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Lessons of the 1970s Shape Water Rationing Plans : Drought: Users will respond if they believe the emergency is real and the cutback applies to everyone.


As of Feb. 4, the informal survey--which polled 400 agencies that account for 90% of the water delivered in California--showed that 29% had resorted to rationing. Another 31% had launched mandatory conservation programs, which restrict lawn watering and other practices and essentially coax customers toward a stated water-savings goal.

Other districts, association spokeswoman Lisa Lien said, were doing little beyond "trying to establish a conservation ethic through things like sticking a flyer in the water bill."

Many of those agencies may soon put down the carrot and pick up the stick. In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District's recent 31% cut in water that it supplies to 27 member agencies will force most onto a strict water diet. In places such as San Diego, which imports 95% of its water, profligates will not be safe from the law much longer.

Gov. Pete Wilson, while stopping short of ordering communities to ration, warned Friday that he would invoke his emergency power to require rationing "if the local agencies are not capable of coping" through strict conservation measures. "This is the time for sacrifice," Wilson declared.

"Most of the areas of the state . . . will be on some form of rationing before long," predicted Jonas Minton, chief of conservation for the state Department of Water Resources. "By summer, I would not be surprised if most had launched mandatory programs."

As they scurry to develop strategies to husband dwindling supplies, many water agency managers are tapping the experiences of the 1976-77 drought. A look at that record, researchers say, should provide cause for hope.

"There is a very optimistic and simple policy conclusion here," said UCLA's Berk, whose book surveyed 50 water districts throughout the state. "The more effort you make to turn people around, the more they will conserve."

William Bruvold, chief of the behavioral sciences program at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, confirmed that assessment with his study of Bay Area water consumption between 1970 and 1982. Bruvold tracked nine water districts--three that employed rigorous conservation programs, three that had moderate programs and three that made little attempt to achieve water savings.

"We found the conservation effort was amazingly successful in the three districts that had rigorous programs--those that asked for dramatic reductions in use and threatened to sock you with heavy fines if you didn't comply," Bruvold said.

He added: "People conserved so much that it economically stressed the districts," some of which were already suffering because of increased costs related to advertising campaigns, loss of income from idled hydroelectric plants and the purchase of supplemental water.

Marin Municipal Water District, which serves 170,000 people, had one of the three strictest programs studied. Aiming for a 57% overall reduction in water consumption, the district got a 62% cut, a spokesman said. Each resident was allowed 47 gallons a day; instead, Marinites gulped an average of just 35 gallons apiece.

The situation was less grave in Los Angeles in 1977, but residents here showed some pluck and enthusiasm as well. The city asked for a 10% cut in water usage, and customers responded with a reduction almost double that figure.

The reasons behind the success stories are many, but basically, the experts say, everything boils down to honesty and fairness.

"Equity and credibility, those are the cornerstones," said Michael Ricker, water demand manager for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which has been rationing since 1989. "If people feel those in Brentwood are getting more because they have better lobbyists than the people in Pomona, then you're going to get resentment."

Persuading customers that they are not enduring more than their fair share of hardship is tricky, but many districts--Marin among them--believe that providing a specific allotment of water, rather than imposing a percentage reduction over an earlier year's use, is a good start.

"There are a jillion plans out there, but at least with a per-person allotment, a guy knows his neighbor isn't getting a break," said Jules Tham, spokesman for the Marin municipal district.

One vulnerability of Marin's 50-gallon-per-person system--and that of similar programs in Monterey, Mariposa and elsewhere--is its reliance on the honor system: To determine how many members are in each household, and how much water to assign, the district asked its customers, sending out a census card in January. The results were surprising.

"The tally from those little cards was within 3,000 of our population estimate for the district," Tham said. "You'd be surprised at the level of peer pressure that exists in a time like this. . . . If we need to, we can also do some spot auditing of households."

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