kern River and assume we're one harsh summer away from an outright ban on swimming pools.

But it turns out we're water-wealthy -- at least as water-wealthy as a desert city can be in the chronically parched American West.

"We have built systems that prepare for droughts," says Florn Core, the city of Bakersfield's water resources director. "We store so much of our water underground, we are pretty safe. It's your coastal cities and metropolitan areas that might have problems. They rely on surface water. We're able to store water underground here, thanks to our geography and geology." And our foresight.

But the dry conditions are already forcing water officials to pump water from those underground aquifers. Allow those water levels to continue to dwindle each year and, if conditions persist, restrictions become inevitable. The water we've been saving for the proverbial rainy day -- or, in this case, a devastating succession of non-rainy days -- becomes an even more valuable commodity.

Water rationing is not pretty. I know, because I saw its effects years ago when I lived through a Bay Area drought.

People reported their neighbors for watering their lawns on odd days instead of the prescribed even days. Hosing down one's driveway became a no-no. Car washes shut down. Golf courses withered.

Then there were those toilet guidelines, widely (and probably erroneously) attributed to then-Gov. Jerry Brown: "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down." The idea might seem distasteful now, but 30 years ago, when TV announcers were regularly reminding you to keep your daily shower under two minutes, it made perfect sense.

Still does, actually. The average person could save about 10 gallons of water per day by flushing only under the recommended circumstances. Multiply that by the 36 million or so people in California, and over a year's time that's more than 130 billion gallons of water saved. Just by putting up with that yellow tint in the toilet bowl.

That kind of water savings sounds even more appealing to me today than it did 30 years ago because I'm paying the monthly water bills these days.

It can't hurt to start considering a residential water-savings program right now, before we absolutely have to. Start getting in the habit. We're a city of water wasters. Our lawns are lush, green and large. Faced with swimming-pool problems, we tend to empty and refill as a first resort.

What can we do about that mind-set? A hundred little things, rolled out gradually.

I'd rather go back to two-minute showers than install shower-head flow restrictors. (And please, no low-flow legislation. That would only create a black market for illicit, full-flow shower heads.)

But I could see tax breaks for builders or homebuyers who replace lawns with drought-resistant plants, especially in parts of California that lack our natural water percolation. What else? Drip systems for gardens, gray-water set-ups that reuse (non-toilet) sink, shower and laundry water for landscape irrigation.

Some of this stuff might seem unnecessary now, but check back in a few years.

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Reach Robert Price at (661) 395-7399 or rprice@bakersfield.com.

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