[NEWS ITEM: Water officials in Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild and elsewhere have imposed strict water conservation practices, a result of the driest year in Southern California history. One measure under consideration is curtailment of lawn watering, enforced by "water cops."]
Spring is beautiful in Southern California. Gardens in which the flowers bloom are fragrant islands in a sea of asphalt, concrete, stucco and glass. First the camellias blossom, and pink and white petals cascade down to cover the ground. The yards are full of daffodils and pansies, and the sap rises in a thousand varieties of roses: Peace, Mr. Lincoln, and the year's newest offerings from the commercial growers.
Along the streets, from Santa Clarita to Redlands, the lush green lawns come out of winter hibernation. Rye and clover, fescues and bermuda, and hybrids developed solely for Southern California turn the landscape into a veritable oasis.
And the natives are proud, for of their knowledge and care they have made a paradise of their near-desert wasteland. The milkweed and mustard plant that once choked out every other living thing have been cleared from the countryside. Where the wild turnip had waved its solitary head above the level fields, flowers from all over the world how hold sway. And the gourd-like vines that used to snake their way across the vacant lots have been weeded out to make room for exotic fruits, vegetables and melons.
And Southern California is recognized around the globe as the symbol of what man can do with hard work, tender care, knowledge -- and water. For, with all his botanical education, with all his careful grafting and selecting, without water, none of this would have been possible.
To achieve this miracle, the forebearers of the present Southern Californians had reached out hundreds of miles to bring in the precious water. That earlier generation, with the foresight that belongs to a chosen few, had indebted themselves to bequeath to their offspring the beauty that only water would produce on their land. And the fruits of their endeavor had been enjoyed by succeeding generations, who sprawled across the coastal plain, eager to level hillsides and clear the fields so that others could share their paradise.
The "others" came in great numbers. A hundred thousand arrived in the 1920s, and three times that many came in the Great Depression. Later, they would crowd into the basin a million or more a decade, and the green oasis spread outward, filling the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys.
But Southern California remained a paradise, for the water flowed without interruption, seemingly an endless river of a commodity as precious as life itself. And it was in fact a river, diverted by the bright engineering minds of an earlier day, a river that literally ran uphill, over mountains, through mountains, and even made its own electricity as it roared downslope into San Fernando and the great reservoirs, whose existence determined that the mock orange and geraniums wouldn't be replaced by the mustard, milkweed and wild turnip.
And then one day the river's flow slowed a bit. But proud of their lawns, their flowers, their fruit trees, Southern Californians simply brought in water from other sources, and willingly paid more for it. The great pumps that drew water to the surface from deep underground pools sucked up the liquid from an ever-greater depth. Other rivers were tapped, and the precious water still came through the sprinklers and hoses to keep the paradise green.
Then the river became a trickle, and there were no more sources to tap for unclaimed water. The pumps could suck no deeper. Engineers said "Conserve!" Government hired water cops, to search for those who wasted water. And experts now tried to undo in a few days the education of nearly a century, an education that had cultivated among the natives an attachment to the green lawns and the fragrant shrubs of their beloved basin. In some places, they ordered that no water at all be used for lawns or plants.
Here and there a householder, who couldn't bear to see the work of a lifetime turn brown and wither, defied authority. In the dead of night a man might creep into his own front yard, rusty can in hand.
"Don't run the water into the can too hard," he told himself. "Someone might hear it. Tilt the can slightly ... it makes less noise."
Secret watering in the night, like a thief trying to take a little something from the earth.
And then one night -- the water cop.
"Watcha think yer doin'?"
"I ain't doing no harm. Just killin' snails."
"I've had my eye on ya. Don'tcha know there's a water shortage?"
"It's my water. We put a brick in the water bed to conserve so we could water the azaleas."
"Well ya can't do that. Pretty soon ya'd think ya had a right to water yer lawn."
And the water cop kicked the little plant with his number 12 boot, crushed it flat, and stomped the battered shoots into the ground.
But the cop was right. A plant watered and grown to maturity -- a man might fight to save that. A lawn green and lush -- a man might take any action to keep that.
So the grass must thirst, must be forced to wither and die, for to do otherwise would require that rich subdividers put away their plans to develop the remaining open space in the Valley. The azaleas and roses must shrivel for lack of water, otherwise the construction industry could not continue unabated.
Still, a man who had spent a lifetime nurturing exotic plants -- a mountain aspen, bristlecone pine, sequoia gigantea -- to make them grow at sea level knows that a sealed faucet is a sin, and that laws banning gray water are a crime against all living plants.
And in the eyes of the gardener there is a growing wrath. In the minds of his fellow cultivators a plan is forming.
Gardeners are good people. Gardeners are caring people. Pray God that some day good people won't be denied water.
And the developers know that someday the praying will stop, and that will be their end.
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