Saving water -- one drop at a time

Each year, Earth Day impels us to review how we're treating the planet and ourselves. In the political world, we may ask what laws were passed to clean our air; and in our individual lives, we may ask what we did to conserve water or recycle. Some years may be more successful, like in 2006 when the legislature passed its landmark AB 32 legislation controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. Other years, we may feel that we could have done better in reducing water use at home and work.

Whatever conclusion may be drawn about our environmental performance in 2007, many challenges remain. Two of my priorities this year include helping to prevent future wildfires, and attracting attention to the need for water conservation and water recycling.

While wildfire is a natural part of our ecosystem, there is more than can be done to reduce its severity and protect lives, homes and the environment. I have introduced a package of wildfire prevention bills that will assist local governments in purchasing fire trucks and firefighting helicopters, and better protect people and homes in high-risk fire areas.

The legislation will also indirectly save wildlife, prevent the spread of non-native plants, and reduce air pollution. It is unknown how many animals and birds perished in last year's wildfires, but untold thousands were forced from their habitats as the fires raced across the landscape. By reducing the frequency and swath of the wildfires, we may hope to avoid mass deaths and exodus of wildlife into urban areas. At the same time, fewer wildfires mean our native plants will be better protected, many of which are less susceptible to burning.

Reducing wildfires also protects our air quality. During the October 2007 wildfires, San Diego County residents were instructed to stay indoors and run air conditioners to avoid fine particles floating in the air. Without such protection, the ash could have lodged in people's lungs and caused bronchitis and aggravated heart and lung diseases. According to a University of Colorado study, the 2007 California wildfires released as many greenhouse gases as is emitted in an average week across California.

Another environmental priority is increasing water conservation and water recycling. San Diego has a desert-like climate, one that makes the region dependent on dwindling water from the Colorado River and snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In San Diego County, residents and businesses have long been conscious of the need for water conservation. When the last drought hit our region from 1986 to 1992, people responded by installing low-flow toilets and showerheads in their homes and drip-irrigation systems in their gardens. Water use dropped 11 percent between 1990 and 2004, despite a 19 percent population increase in San Diego County during the same period.

In spite of water conservation's benefits, it alone will not meet the region's long-term water needs. That's where the issue of water recycling comes in. Opponents, who infamously refer to the program as "toilet to tap," distort the current debate. While it is true that treated wastewater would be filtered and delivered to the tap in your home, the procedure is nothing new in San Diego. Currently, 400 million gallons of treated wastewater is discharged into the Colorado River and becomes a drinking source to our region. After learning this fact, a poll conducted last September by the San Diego Institute for Policy Research found that 61 percent of county respondents support water recycling.

I appreciate your commitment to the environment and hope that you will make it an even greater personal pursuit this year. We all have a role to play in protecting our planet, and I hope you can focus this year on reducing your outdoor water use at home. It's a simple step, but when multiplied by the millions of San Diego County residents, its impact is infinite.

Sen. Kehoe represents the 39th Senate District.

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