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EARTHWATCH : Aquatic Boot : The City Council sincerely hopes certain water wasters will see the error of their ways. Flow restrictors may help them remember.


I may be preaching to the saved today, but because of several recent news stories, it's time to talk about water conservation.

It seems Ventura residents may be numbered among the conservation-converted because the city has announced in a news release that in the past year, 83% of water users "have demonstrated . . . responsible use of water."

What about the remaining 17%?

Just as I suspected, someone is about to get the boot--an aquatic version of the dreaded Denver Boot slapped on the cars of parking scofflaws. This time it will be a "flow restrictor" on your water meter if you are a habitual water waster.

Now, before the 450,000 water customers in the county besiege the water conservation hot lines (see the accompanying list), let me report this: "Only a very small number" of Ventura city residents have exceeded their water-use limit three times in a row and "we haven't determined yet who's going to get flow restrictors," said Lana Sherman of the city's Public Works Administration.

Sherman added that only 1,400 customers are subject to a tenfold rate penalty on the amount by which they exceed their quota. They are being sent a notice of the penalty accompanied by a letter expressing "the City Council's sincere hope that these individuals will work with the city to review their water use." (In other words, you have a chance to take the pledge again. And you better be better next time.)

Such demure but unequivocal official language reminds me of a sign I saw years ago in a London park: "It is an offence to be out and about when decent people are at home in bed."

But in the city of Ventura, we are very much out and about after hours--watering our yards. We have cut water usage citywide by 30% with tricks like that one, one of the best ways to cut evaporation and use less water.

Outside usage--such as lawn and garden watering--consumes half our residential water. Inside usage has been more difficult to control, but it's getting easier. Easier, that is, if you subscribe to another hard-nosed English rule, this one set forth by Samuel Johnson: "The threat of hanging tends to concentrate the mind."

The city is set this month to release its WIIDRIN Report (What If It Doesn't Rain In November). And it didn't, at least not much. That's why the city is on the verge of announcing rationing tougher than that imposed last spring.

"We have a variety of ways of informing the public," Sherman said. For instance, there is the Laws toilet with a one-and-one-sixth-gallon flush. It is now required equipment to get an occupancy permit for a new Ventura residence. Eleven months from now, it will be required by law statewide. The low-usage toilets will rack up a 25% water savings in your house or anyplace they're installed.

Low-flow shower heads (installed voluntarily, for the present) can cut an additional 15%, and you'll never notice the difference. As you can imagine, the bathroom's the biggie in calculating inside usage. The good news is that equipment--that is, buying something--can have a big effect, cutting almost half your home usage, and you don't have to think about it every time.

Back outside, it's more difficult because saving water involves our conduct and lifestyles--our gardening habits.

According to Frank Brommenschenkel, president of the Assn. of Water Agencies of Ventura County, "The freeze was like the finger of God pointing out which plants should not be replaced--the Florida plants. (We should) find more like the ones that survived. Call your local nursery about xeriscaping."

In a few weeks, the parts of the county south of the Ventura River will experience a cutback of 5% to 15% in supply because those areas are connected to the Metropolitan Water District. The northern and western sections, where the water utilities are autonomous, have already experienced rate increases (31% in Ojai since New Year's Day). In other words, a combination of increased charges and mandated usage limits is in the cards because "water is limited in nature at reasonable prices," to quote Brommenschenkel.

I asked the operators of area water hot lines what kind of questions they are getting these days. Ventura gets 2,000 calls a month, by the way. Given such numbers, I would have expected to encounter harassed civil servants who were suspicious of me and weary of you. But they were amazingly cheerful, and they reported that people have been very cooperative.

Occasionally there are complications, though, such as when a horse owner called to get some details on applicable quotas. He was told that horses fall into two categories when it comes to water rationing: workhorses and those used for recreational riding. The owner revealed that he kept his horse as a stud. The City Public Works Administration didn't have a ready answer.

While they are deciding which category applies, I guess the owner can lead his horse to water . . . but he can't let it drink.


* City of San Buenaventura Water Hotline: 652-4567

* Ventura County Water Conservation Hot Line: 654-2471, 2440 or 2466. (If they cannot handle your question, they will refer you to a specific office in your area.)

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