It’s tempting to feel bad for those poor Triangle denizens whose identities are inextricably tied to their perfectly manicured, uniformly green lawns. In the midst of the region’s worst drought since 1933 and constrained by partial bans on the use of irrigation systems and even sprinklers to maintain the grass, lawn freaks must be accessing mental health services at a record clip.

But the collective public response to the drought hardly inspires sympathy. When Durham enacted voluntary water-use restrictions Aug. 29, City Manager Patrick Baker said that the city was better off than its neighbors in terms of supply because of solid planning and “the year-round conservation practiced by our residents.” Less than three weeks later, after those conservation-minded residents reduced their usage by virtually zero and with a paltry 74 days of water left in the system, Durham announced mandatory restrictions. Projected to yield a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction, the tougher limits have thus far only cut the total by 13 percent. If Durham doesn’t meet its 30 percent reduction goal this month, city leaders could prohibit nearly all irrigation.

In Raleigh, alternate-day watering restrictions enacted in early July failed to deliver any reduction in usage despite more than 500 warnings and fines; three days in August set all-time highs. Mayor Charles Meeker says he was disappointed with the outcome. “I had hoped that it would actually reduce consumption.”

The drought has underscored public expectations of unlimited water and a sense of personal entitlement to use it. Beyond that, a lot of Triangle residents seem to have little sense of community extending beyond their front yard, or at least the boundaries of their subdivision. This is partly a function of the influx of new residents, many of whom apparently have yet to develop a sense of responsibility to a more broadly defined community, be it neighborhood, city, region or state. When it comes to watering the lawn, this crabbed view of civic duty can be destructive; experts estimate that lawns consume between 30 percent and 60 percent of all water used in urban areas.

Those in the know, including Gov. Mike Easley, have done their best to communicate the water predicament. Clearly, citizens haven’t been getting the message. Indeed, enforcement officers throughout the Triangle reported that violators most often cited ignorance of the rules as their excuse. But it’s a lame excuseinformation on water shortages and restrictions has been a media staple this summer, supplemented by notes in customer water bills and special mailings. To remain unaware that the drought was severe and that almost every community in the area had called for conservation measures this summer would have required an especially selective kind of denial.

Covenant cops in the Margot’s Pond subdivision in Wake Forest offered a different rationale for wasting precious agua in an Aug. 16 letter to homeowners stating that landscaping defects in their community would not be tolerated, and that offenders would be subject to “self help”a Kafkaesque term meaning that landscapers would make the necessary adjustments, and the homeowners would be involuntarily billed for the work. “We believe that having neatly landscaped lawns of grass is of the utmost importance to our community,” the letter said.

It would be erroneous to single out Margot’s Pond as the only neighborhood where a slavish insistence on social conformity (usually framed as the “protection of property values”) trumps more sweeping public interests. The News & Observer reported in August that residents of the affluent Bay Leaf section of North Raleigh were experiencing low water pressure from their private water system that was forcing them to shower at workeven as new million-dollar homes with fancy irrigation systems and individual wells were draining the system’s reserves.

George Rogers, environmental coordinator for the Raleigh Public Utilities Department, says that residents don’t like it when he tells them they can’t get a special waiver to water their moisture-gulping fescue. “You know what they say to me? ‘If you can’t give me a permit, who can I e-mail to [get one]?’ “

Selfish homeowners are not the root of the problem here, merely one manifestation. The simple fact is, the overall demand for water is finally catching up with the supply. As the Triangle’s population has exploded the past few decades, demand for water has increased proportionately.

Despite an occasional dry spell, water supplies in the Triangle generally have been plentiful, and replenishing rains have always come eventually. But the supply is not unlimited, as current circumstances so dramatically demonstrate. Wells throughout the Triangle are spitting sediment or drying up. Since the Little River Reservoir came on line in 1988, Durham has been this close to the capacity edge only once before. The streams that feed University Lake and Cane Creek Reservoir in Orange County stopped flowing in early August. State and federal officials have limited water releases from Falls and Jordan lakes, and emergency plans for those critical sources are being readied.

Given the summer’s wake-up call, it might make sense to develop long-term, comprehensive and cooperative regional water strategies that integrate growth and development plans, conservation and re-use, new technologies, public education, tiered and/or seasonal pricing structures and whatever other tools may be at hand. All Triangle communities are doing at least some of this, though the efforts have been piecemeal and isolated from each other, and are mostly in the formative stages.

Changing the basic structure of how public water utilities sustain themselves might also be in order. Almost all public systems depend on water revenue to fund their annual budgets and plan for future expansion and maintenance. This creates an obvious disincentive to conserve water; the more customers conserve, the less money comes in.

Local officials have vehemently rejected charges that the need to keep the revenue spigot flowing has delayed their actions on restrictive drought measures this summer. But most of them privately acknowledge the conflict between conservation and cash. “We want people to use water, because we need the revenues,” Hillsborough town board member Eric Hallman says matter-of-factly. The town, which funds its water system entirely from customer payments and faces large capital expenditures in coming years, is one of the few in the Triangle not currently suffering from a supply shortage. “If we don’t have the usage, then we go deeper in the hole,” Hallman says.

Until recently, however, the primary strategy employed by most cities throughout the state has been to lock up new sources of water in anticipation of ever-increasing demand. Raleigh, for example, has taken steps to ensure an adequate volume of water for the next three of four decades to keep up with an annual growth rate of 3 percent to 4 percent. “Our general reaction has been to try and increase the supply,” says Mayor Meeker.

Ultimately, though, new supplies will no longer be available. At that point, it’s easy to imagine pitched battles over dwindling water resources, like those fought for years in the courts and legislatures of the arid West. The losers, whether they be farmers or ranchers needing water for irrigation or cities whose growth depends on harnessing new sources of water, inevitably face the prospect of economic stagnation or collapse.

Actually, those days may already be at hand. South Carolina’s Attorney General sued North Carolina in June over the state’s plans to suck millions of gallons of water per day from the Catawba River Basin, which South Carolina believes will adversely affect its downstream cities and towns. Virginia and North Carolina are sparring over the New River. And several cities in the Triangle are eyeing Kerr Lake as a possible future water source, an idea that border communities in Virginia are sure to challenge.

Also looming in the background is the unsavory but very real prospect of a class divide, where the wealthy can afford to pay whatever it takes for unlimited supplies of clean water, and the less affluent must make do with less. That may sound like a Third World proposition, but some possible strategiessuch as tiered pricing based on usagecan inadvertently lead in that direction and must be considered accordingly.

A few scattered showers in October may signal that the end of the drought is nigh. If so, the temptation to put this most contentious issue on the backburner may be too strong for local leaders to resist. Let’s hope not: Getting a grip on our water problem will take not only a series of careful and sometimes painful steps, it will also require a change in thinking that may take years to accomplish.

“If we’re going to turn this around, we need to learn to live within the resources we have,” says Raleigh utilities official George Rogers. “You have to think of generational, cultural shifts. It’s not necessarily about water. It’s about people.”