We and the drought-stricken western United States are brothers and sisters in deprivation when it comes to water. But there's one big difference: Their lack of it seems to be a quirk of mother nature, while ours unfortunately is a permanent fact of life.

Not that we don't sometimes get an abundance of water. But when we do, that's a quirk of nature for us. Usually water is scarce.

Now that one fact affects our day-to-day lives as much as any other aspect of tropical living - just, no doubt, as it has affected the living habits of many Westerners.

Baths, for instance, which use up an incredible amount of water, are almost unheard of, expect for the very young or very rich.

The rich, you see, can afford to buy water if there hasn't been enough rainfall to maintain water in the terms that are de rigueur under every house.

Most of us - like those on small islands everywhere - are totally dependent on rain filling our cisterns. In St. Thomas the potable water system on the island does not reach into the hills but is concentrated primarily around the capital of Charlotte Amalie in the center of the island.

So if we run out of water, we have only two alternatives: Go without or buy some.

And buying is not cheap. We have friends who have spent hundreds of dollars - hundreds - since the beginning of this year just on water for drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning and flushing. They weep over their wilting plants, which they really can't afford to water, but the salt water no doubt would do them in faster.

The cost of buying water from a hauler depends on where you live on the island and how much it's going to cost to get one of those monstrous water trucks to your house to pump water into your cistern.

When I checked recently, one water dealer told me he charges $5 a ton. That didn't sound too bad. But then I asked how many gallons are in a ton and he said 250.

"Only 250?" I asked incredulously. After all, you don't have to be an Einstein to figure out how fast 250 gallons of water can slip through your fingers and toes.

We discovered how fast within 24 hours of moving to St. Thomas over five years ago.

We were told by our first landlord that we would be given the first 1,200 gallons of water free every month but it would cost us a few cents extra for every additional gallon we used.And by the way, the landlord added, the average toilet uses five gallons per flush.

We moved after the first month.

Not that we were less careful in the second, third or fourth places we lived. Conserving water simply became a way of life for our family, as it no doubt will for those out West.

Our young children, for instance, have never known anything else. On one trip back to Washington to visit our family, our son, Paul, then five years old, watching a roast being defrosted by the old running-water-over-it-method and observed, "Boy, Grandma sure does waste a lot of water." His sister, Darcy, then three, wanted to know, "Can we flush at Grandma'w house?"

That question brought appreciative chuckles from our stateside friends but it was really quite legitimate. From the time we moved here, we have lived by an old West Indian axiom: In the island of the sun, you never flush for number one.

One landlady of ours, who used to spend over $100 a month on water for the three families in her small apartment building, once presented us with a small tile plaque that read: Please be careful with the flushing. With the Showering. With the brushing. Liquid assets from the bank go to fill the septic tank. (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)lthough we are now in our own home in an area of the island where rainfall is more plentiful than elsewhere, we are nearly as careful now as we when we were paying those few cents extra for every gallon over 1,200.

I have a watering can in my shower to catch a little bit of extra water for my plants - including the initial cold water that otherwise would go down the drain while I waited for it to turn hot.

When I rinse or soak lettuce or other greens, I have another watering can in the kitchen into which I pour that water. (I love my plants . . .)

We would never dream of letting the water run when we brush our teeth or wash the dishes. We use the on-and-quickly-off technique for these activities.

The sound of dripping faucet sends us into a blue funk. We have heard horror stories of a cistern being emptied in the course of a weekend from just such carelessness.

Equally horrifying is the sound of our water pump when no one is running water. My husband was once awakened at night by just such sound - and got up immediately to find the source of the drip.

When we shower we do it this way: Turn on the shower, get wet, turn off the shower, lather up, turn on the water, rinse off the soap, turn off the shower. This method becomes more complicated when you're washing your hair, but you get the idea.

One reason we are being particularly careful with water these days is that St. Thomas, like the West, is in the midst of a long dry spell. We have not had to buy water - yet. And, frankly, we're so cheap that we don't want to. After all, there's something galling about spending money for something that falls from the sky.

But to make matters worse, we're not sure we could buy it immediately if we needed it. Most of the water haulers buy their water from the government, which in turn buys it from an autonomous government agency that produces water in four desalination plats. But the plants in recent months have been more off-again than on-again and the constant state of disrepair has caused the government to ration water to those on the potable water lines. So when there's not enough water to go around, the water haulers can't get as much as they need either.

I wonder if my husnand will go back to boiling water and then filling a custard cup for shaving if our cistern gets low enough . . . if people are desparate enough out West, they might want to try it too.