Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Get creative to save every drop of water

sprovost@thetribunenews.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Steve Provost

One barrier to effective communication is assumption. As one of my professors once said, it makes an (Equus africanus asinus, donkey) out of u and me.

We’re in a drought, and we’ve got to save water, so everyone from Gov. Jerry Brown to local water districts are issuing a call to conserve.

How? Take shorter showers, they say. Don’t run the water when you’re brushing your teeth. Use a spray nozzle when hand watering. Don’t flush as often. Wash only full loads of laundry. This way, they say, we can save 20 percent of our water.

It’s easy, they say.

Well, it may not be quite as easy as that for some folks.

Don’t get me wrong: Calls to conserve water are well intentioned and necessary in the current dry-as-a-dust-bowl conditions. But many such calls are predicated on a faulty assumption: that water users aren’t already conserving.

In case you haven’t noticed, water isn’t cheap — and I’m not just talking about the “gourmet” mountain spring water found in bottles at your neighborhood grocery store. So it’s a good bet that a lot of people have been following the tips above and many others for some time now. Some people are already doing such a good job of conserving that they’d be hard-pressed to reduce their water use further unless they want to start adding paper plates to landfills or coming to work smelling like Porky Pig.

The tips are great, and they should be disseminated as widely as possible. It’s the 20 percent figure that bothers me. If cities and water districts start mandating that 20 percent across the board, it will unfairly affect those people who have been conserving already.

The Templeton Community Services District recently issued “mandatory restrictions” that prohibit various activities, such as watering shrubs and lawns between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., washing sidewalks and so forth. Violators will be warned and water restrictions imposed on those who fail to comply (flow-restriction devices will be installed at the user’s expense). This makes sense.

What can be confusing is that these mandatory restrictions, contained in a notice to property owners dated January 2014, are mentioned right below a paragraph that states, “Customers are asked to reduce their water usage by 20 percent.”

The notice does not state that failure to meet the 20 percent goal amounts to a violation under the mandatory restrictions, but it wouldn’t be hard for a customer to get that impression.

My point is simply this: The 20 percent figure muddies the water (pun intended).

According to a tip sheet produced by http://gswater.com , a 20 percent reduction in water use amounts to about 38 gallons a day. This has to be an approximation, as the figure would change based on the amount of initial water use. But more to the point, who’s going to sit there and measure 38 gallons of water that’s not being used? How does one even do that?

My advice is to stop talking about the 20 percent. It’s meaningless to the average water user, who can’t measure it anyway. Focus instead on the tips, then get creative and find still more ways to save water.

Hearst Castle is emptying its historic Neptune Pool. So, why not place restrictions on watering golf courses and other recreational areas, as well? Car owners are, appropriately, being asked to use buckets instead of hoses to wash their vehicles.

If we focus on solutions instead of numbers, who knows? We might end up saving even more than that 20 percent.

The more, the better.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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