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Lest we forget last drought





July 28, 2007 - Steve Scauzillo reminds everyone of the consequences of a real drought, such as the one Southern California is now experiencing.


Steve Scauzillo


Pasadena Star News


STILL brushing your teeth with the faucet running? You wouldn't be such a water hog if you could recall the pain of the five-year drought that ended in 1991.

Most remember the "March Miracle" when rains came down in buckets and eased water restrictions. It's human nature to forget the bad times that came before: the lawn-watering police in Azusa; the "top 500" water gluttons in La Verne whose names were released to the public like some cities do johns at a busted brothel; the drought patrol in Pasadena; the brown lawns.

Ah, let's not forget those double and triple water surcharges for families that did not meet conservation mandates of

10 percent to 20 percent. Some paid through the nose.

Guess what? Like a bad nostalgia craze, those crazy drought days of the late '80s and early '90s may be back real soon. Coming to a water bill near you.

The "two-tiered system," the euphemism water folks used to describe double and triple charges for those not severely cutting back; the odd/even day lawn watering restrictions; water-wasting fines. Water administrators are at work bringing these back even while you read this column.

Over at Three Valleys Municipal Water District in the east San Gabriel Valley, Rick Hansen is working on his "drought allocation plan." Here's how it works: Metropolitan Water District in L.A. which supplies "imported" water from Northern California (Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta) and the Colorado River to SoCal cities is most likely going to cut back allocations. Three Valleys and other MWD member agencies will in turn cut back supplies delivered to retail water agencies, like those in Rowland Heights, Walnut and La Verne. Rowland Heights and Walnut residents rely 100 percent on imported water because they are not blessed with underground well water. Most other San Gabriel Valley/Whittier area cities are and that makes them a bit more drought resistant.

So, how deep of a world of hurt you find yourself will depend on where you live. Those whose water comes from underground wells will feel it less. Yet, the San Gabriel Basin aquifer - the largest in the area - is dropping at a rate of six inches per week. "That is significant," explained Brian Bowcock, a Three Valleys board member and the former director of public works in La Verne for 27 years. All together, he's got 46 years in water.

Bowcock and Hansen both say the region is better off now than in 1990-91. Since that drought, we've invested in more technology to clean up polluted wells and built more water reclamation systems. Also, Metropolitan built the Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir in Perris, which holds 260 billion gallons - enough to supply Southern California with water for six months.

But all the technology, well-head cleanup, and new reservoirs are still not enough to fend off water penalties and water rationing by early 2008 unless we see another March Miracle.

July and August thunderstorms sprinkling the desert sand don't add much.

No one I spoke to wanted to raise alarms. Yet, they all predicted water restrictions if there's no significant amount of rain soon.

"People are starting to talk about it ... it is getting people prepared that this (water restrictions) could happen. In six months, we could be having our drought allocation plan in place," said Hansen.

Already, Glendora residents are getting mailers from the city's water department to decrease water use by at least

10 percent by taking shorter showers and watering the lawn less. Steve Patton, Glendora's water division manager, warned that if goals are not reached through voluntary conservation, "things would be mandated, such as, if you get caught watering your lawn during the day, you could face fines."

Last month, Azusa declared a drought and said residents caught wasting water could be fined. Covina raised its rates based on the drought. Imported water from MWD is getting more dear and more expensive.

Bowcock often tours facilities in his district. At a senior citizen/retirement home, he said many residents were extremely concerned about getting adequate supplies.

"When all else fails, the lawns will die but there will be drinking water," he assured. Yet, he also predicted water penalties and water surcharges will be as real as summer electric bills if the sky doesn't produce. "If you were going to go over (your allotment), you would pay for it," he explained.

In May 1990, Three Valleys hired Antonio Romero Jr. of the Chumash Indians to perform a rain dance. A week later, a Memorial Day storm dumped 1.2 inches of wet stuff on picnickers. Off-guard meteorologists said the storm came from out of nowhere. That storm broke precipitation records. Then, in March 1991, several significant storms hit the state, increasing rain totals and easing the five-year drought.

"I'm a big believer there will be water coming. It will be a Christmas present," Bowcock predicted. Perhaps the state Department of Water Resources can invite the Chumash to dance.

Either way, if significant amounts of rain don't fall here and as snow up North and soon, we could be paying for this drought with higher water bills. Or you could be labeled a water glutton.

Steve Scauzillo is the opinion pages editor for the San Gabriel Valley Newspapers.



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