Jennifer O’Connell: In California, we pay more for water than for petrol

If we ever move back to Ireland, we will be able to run masterclasses in how to cut down on water bills

A worker in California installs a section of artificial lawn, a water-saving alternative to traditional lawns. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A worker in California installs a section of artificial lawn, a water-saving alternative to traditional lawns. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

There are some advantages to living in the midst of one of the most severe droughts in Californian history.

There’s the weather for a start; don’t believe anyone who claims that endless blue skies become monotonous after a while. There are the other perks too: you can declare that bathing your children nightly is no longer good hygiene but a reckless waste of precious resources. You can drive around with your car covered in a thick layer of dust and people will only smile at you approvingly.

On the downside, striking up conversations with strangers requires a little more ingenuity than at home; remarks about how “it’s a beautiful day” are inclined to get you baffled looks, the kind of look you might give an American who rocked up and announced in a surprised voice that “It’s pretty grey today, isn’t it?”

On the rare occasions when rain is forecast, sky watching becomes a form of free community entertainment. “There’s a storm coming,” people say, surveying the bright, cloudless horizon optimistically. These “storms” rarely materialise beyond what we might classify as a bit of drizzle, but, at the end of record warm winter in which it didn’t rain a single day for the whole month of January, it’s all relative.

The other advantage is the knowledge that if you ever move back to Ireland, you will be able to run masterclasses in how to cut down on your water bills.

In the area south of San Francisco Bay where we live, the average household already pays $70 (€64) a month for water. As that average includes a large number of apartment dwellers, the real figure for people like us, who live in typical 1970s ranch-style houses with expansive lawns and the obligatory one bathroom per bedroom, is twice that. Our household already pays more for water than we do for petrol, and it’s about to go up again: there’s a rate increase of 15 per cent due by the end of this year, and that’s before state governor Jerry Brown introduced a mandatory reduction in residential water use of a further 25 per cent over the next nine months.

There are two ironies in all this that haven’t gone unnoticed by Brown’s detractors. The first is that the latest hike in water charges has nothing to do with the drought or the rapidly diminishing snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascades: rather, householders in my area, Santa Clara County, have become so canny at saving water that the water provider decided it needed to raise rates to stay in business. The second is that, no matter what residential consumers do, it won’t make a substantial difference when 80 per cent of the state’s water is being used by the agriculture sector.

State-wide, technologies such as desalination – reclaiming saltwater from the sea – will be part of future conservation plans. But Brown’s new mandatory restrictions mean nobody can afford to wait for new technologies, and so innovative Californians have been coming up with ideas that could also prove useful to Irish consumers grappling with their first water bills.

Watering the lawn is only permitted every second day, so householders here are either learning to love the brown, patchy look, or are digging the grass up and starting again. In some districts, cash-for-grass grants are being offered to encourage people to replace their gardens with drought-resistant planting, such as cacti, olive trees and rocks. If that doesn’t appeal, a new company in Los Gatos has set up business offering to dye your lawn back to green.

In private homes, swimming pools are being dug out or filled in, and power showers are being replaced by low-flow showerheads that come with pause buttons you can hit while you soap up. We keep a baby bath in the shower and use the water that runs off while we’re waiting for it to heat up on the garden. Washing machines are typically much bigger than they are in Europe; ours can handle a full-to-overflowing laundry basket in a single load. And taps are never, ever left running (we wash our fruit and vegetables in a saucepan and then dump the water on to the potted plants). In restaurants, where once you might have been greeted with a glass of water and a basket of bread, now you’re just as likely to be met with a printed card politely explaining that water is available on request only.

But some measures may be a bit too extreme, even for those of us who baulk at spending more on water than we do on petrol. The mechanics of a hybrid sink-toilet are beyond me. And peeing in the garden may be an innovative way to cut down on water bills, but there are some lengths to which even the most ardent tree hugger won’t go.

 

Coachella bans selfie sticks: is this the end of duckface?

It wasn’t all bad news from California last week, as reports revealed the days of the duckface could be numbered.

Coachella, a music festival in the desert that runs over two weekends this month, has issued an edict banning selfie sticks (along with an eclectic collection of other forbidden objects, including drones, stuffed animals and hula hoops).

It’s about time. Selfies themselves are bad enough, the way they pout and pulse at you with that heavily filtered, lonely desperation. But their coy neediness is preferable to the preening, narcissistic holler for attention that is the selfie stick brandished in a public place. And let’s not even get into the legion health and safety hazards they present. Or, most importantly, the fact that people using them look very, very stupid indeed. Give up the duckface and hand your selfie stick over to the nearest under-10, who can use it as a light sabre. Your future self will thank me.

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