By JOHN T. BOAL


Johnny Carson told this joke 20 years ago:

"Out here in California, we're having a drought. We're starting to get through it though. In Beverly Hills, city officials are asking everybody to throw a brick in their swimming pool."

Johnny, where are you now when we need you more than ever?

The state officially declared a drought June 4. Water wonks are predicting a dangerously dry winter. Reservoirs up and down the state are at an average of 46 percent capacity, and there's a 30 percent reduction of water pumped out of the kingpin of California water the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the endangered delta smelt. Throw in a warming Mother Nature and man's innate nature to eschew conservation, and we have a perfect storm of water woes that could cripple our lifestyle, the agriculture industry and economic growth throughout the state.

Despite the seismic stresses on our strained water supply, a pragmatic MRI on this crisis as well as some basic facts show that hope has not been drained away. Consider:

- California agriculture uses four times more water than the public, and there may be a good way to encourage savings down on the farm.

Approximately 35.3 million acre-feet goes to California's farming industry annually, while 8.9 million acre-feet is used to lubricate households and industries throughout the state. (An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons or enough water to cover a football field one-foot deep.)

Peter Rogers, professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University, wrote in the August issue of Scientific American that "compared with any other single activity, conserving (agriculture) irrigation flows would conserve dramatically more freshwater. Even a modest 10 percent rise in irrigation efficiency would free up more water than is evaporated off by all other users."

Applying the professor's math to California, 10 percent conservation in agriculture would yield 3.5 million acre-feet of savings annually and a minimal 5 percent would yield 1.75 million acre-feet either one's a substantial amount.

Such savings may sound feasible from a theoretical point of view. However, the California agricultural industry is already being impacted as pumping restrictions are expected to reduce farm revenues by about 1 percent this year, according to the Agricultural Water Management Council. So just cutting more water to agriculture is not realistic.

There is a new generation of micro-irrigation equipment that saves water, but it can cost farmers from $800 to $1,300 per acre. However, tax credits could tamp down those expenses.

Originally, there were federal tax credits of $4,000 for people who bought hybrid vehicles like the Prius. Starting on Jan. 1, that tax credit rose to a maximum of $7,500 for plug-in hybrids. Similarly, the decision for installing many residential solar-energy systems was predicated on available tax credits and rebates for homeowners.

Would federal and state tax credits for expensive
micro-irrigation equipment for the agricultural industry be an incentive to get more farmers motivated to conserve? "Absolutely," said Mike Wade, executive director of the
California Farm Water Coalition. "It would be a very positive incentive."

- The GuLP Factor Gardens, Lawns, Pools.

Homes are water hogs. Thirsty gardens, lawns and pools consume 40 percent to 80 percent of a monthly water bill.

New Los Angeles ordinances can ding homeowners from $100 to $300 for watering landscaping between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., allowing runoff onto streets, and even for rogue sprinkler systems that water during a rain.

While California residents use nearly 40 percent less water than we did 30 years ago, maybe it's time to forget about throwing a brick into that backyard pool and just consider letting it sit empty in 2009.

- Roll out Ed Begley's barrels ... statewide.

Homeowners might also want to consider rolling out the rain barrel as Ed Begley Jr. did in his first season on "Living With Ed." While some people viewed this with bemusement, metaphorically, the state could use millions of Begley's barrels. In 2006, our last "wet" year, our network of reservoirs couldn't collect a lot of the rain runoff. More than 2 million acre-feet drained into the ocean. A good deal of that could be stored in homeowners' rain barrels.

Just as the Prius triggered a movement toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, similarly, Home Depot, Lowe's or Orchard Supply could create a movement toward a more water-efficient California homeowner by promoting rain barrels with all their other water-saving devices such as showerheads, faucets and front-loading washing
machines.

With all the wasted water flowing throughout the state, runoff not being captured and numerous ways we can all reduce our water footprint going untapped, now is the time to get creative and think out of the tank to generate a new culture of conservation that embraces water as the primary lifeblood to ensuring that California can continue to supply food on the table as well as clean water to sustain a growing population and economy.

John T. Boal is the western region managing director of a New York-based non-profit. He was a co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul" and, as a writer, he covers all aspects of the environment. He lives in Burbank.

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