Dr. Know: With our snowpack dangerously low, shouldn't the city be asking us to conserve water?

Our snowpack is dangerously low. Can you explain why the city isn't asking us to conserve water? Would it not be wise to start conserving now, instead of waiting for a crisis?

—Better Safe Than Sorry

The notion that humanity can avoid future retribution by denying itself current pleasure is considerably older than modern ecological awareness.

It used to be called "sin." Eschew fornication, the ancients warned, or be cast into the Lake of Fire! (Depending on one's partners, one might even experience a localized preview of that fiery torment right here on earth.)

Later, our worries took on a medical aspect: Avoid ye Outback Steakhouse and ye Olive Garden, lest thine own heart rise up and attack thee!

These days, our paranoia is environmental—climate, drought, extinction. What can we sacrifice to appease the gods? How about our cars? Ha-ha, just kidding—gluten, get up on that altar!

This gratification-deferring impulse often does prod us in the right direction, but since it's not rational, it doesn't always do a good job of matching the sacrifice to the threat.

This is how you get folks who walk around with a vague sense that declaring oneself allergic to soy will save the rainforest, or that riding a fixed-gear bike reduces famine, or that using Tom's of Maine products will ward off stray asteroids.

My point, Safe, is that your suspicion that the historically low snowpack is our fault—as a species, at least—is well-founded. But your impulse toward a mitigating sacrifice is misplaced.

Portland's water supply (mostly) doesn't come from melting snowpack. Bull Run is a low-elevation watershed, and is primarily filled by spring and fall rains.

Other parts of Oregon might be right to start worrying now, but as long as it rains enough between now and June, you and I can relax and watch some Netflix. Just, y'know, don't bogart that gluten, brah.

QUESTIONS? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com

WWeek 2015

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