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Enduring the Water Wars
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Enduring the Water Wars

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I don’t tend to be an alarmist, but I have to say that the mood about the drought here in California is scarier than anything I’ve witnessed in a lifetime of water awareness.

We’ve been through these episodes before, of course. More times than I can count, the state has been rescued by late-season rains or heavier-than-estimated snowpacks. But this drought seems different, from one end of California to the other – more severe, more desperate, more polarizing and more caught up in quick reactions than in evaluation of long-term solutions.

As generally happens in these circumstances – and this applies just as sharply in Oklahoma, Texas and other drought-prone areas as it does in California – swimming pools slide instantly into the cross-hairs, with easy talk of water restrictions and filling bans cropping up as a first thought, always well before more important conversations begin about large-scale water use and allocation. For a time, in other words, a swimming pool is a convenient scapegoat deflecting attention away from far larger water users.

What usually happens next is that the pool industry hunkers down defensively while water’s main consumers – Big Industry and Even Bigger Agriculture – sort things out with the regulators and politicians. All of these forces are perfectly happy if people are distracted by the thought that pools are a major culprit in the shortages and that all will be well if they’re banned or unfillable. In this cynical environment, pools are straw men, primed for shredding.

It doesn’t help that the pool industry isn’t organized or funded the way its nominal adversaries in the Water Wars are; they, huge and constantly embattled, raise millions, we, tiny and only occasionally beset, raise thousands.

Back in the early 1990s, the drought situation looked similarly dire, meetings were held and, in that instance, Californians were rescued by major April rains that took the edge off the emergency. During those anxious meetings, however, a valuable document emerged: a study of water usage showing that swimming pools consume less water than equivalent expanses of lawn.

I don’t want to fuel additional controversy, but I must state the obvious, which is that lawns aren’t the most ecologically advisable of landscape solutions. But the upshot of this report is that, through association, the “restriction target” becomes utterly huge: With our products linked in early scapegoating to the the prized patches of grass that are part of almost every residential property in a good part of the state, swimming pools become a relatively minor issue.

In this interesting context, I was thrilled to see the Sacramento Bee’s February 10 “Water Question of the Day,” which asked, What about pools?

In response to a reader’s loaded question about the water-using wisdom of a friend who was building a pool despite the drought, reporter Debbie Arrington began her response as follows: “If properly maintained and covered, pools are not as big a drain as you may think. If the pool is replacing a lawn, it may actually save water use” (italics mine).

I didn’t even need to read on: I knew what she had in mind, and I was incredibly heartened to see that our capital city’s main newspaper had its facts lined up in such a clear-headed row. (Here’s hoping a bunch of legislators saw this item!)

The greater point is this: Drought is frequently a serious issue in what is one of the world’s strongest pool markets – really serious this time, if reports on the Sierra Nevada snowpack are anything close to accurate. But the truth is that swimming pools are a minuscule consumer of water compared to agricultural and industrial interests and even lawns, constituting only a tiny fraction of the 15 to 20 percent of the state’s water resources being used in residential settings.

I’m not suggesting we sit back and let The Bee or anyone else do our work for us, because drought is the kind of issue that keeps consumers from investigating the addition of aquatic features and it is hard work (but doable) to present swimming pools as responsible, sustainable choices (see Ms. Arrington’s mention of quality covers and rainwater collection, for example).

But in a situation in which things might become much worse and across-the-board restrictions might be applied, I believe we should start by praying for rain, but that we should also think back to Marketing 101 and get busy instead of panicking. Ms. Arrington has pointed the way, and we should get in step!

To see Debbie Arrington’s Water Question of the Day on swimming pools, click here.

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