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Gary Horton: Water rationing is old thinking

Posted: August 20, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 20, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Ah, the 1973–1974 oil crisis. I was 17, driving my blue 1968 VW Bug back and forth from high school and work.

The U.S. had backed Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and now the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries were going to make us pay with a harsh quadrupling of oil prices matched to equally harsh cutbacks in supply.

Driving around in my blue Bug, I was about to learn more about government than I ever learned in school.

Government policy allowing sleepy dependence on cheap Arab oil had left the U.S. vulnerable. As flat-footed as our energy policy had been, government response to the OAPEC embargo was fully clubfooted.

Soon, America was on 12-month Daylight Saving Time with kids heading trudging off to school in the dark.

Skyscrapers and buildings fully blackened after dark. No Christmas lights, as Christmas spirit was made illegal.

Above all, what got to us most was the implementation of dreaded gas rationing “even-odd” fill-up days.

While the genesis of the “oil crisis” was largely high-level government ineptitude and inaction, you and I were made to pay for it, and pay for it personally.

We were forced into an even-odd fueling scheme, decrying odd-numbered license plates could fill up on odd-numbered days while even-numbered plates would gas up on even days. And Sundays were no-fills.

We know what happened next: gas lines as long as freeways. Fights at gas stations. Otherwise honest folks took to switching license plates between cars.

Gas cap lock sales soared as drivers found their cars left outside had been siphoned dry while their owners were sleeping.

A simple-minded, one-size-fits-all approach to gas conservation turned America into a nation of pathetic fuel-beggars and gas swindlers, leaving us feeling helpless and defeated. And all for lack of long-range planning coupled with a simple-minded response.

So much of this sounds so familiar today, but with a watery twist.

The Signal recently reported:

“Between now and October, residents with odd-numbered addresses can water lawns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Residents with even-numbered addresses can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

“During the cooler-weather months — November through March — residents will be able to water their yards just two days a week. They will be Monday and Thursday for odd-numbered addresses and Tuesday and Friday for even-numbered addresses.”

Simpleminded. Knuckleheaded. Counterproductive. Divisive. Destructive. Unproductive.

Our local water agencies have just resorted to the same shortsighted, simple-minded response as the oil embargo days.

“Even-Odd” rationing. One-size-fits-all. No reasoning or thinking to allocation of consumption.

No consideration of need, past conservation efforts, or investment in new. Now, as in the ‘70s, you and I are again being made to pay in a deeply personal and destructive way for poor public policy.

What, did they get this idea from a newspaper clipping from the 1970s Herald Examiner? We’ve got nothing cleverer than a 40-year-old gas-rationing, even-odd scheme?

Just as gas rationing and even-odd ultimately damaged the national psyche and encouraged all manner of poor behaviors, this same even-odd response will damage us again.

Let’s be clear: No homeowner who has invested thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands in their home’s landscaping will allow puny-thinking agency mandates to damage and destroy their cherished gardens.

Even-odd watering rules are simply insufficiently flexible to meet the needs of varying households.

Why not more democratically phase in a 20 percent water-reduction requirement over a short period of time and allow individual homeowners their own, individual decisions on how their families will meet the objective? Let us use our own personal choices to achieve the desired response?

Yes, some may be able to cut water days. Some will reduce lawn and landscape area. Some will launder clothes less frequently. Some will learn to not run the shower incessantly.

Some will turn off the faucet while brushing teeth. Some will rebuild sprinkler systems. Each of us can choose our own effective responses to a 20 percent water-reduction goal.

Instead, this 1970s thinking will turn otherwise honest citizens into “water criminals.” Facing dying lawns, some will simply water longer on their designated days, actually increasing water waste and runoff.

Some may sneak a double watering, once early in the morning, and once hidden late at night.

Some will simply fail to comply, knowing that agencies don’t have sufficient enforcement resources.

And what happens for the new homeowner with the new landscape initially requiring water every day during establishment? Or what of Grandma, who’s otherwise got a very small yard but needs daily watering of her flower patch?

Unlike the situation with the gas crisis, this time we have water meters to measure our progress and flexibly allow us to individually demonstrate compliance with water-reduction goals.

Remember, water consumers, killing lawns isn’t the goal. Water reduction is the goal.

Agencies: Don’t tell us how to achieve, just tell us what to achieve. Give us the goal and leave our lawn, laundry, and showering decisions to ourselves.

We can be much smarter in this water crunch than the 1970s “punish the public” thinking.

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


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