Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sing Shorter Songs

Having grown up in Southern California during the 1970s and 80s, I’ve learned a lot about water conservation: Mostly because I grew up during a ten-year drought, from around 1974 to 1984. But, also my mother chose to make her career in the water business. She started out as a schoolteacher, but she quit her teaching career so that she could raise her children. About halfway through that project, she went to work for the water district up the street from our house. A man named Bill Meadows ran it. He was our friend. He hired my mom to teach a water conservation program called "Ricky the Raindrop" to schoolchildren. She would visit all the schools in OC and educate children about the importance of conserving water, about how water was our most precious resource. She passed out Ricky the Raindrop coloring books that explained the course of the water cycle, through evaporation to condensation and back again. Sometimes, we got to help her, like when the newspaper wanted to do a story on her, and she let my brothers and me pretend to be her students. The backs of our heads, and our mom standing in front of a Ricky the Raindrop poster, were featured on the front page of the Orange County Register's Local section.

Soon she started working as a Special Projects manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County (MWDOC -- we called it Mowdock). There, she developed programs like "Captain Hydro!" for high school students. Her programming was so successful, she found herself moving into the political side of water conservation, helping to regulate the way water and wastewater are dealt with in California. For over 21 years, she was a gubernatorial appointee on the California State Water Board. Because of her I could not help but be hyper-aware of how precious is water, and she schooled us daily on how not to waste it.

One of the strongest conservation advertisements ("Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute," being of them) is one I remember from that period: "Sing Shorter Songs in the Shower." The slogan was all over the place, at least from my view, the one with my water-conservation-obsessed mother constantly reminding us to turn off the water while we were brushing our teeth, or while we were sudsing our hands. I remember seeing a huge billboard on the 5 freeway with the slogan in a word bubble above a guy poking his head out of the shower.

I remember how the first summer storm I encountered in Houston stunned me. I heard this clap of thunder, and then it was as if helicopters were pouring lakes down upon my house. I did not understand for a few seconds what exactly was happening. It took me a minute to recognize rain. I laid down on my bed and stared out the window at the August evening down pour. I called my mom immediately.

"Mom, you won't believe the size of the raindrops falling in Houston right now. I swear they're the size of lemons."

"Don't let it fool you," she said. "You still need to conserve water."

I admit that living in Houston, where it rains a lot more than it does in Southern California, has helped me learn to relax a little, in many ways, but specifically around my water use. I can now take a 10-minute shower once in a blue moon, and I don't feel guilty. I can let the water run while I'm brushing my teeth. I even allow Clara to play in the water, letting a thin stream run from the faucet for over 5 minutes, so that she can fill up cups with water and set them around the sink, over and over and over and over. It keeps her occupied while I make dinner or lunch or try to sweep the floor. I don't even fell guilty for doing it, although I worry that I'm sending her the wrong message by letting the water run for so long without turning it off.

More than ever, though, I think about water conservation. My mom is now working on desalination in California. It's a controversial issue, and it sounds crazy. The last time she visited us, we were eating dinner and I asked her laughingly if she thought desal, as the water politicos call it, would ever get off the ground, if there was any way it was going to happen. She got really quiet. She looked at me, her eyes serious as stone, and said, "It has to work. We're running out of water."

FYI: We're running out of water. I have it on pretty good authority, and, also, maybe you've heard the saying, "As goes California, so goes the nation." If California is running out of water, according to my mom, then the whole country is running out of water.

Therefore: This year? become a patriot -- save your country by singing shorter songs in the shower. Our future depends on it.

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