"The history of the West is a history of water," Wallace Stegner wrote. And though the days are gone when stealing a man's water was a bigger crime than stealing his horse, and water masters guarded the irrigation headgates with a shotgun, water to a Westerner is still more precious than rubies.

This year, more than guarding against water thieves, we need to guard against apathy. In the West, it is not "water, water everywhere," particularly after a hot, dry summer that has turned mountain watersheds into fire hazards.A water shortage isn't like a food shortage where citizens see bare shelves, watch the prices rise and hear the television reports. A water shortage can be as quiet and deadly as high blood pressure.

As Utah's reservoirs reach critical levels, too little has been done to preserve the water we have.

Perhaps officials wish to avoid a "water scare." In 1977, fear of a shortage had residents in a tizzy filling their toilet tanks with bricks and hoarding what they could. During the water rationing period old battles about water rights flared.

No one wants to cause an over-reaction, but with Farmington Station reporting the driest summer in 90 years and several other reservoirs below 1977 levels, it's time to act.

Water Resources has distributed a conservation checklist to schools, but the pamphlet has yet to go to the public. The flyer urges good habits with water, such as not letting water run freely when brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and showering.

We suggest such information get out to the public soon and quickly. If the precautions prove unnecessary, no one loses.

Government officials should realize it's preferable to be held responsible for crying wolf when there is no wolf, than to be blamed for keeping silent when the wolf is at the door.