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Know the West

California water waster fines and condoms from conservationists.


You could almost hear the teeth gnashing in Aspen. A well-connected man, Robert K. Steel, chairman of the board of the Aspen Institute, exploited a loophole in county regulations so that his daughter could be married in remote splendor – in a "pristine sub-alpine meadow on the backside of Aspen Mountain at 10,000 in elevation," reports the Aspen Times. A veritable village was created for the fancy nuptials, including a 27,000 square-foot tent, a temporary wedding chapel and a slew of support structures, all brought up laboriously by truck on a primitive road. John Miller, who owns the land where the wedding took place June 11, assured everyone afterward that all wear and tear would be healed by reseeding the meadow back to its natural state. What might not be healed are the sensibilities of his neighbors. As Pete Stouffer, who has lived for 25 years on the Little Annie Basin side of Aspen Mountain, put it, "It's a stab in the back for all of us up there." He said it was hard to believe that anyone involved with the Aspen Institute would be part of such a large-scale event in an area designated "remote and rural."

Now that 80 percent of California is officially suffering from drought, water conservation efforts have gotten down and dirty. The state can fine you $500, for instance, if your lawn sprinklers spill water onto the sidewalk or street, or if you wash your car without an automatic shut-off device on the hose or have a fountain that doesn't recirculate the water. The water crunch is even encouraging some neighbors to exercise long-held grudges. In Santa Cruz, for example, "You'll get people who hate their neighbors and chronically report them in hopes they'll be thrown in prison for wasting water," says Eileen Cross, water conservation manager for the city. There is a lot of suspiciousness about who's doing what with water, says one resident, though some homeowners are allowing their lawns to die, proudly planting signs that proclaim, "Gold is the new green." Even lawns around the State Capitol in Sacramento have been permitted to wither, reports The New York Times, setting an example for folks who've been slow to get the message that this drought is real and likely to be prolonged. But even though Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown urged everyone to conserve water back in January, a just-released survey revealed that water use rose by 1 percent in May, compared to a 2011-'13 average. Still, peer pressure seems to hold promise: In addition to tattling to officials about profligate water wasters, some Californians have started "shaming" anybody caught acting stupid about water – publicly exposing people through the Internet in order to nudge them into compliance. Los Angeles says it will offer residents door hangers that they can leave anonymously on neighbors' doorknobs when sprinklers are left on too long or used clandestinely. As retiree Loretta Franzi told the Times, "You can hear people running their sprinklers when it's dark because they don't want to get caught watering when they're not supposed to be – it's maddening." Ah, but a door hanger lets water-wasters know: "We're watching you!"

Volunteers in every state walked malls, parks and county fairs July 11, handing out free condoms that sported quirky messages about protecting endangered species: "Be a savvy lover, protect the snowy plover," or "In the sack? Save a leatherback," and the even more direct: "Don't go bare, panthers are rare." It was the Center for Biological Diversity's sixth annual attempt to link population growth – "227,000 people added every day to an already over-populated planet" – to the rapid demise of wildlife. The nonprofit gave away 40,000 condoms during its daylong celebration of the U.N.'s World Population Day.

In the unfortunate trend department, Todd Wilkinson writes in the Jackson Hole News&Guide that he's begun noticing berms going up around the edges of ranch homes in Teton County. Why the fake hills? So that landowners can "pretend they're in nirvana all by themselves," he says. But wouldn't you know, competition has emerged, and at some locations "dueling berms literally rise side by side along property boundaries because landowners don't want to gaze upon another's berm." If the manmade hill isn't high enough, some people plant trees on top, doubling the size of the barriers.

Drivers on a busy interstate near Blackfoot, Idaho, were startled when 3,000 pingpong balls rained down around them in early July. Some were filled with gift certificates worth $100, and all were intended to fall on a nearby crowd gathered for Blackfoot Pride Days. Apparently, the pilot didn't realize that pingpong balls lose speed quickly and drop like stones, reports the Idaho State Journal – fortunately without doing the sort of damage stones can do. No one was hurt.