Drought, the sequel, is here

Patt Morrison
Contact Reporterpatt.morrison@latimes.com

HEY, ALL YOU sequel fans! Last week, it was "Spider-Man"; tomorrow "Shrek" and next week another "Pirates of the Caribbean." And I'm sure you'll be lining up for the most spectacular sequel of all, "Drought III: The Thirst."

Know what? It's already here. This is the driest year on record in Los Angeles. Ever. "On record" is 130 years of National Weather Service bookkeeping. We've had less than 2 1/2 inches of rain. That's way worse than any one year during the drought of the late 1970s or the one in the late '80s and early '90s.

The glass isn't even remotely half-full; if a waiter poured that diddly-squat portion of Pinot into your stemware, you'd be hollering bloody murder.

The good citizens of California stand ready — I think — to work shoulder to shoulder to meet earthquake and fire. But what about drought's danger? Where do governors and council members pose, in those crisis windbreakers, to illustrate the gravity of dry? Seeing Griffith Park scorched like a campfire marshmallow doesn't scream "drought" as much as "smoker error." Besides, the swimming pools are still full, water still comes out of showers, golf courses are as green as the capital of Oz.

In March, after Orange Countians were politely asked to cut down on the H20 while a treatment plant was shut for repairs, they actually used more water — a big middle finger to a mealy-mouthed message. Not until Amber Alert freeway signs blazed "Orange County Water Emergency" did Orange County take it seriously.

Drought III is on track to be the worst water crisis in 30 years, and what are we being asked to do to pitch in? Eh … not much.

In Drought I, in 1977, an emergency city water panel concluded, "This really is war." The Department of Water and Power banned watering lawns in the heat of the day, hosing down sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, and serving water to restaurant customers unless they asked for it — it took almost half a gallon of water to wash a water glass.

Leaders took Drought I very seriously, so we did too. The city wanted a 10% water cut. We gave 20%.

As for Drought II in the late '80s and early '90s, the bans of the 1970s were still on the books, and L.A. started sticking the violators with fines. Santa Monica went so far as to ban new swimming pool permits. In Santa Barbara, a brown lawn was a sign of patriotic sacrifice — except to a Texas billionaire who paid $25,000 in fines to keep the grass green at a Montecito estate he rarely visited. But as soon as rainfall decently allowed, the politicians overruled the water experts and eagerly pronounced an end to the crisis: Go back to your old habits.

With Drought III upon us, I called the DWP. Those regulations are still in place, right? No hosing down, no free-running car-washing hoses? And you'll be enforcing them, right?

Yes, they are, but no, they won't. The DWP likes the carrot, not the stick. If anyone remembers the regulations well enough to call and report a violation, the violator gets a nice letter, like the one sent May 3 to a Sun Valley convent alerting the sisters that "it has been reported that excessive watering has resulted in significant runoff from your property," and reminding them that "water is a precious commodity in Los Angeles." Well, that should put the fear of God into them.

I can't help but be reminded of Vice President Dick Cheney's response to a nation's desire to sacrifice something, anything, after 9/11. He had already dissed energy conservation a few months earlier as a mere "personal virtue," not a national priority. Then he treated us like spoiled pea brains when he famously asked us to just "stick [our] thumbs" in the terrorists' eyes — by spending money.

The DWP is on record: We're "prepared;" we have reserves. And like a proud papa, the DWP brags about us. We use the same amount of water we did more than 20 years ago — and we have a million more people. Good on us. But a lot of that savings comes from passive code changes like low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads.

We don't even notice, which is swell, but that also gives us a notion of false plenty. At the same time, the DWP is forced to turn to the Metropolitan Water District for more than twice as much water than it needed from the agency last year. Which makes us more dependent than usual on other people's water, just as we are on other people's oil.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is set to launch a public-service water-saving campaign in the next week or so. He'll be talking up a smart-sprinkler system for city parks and eventually for our homes. Among other things, smart sprinklers don't water the lawn when it rains — if it ever rains again.

In the meantime, I'll buy a ticket for this drought sequel. But no, thanks, I won't have any popcorn — it makes me too thirsty.

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