In 1956, the chiseled Burt Lancaster, playing a confidence man, put a match to Katharine Hepburn’s spinsterish but intrepid heart, bringing rain to a drought-stricken Southwestern town. Not even Greg Fishel could explain the complex meteorology behind that weather system.

But when a skeptical rancher told Lancaster, “We don’t believe in rainmakers,” Landcaster immediately bit back: “What do you believe in mistah? Dyin’ cattle?”

So who cares if it was just movie magic? The Rainmaker’s system worked.

In 2007, with the Southeast parched by drought, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, wearing cowboy boots but looking more slack than chisel-jawed, prayed for rain on the steps of the capitol building. That pathetic merging of church and state didn’t work at all. Lake Lanier’s water level continued to drop like an unplugged bathtub’s.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2009, it’s time to acknowledge a few Triangle-area rainmakers who are getting the job donealbeit without Hollywood magic or resorting to the Almighty.

A coterie of science and policy folks have been chipping away at the status quo like drops of water that over time, carve rock. Their diligence is slowly sculpting a new water policy for the Triangle and the Piedmont.

It was round about February 2008 when Duke water policy scientist Ken Reckhow started on this new policy venture. The Triangle, gripped by historic drought, was simply running out of water. Falls Lake kicked up dust storms like a longhorn stampede in the Texas Panhandle. Hope was on the wane. Anger on the rise. People were growing tired of letting the yellow mellow, of watching dust cake on their dirty cars, and carrying buckets from shower to toilet.

Reckhow was also tiredof watching area politicians hem and haw, while irate citizens and officials alike debated ecologically suspect fixes like new reservoirs. Reluctantly, he mounted his high horse and wrote an editorial in the Durham Herald-Sun about the need for long-term solutions instead of shortsighted politics. He warned politicians and water administrators that global warming could clean our clocks, noting, “The era of abundant water may be over.”

That was all fickle nature needed. It stepped in and rained all over the careful scientist’s foray into the contentious public forum. Almost from the day Reckhow started writing, in mid-February, it rained. By the time his warning editorial was published in mid-March, he had had to change the top to read, “During the past few weeks, heavy rains have substantially increased water supplies in our region’s reservoirs. This is good news.”

March 2008 was the beginning of the above normal precipitation. Tropical systems of Hanna and Fay, contributed to an extra 9 inches of rain over the past year, which have finally replenished ground water and stream flows in the Triangle.

But Reckhow and his compatriots know that in the era of Global Warming, we’re not yet out of the woods.

Among the hard sloggers is Gary Hunt, director of the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance. There is no romantic sparring with Katharine Hepburn in his neck of the woods. Our chat took place as Hunt finished up a report on urinals and toilets,” and he wryly confessed, “I really know more than I ever wanted to know about them.”

The chances of requiring high-efficiency dual-flush plumbing fixtures across the state may be a little ways off, it turns out. Nonetheless, a combination of things — from contractors putting in high-efficiency devices, to consumers realizing those fixtures actually work, to rate structures — are starting to drive the conservation effort, Hunt notes.

The City of Durham changed its rate structure in July to a tiered system that some studies show can save up to 20 percent in water consumption over time. It’s pretty simple: You use more, you pay more. Durham’s bills are more readable than they once were, and if its $100 low-flow toilet rebate program feels a bit Soviet in its bureaucratic opacity, the city has still made progress.

It’s Raleigh that should be really nervous. Its only water source at that time, Falls Lake, came the closest of any municipal reservoir to hitting bottom during the drought. Yet the Capital City is still moving at the speed of sludge on instituting a tiered rate system, although the city council finally voted in mid-February to institute a tiered rate system in December. Officials kept muttering about how the change might affect Wall Street’s ratings of the city’s utility bonds. It’s possible that Wall Street has other problems right now.

But if Raleigh officials aren’t hustling, others are. Bill Holman, director of state policy at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, joined UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Richard Whisnant in writing a draft policy for state water allocation that would create a permitting system for large water withdrawals, something most Eastern states already have (you can contribute to the Water Wiki). The proposal is now being looked at in a legislative committee. And Holman is “warily optimistic” that the report’s recommendations will eventually be adopted.

Nonetheless, most water wonks fear that the fading memory of the drought may move action on conservation to the legislative back burner.

Jerad Bales, Director of USGS’ North Carolina Water Science Center, is also worried about budget cuts that have already affected the state’s ability to carefully monitor ground water and stream flow rates. You’ve got to know the flow, he notes. Full reservoirs don’t tell the story.

Finally, there’s Syd Miller, Water Resources Program Manager for Triangle J Council of Governments, who is working with Triangle leaders on a consistent series of stages for drought management, so the five big municipalities in the Triangle will be working off a generally like-minded set of instructions to the public, as well as agreed-upon, year-round conservation.

The normally laconic Miller had almost a lilt to his voice. “For us, this is a grand experiment. I wanted to start with a few systems to see if this was possible.”

So where are we water wise yet in the Triangle? Aware that plentiful fresh water is blue gold?

Nope. But we’re a little less water stupid. Using a little less. Thinking about it a little more. That’s in large part thanks to a crop of real rainmakers, the ones who aren’t fixated on the political winds, and who stop working on conservation every time it rains, complaisant that nature will provide.

As Burt Lancaster declared: “Water. I recommend it.”

Let me make an altogether boring, but necessary addendum.

Good water policy. I recommend it.