Our once verdant lawns crisp under the sun. Brown is the new green, we say bravely, and we comply with the latest regulations. On our block we can water twice a day, twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays, before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m. We’re all in this together, I think, as I dig a little dam around my poor, thirsty blue hydrangea which sits on a slope, and like a certain unfortunate relative, never gets enough to drink. Some suggest I replace the hydrangea with a drought-tolerant plant. But I know drought-tolerant is a euphemism for cactus, and a cactus is a dry, spikey, over-cooked thing that puts you in mind of scorpions and desiccated cow skulls.
No, the hydrangea must live. So must the small green wall of shaded plants under the eaves. I aim the water accordingly. The new rules say there must be no runoff onto the sidewalks, even if the runoff seeps into the parched roots of the berm trees. Also, no “ponding,” in case you think those little puddles that bubble up in dips are ok. The paper says city enforcers may begin night patrols. This is crazy, I think; responsible citizens don’t need to be policed for water hoarding. We’re not living in a dusty, 1956 MGM western where the townsfolk turn on one another for sneaking extra buckets from the well.
Then I take an evening walk and note that one lawn on a rather grand house is still a deep, rich green. What gives? This is a big lawn too, not a pocket-handkerchief like mine. Now I become one of the townsfolk, squinting suspiciously up and down the streets. The lawn is real grass, not synthetic turf. How can it remain green? I want answers, but am not about to call the water cops because 1) squealers are lowlife sidewinders, and 2) squealing might to stir up a mob of brown-lawn vigilantes to come with pitchforks and fright the children of the miscreants who live in the green-lawn mini-mansion.
My sister, Eileen, who lives on my block, gets a warning ticket from the water patrol. Some of her sprinkling spilled onto the sidewalk. She can pay a fine or take a Water Conservation Workshop class. We’re shocked that Eileen got busted. She was May Queen. She’s a good citizen: she keeps her property up, pays her taxes, picks up after her dog (even in the alleys), and her lawn is an appropriately withering splotch of misery. Nonetheless—busted. She opts to go to the class so she can learn something and have the fine waived. She attends an hour long Power Point and the City rep says the fines are not intended to generate revenue but rather to inspire cooperation with the new usage rules. Here are the fines: First notice-no fine; Second notice-$50.00 fine (waived if you attend workshop); Third notice-$200.00 fine; Fourth notice-$1,000 fine.
She learns, and educates us. We’re in a Stage 11 Water Contingency Plan and have to reduce use by 20% at the very least. If you request it, the city will make a “water-wise house call” on you. A city rep will walk through your house, help set your sprinklers, give you free water-saving equipment like low-flow showerheads, and will let you know if you qualify for rebates. All you have to do is go to www.SpareSacWater.org or call 311 (also the snitch line) and request a visit. During the class Eileen received a bucket to catch faucet water wasted while waiting for it to heat up, a shower timer, and a hose sprayer attachment. This is a pretty good deal and the City site is filled with useful suggestions like retrofitting toilets and washing machines. I had no idea how urgent and multi-faceted smart drought management could be, and how vital that we get on board.
Time for another evening stroll. Now I head straight for the expansive lawn. It remains illicit green. I grouse with some confederates. “It’s really a kind of outrage,” says one. “Get a rope,” I add, to fan the furor. “Get a hose,” says Eileen, and we appreciate the irony of stringing up the offenders by their own tool of wrong-doing. But we don’t call 311 and rat them out.
Late Wednesday night I go out to water. The street is dark and cooling. The next-door neighbor’s sprinklers go on. I water carefully, giving the crusty earth a light first dose it can absorb without runoff, then return to replenish it. Someone darts through the dark down the street. I call Eileen to alert her. She says maybe it’s a Ninja Waterer. This is a dramatic notion, a Ninja Waterer dressed in burglar black, leaping from plant to plant, squirting them from a portable tank carried on the Ninja’s back. Maybe soon there’ll be hundreds of Ninja Waterers in East Sac, stealthy, limber, outlaw plant heroes, rescuing the frail and the wilted. Urban Greenpeace. The nutty romance of this appeals, but the reality of our predicament is sobering. This drought is bad. The Governor says we have to conserve in every way, and even “may not stay in the shower as long as we like.”
If you trim your daily shower to five minutes you’ll save 12.5 gallons. If you turn off the faucet while brushing teeth and washing hands—ten gallons saved per day. And if you do laundry once a week in one full load you’ll save ten to fifteen gallons. It’s a drag, but it’s doable. A cousin in Missouri says people there think it’s remarkable that Californians voted to tax themselves out of their economic travails, so I guess we’re also remarkable enough shorten our long, delicious, inefficient showers.
Another evening walk. This time the rich green lawn has beginning patches of pale yellow. Aha. I hope nobody finked on them. I hope they got the message on their own.
The City calls our baked, browning, yellowing lawns gold. “Gold is the new green,” the City proclaims.
City, listen. Thank you for the many good services you render, but our lawns are not gold. Please don’t prettify reality. Our lawns are faded yellow, brown, scraggly and bleached of beauty. You know this is true, City, so say so. I’ll tell you what’s gold. Water. Liquid Gold. Some are praying for it, some hoarding it, some trying to steal it, some in court over it, and before long some will be doing rain dances for it. Most of us will hang on, scale back our use, share the burden and yearn for El Nino. It sprinkled one humid afternoon and I put a pot in the back yard to catch a few drops. All I got was mist. It’s hard to pour mist on hydrangeas. It’s going to be a long, wicked summer.