The Golden State has suffered through drought before, but this time Californians are going to need more than a prayer or rain dance
Think of this piece as a rain dance for California. If only I believed in our power to appease some gods or invoke some spirits that would make the heavens open up and pour on the Golden State. I don’t. Instead, I write this in the belief that if we all share the information it might lead to collective action.
Many, many years ago I happened to be riding in a tow truck near Mendocino. The driver pointed out high-water markers from a 1964 flood. “We had drifts of silt, trees and stuff twenty-five feet or more.” That year however, there were no high water markers. Instead, smudge spots ready to warm the air when the vines go to bud.
That year there was half the rainfall of any other normal year. Water was on the driver’s mind, and I told him that they were talking about it in the City and in Berkeley, too. He told me that “down there water’s an idea,” up here where there are sheep and there are grapes and orchards, it’s dust, empty riverbeds and nozzles spitting a few timid drops at the new plants.
The year I rode in the tow truck, I was able to take a walk along the bottom of the Nicasio Reservoir. It was dry. Beautiful wildflowers jumped up and almost made you forget that there was supposed to be water there. Big pipes ran across the Richmond Bridge carrying water from the Delta to the parched places in Marin County.
Drought in California is nothing new. The one I rode through and walked in was a drought that lasted from about 1986 into the very early 1990’s. There had been several before. But nothing to rival the current four-year crisis of catastrophic proportions. This one has triggered a state of emergency. This one has seen a call for 25 percent reduction in water use. Californians almost met the target in December 2014, but conservation fell off in January (about 9 percent) and February (less than 3 percent). The snow-pack is 6-10 percent of what it should be.
One of the things we should all do is encourage our friends in California to be sure they are following California American Water’s menu of restrictions. Now that the governor has ordered a 25 percent reduction in water use through the state’s local water supply districts, those agencies will certainly pass the cuts along to customers. The CAW list is a good place to start.
Another thing we can do is add our voices to the outcry over Nestle’s continuing practice of pumping water out of the California aquifer and selling it back as bottled water. Progressives, environmentalists and just plain folks can boycott Perrier and San Pellegrino (Nestle brands) until the company shuts down its plant and stops making profits on water during this drought.
A third and longer-term thing we can do is look at man made causes of the drought. Carly Fiorina says if those damned liberals had only allowed more dams to be built, we wouldn’t have the problem. Of course you can’t dam up what isn’t there. Global warming on the other hand could be and should be addressed.
I suggest we look at what California has encouraged, allowed and become. California’s population is the nation’s largest, double that of New York. There are 32 million vehicles in California. What were once small communities have grown into sprawling cities. Construction is booming, expansion is everywhere, the state’s economy is the seventh largest in the world.
All of this is built on ecology and meteorology that has some built-in challenges. Large parts of California are desert. Storms that reach Northern California often miss the South. There’s plenty of evidence that the state could face a decades-long drought like the several it has endured in past centuries.
California’s golden expansion is a good example of our worst hubris in action. Across the country there are other examples: homeowners build and rebuild in flood plains, along hurricane-battered coasts, at the base of mudslide mountains. Big cities (like mine, New York) sell every available parking lot and patch of scrabby vacant land to developers who build up and up and add to the human load on an already overloaded infrastructure. California’s no different, just shinier and more appealing. So far.
Rains may come. Help from the atmosphere may bail out the Golden State. It would be a shame if water dried up to “just an idea” without some serious, honest assessment of the limits of growth and expansion in a place that might not be able to sustain it.