Leak in the System

LOCAL NEWS — In the pay-no-mind tradition of flipping a light switch, cranking the air conditioning or chucking our messy fast-food remains in the magically self-emptying trash bin five times a day, the American consumption of water is awarded about as much calculation as breathing in and out. Gallons are leaking all around us, in our every moment of privilege and neglect — in elaborate lawns and non-native gardens, in over-efficient washing machines and dishwashers, in that awful three minutes of tooth brushing between wetting and spitting all too often scored by the waterfall of a forgotten high-pressure faucet.

But unlike good ol’ oxygen, which will likely stick around a while longer, water (on a whim, wherever we want it) is all but drying up in front of unseeing eyes. So long overshadowed by the dwindling-oil-reserves crisis — more immediately frightening in its projection onto looming gas-price marquees and the hurting Power Points of enviro-celebrity Al Gore — an impending drought of necessary-to-life freshwater in so many American regions is finally surfacing in the headlines and news reels. Not to mention holding its own on the utility bill.

Now, more than ever, it is truly upon us. The parched San Diego region in which UCSD is nestled, particularly North County above us, has recently seen somewhat routine drought warnings reach pitches of notable concern: Over the last eight years, the banks of key water source the Colorado River have narrowed to a devastating ribbon, and remaining supplies in Northern California were tightened last year for the sake of environmental preservation.

So here we are, stranded on a desert island, watching (or, more accurately, completely oblivious) as the spring slows to a trickle. When a water-shortage warning in July by Mayor Jerry Sanders calling for voluntary conservation failed to yield the kind of change we needed to survive such a drought, the San Diego City Council was forced to call for Level 1 emergency regulations — which, though not yet implementing any outside control, strictly advised more conservative water usage and preluded the almost inevitable Level 2 and possible Level 3 regulations expected to be declared next year, constricting water consumption mainly in the case of landscape management.

Of course, strict mayorial advice concerning something we’ve so long taken for granted is just as easy to ignore as the next Channel-10-News scare tactic, and administratively labeled “Levels” can only pretend to be getting us somewhere until the well really dries up for good. And if the government went so far as to limit water use per household, we’d be screaming hammer-and-sickle before they could take a single step toward the faucet, which finds us at the same predicament we reach when any mindless natural-resource indulgence is threatened (or, come to think of it, when Election Day rolls around): we must somehow convince each other that every little bit helps, that we can each make a difference, that an extra 10 minutes of shower for deep conditioning could affect something besides our own guilty conscience. If we know anything about our own developed American nature, we should know that even the most earnest call for awareness will not be enough to budge us from our easy chairs.

The solitary last hope: a swift kick to our proud capitalist asses. The only time anyone cared to purchase a hybrid vehicle was once oil demand had gone so desperate as to open up a business opportunity for automobile manufacturers; if all goes as planned, we should be able to count on greedy, monopolistic utility providers to lay down the law we need.

“If the call for conservation continues being unsuccessful and mandatory restrictions are put in place, agencies’ strategies for enforcing those measures will vary. Many will turn to financial penalties for excessive use. Homeowners … will see a bigger increase in their bills,” reported the Voice of San Diego news team in November.

But within this workday world existing on rise-and-fall supply and demand, there floats a ridiculously wasteful, post-high-school bubble the size of a small city: Approximately 10,000 utility bill-free students currently reside at UCSD, with double that amount roaming the campus all day, never forgetting — well trained as good college students to overutilize anything and everything FREE and convenient — to set off a few oversensitive automatic toilets and frequent one or two wasteful eateries before heading home to carefully avoid upping the water bill any more than they have to.

Freshmen and sophomores enter their SoCal dormitories accustomed to the plentiful homes of their parents, who more often than not continue to pick up the housing-and-dining tab while their poor babies settle in to big, scary college life. And even if we’re paying the fat quarterly bills ourselves or through financial aid, water usage is never separated out, visually or physically, as anything within our control. Federal regulations mandate only that showerheads flow about 2.5 gallons per minute, meaning we’ll suck up around 40 gallons with one shower alone — easy to dismiss on some far-off, unseeable meter. Then just try to imagine all university costs beyond the constant trickle of the dorms — like running beautiful, scholarly fountains or keeping RIMAC Field jungle green.

Even further beyond our immediate sphere of understanding are the blows such a devastating shortage is dealing to an already struggling economy.

“Businesses will not move to a city with a water crisis and new businesses will look to other cities where growth is more feasible. The loss of local business will quickly impact the city of San Diego, lower revenues from sales taxes, business license fees and lower tax increments from redevelopment zones,” said California Water Quality Control Board member David King. Which eventually means fewer job opportunities for we the graduating class — but it’s all far too removed to provide any illusion of correlation. So we spend those extra five minutes singing Akon in the shower, because it makes this morning that much better.

Unfortunately, small efforts to raise awareness — like dorm contests to see which suite can use the least amount of water and the installation of low-flow showerheads (which generally lead to longer showers anyway) in a couple colleges — hardly amount to preserving a single drop from the epic thunderstorm of UCSD’s daily water consumption. A few unremarkable water-conservation fliers in a whole wall of calls for our attention have nowhere near the impact they would need to make a difference. It’s a shame, too, seeing as the youthful student population could potentially be one of the most receptive in sympathizing both scientifically and socially with the crisis; it would seem, in fact, that the university holds more tools than anybody to excel in the education of conservation.

Whittling down our habits will never be enough; in the not-so-distant future, saltwater filtering and other advancements will be the only remaining options for a growing, demanding American population thirsty for their 100 gallons a day. But until then, and surely even then, as worn-thin as the concept seems, we must keep constant tabs on our intake of Earth’s liquid silver — where at all possible, with force and monetary threat where needed, because that’s what it’s going to take.
Additional reporting by Fran Nanadiego.