When Goleta launched its model mandatory water rationing program in 1989, the experts were skeptical. The drought, while serious, was not mainstream dinner table conversation, and many officials figured that consumers--including thousands of students packed into apartments near UC Santa Barbara--would rebel and refuse to conserve.
Nonetheless, Goleta proceeded gamely, directing its 74,000 customers to cut water use and giving them the low-flow shower heads and other nifty devices to do it. The reaction was nothing short of astounding. Asked to reduce usage by 15%, the Central Coast community delivered twice that.
"The key here was that rather than telling people, 'Reduce water or we're going to punish you,' we said, 'Reduce water and here's how we're going to help you,' " said Larry Farwell, conservation coordinator for the Goleta Water District. "They believed the need to save was real, and just like people waving their little yellow ribbons in support of the war, everybody got on board."
With cloudless skies warning ominously that California can expect no reprieve from bone-dry conditions this year, communities across the state are gradually following Goleta's lead and adopting mandatory conservation programs not widely seen since the last great drought 14 years ago. The Los Angeles City Council votes on its water rationing plan today.
Unlike the last dry spell, when cities and water agencies relied mostly on instincts to devise ways to get consumers to live with less, architects of today's rationing schemes have help--ample historical evidence of what works and what does not.
As they sift through the lessons learned in Goleta and other communities that weathered the 1976-77 drought, experts agree that one guiding principle stands out: Consumers will respond to pleas for help, but they must be convinced that a water emergency exists and they must believe that the pain of conserving is borne equally by all.
Once they embrace rationing, many water users become downright passionate about it--often saving far more than what is asked of them.
"You can get people to conserve by appealing to their sense of civic duty, but the problem is . . . they will only do it if they believe others are conserving and being inconvenienced as well," said Richard Berk, a UCLA sociologist who co-authored a book about conservation patterns during the last drought. "You have to make sure people feel they aren't being taken for a sucker. Otherwise, they'll fall off the wagon."
As they did during the water crisis of the 1970s, conservation programs will vary dramatically in California, a consequence of available supplies, geography, political courage and other factors. For consumers in a water district blessed with backup ground water supplies, the drought might mean nothing more than sprinkling the pansies only during prescribed hours. Residents of a water-strapped district might be forced to sacrifice the dichondra and wait longer between showers.
Stark differences could develop between Northern and Southern California--a contrast that would mirror the last drought, when the Southland got relief from the Colorado River while resentful northerners had to scrape by.
In Los Angeles, the plan expected to be approved by the council today requires residents to cut usage by 10% from 1986 levels beginning March 1 and by 15% on May 1. Installing low-flow shower heads and making other plumbing adjustments--combined with more careful attention to water habits--should enable Angelenos to reach that goal without major discomfort, Department of Water and Power officials said.
Indeed, rationing L.A.-style sounds almost luxurious compared with the rules in Marin County, home of the most severe limits approved in the state so far. Beginning next month, Marin residents will be limited to 50 gallons apiece per day--barely enough, one grumpy bartender in Tiburon lamented, "for a decent shower and a shave." Flagrant scofflaws could face a fine of $1,000 and a month in the slammer, and even those who obey the law will pay--through a 30% increase in their basic water rate.
"It's brutal," groaned Richard Mayfield, 34, manager of the Cantina Mexican restaurant in Mill Valley. "We've already started using biodegradable laundry soap so we can use the wash water to flush the toilet and keep our garden alive. You've got to do what you've got to do."
A survey by the Assn. of California Water Agencies shows that most cities and water districts have steered clear of so-called mandatory rationing--the practice of assigning customers an allotment of water and threatening them with fines, interruption of service or other punishment if they use more.