benefits of the drought

Folsom Reservoir, from Cap Radio
Folsom Reservoir, from Cap Radio

The drought in California (and some nearby places) is a prominent topic of conversation these days, and I constantly hear people say in effect “if it would just rain, everything would be OK again.” Well, I disagree. I’m OK with the drought. Whether it is a natural cycle, or something we’ve created with global climate change, or likely a combination of the two, I don’t see it as a bad thing, nor do I long for it to end.

If we allowed ourselves, there are a lot of things we could learn from the drought. The most important, I think, is that it is immoral to have created a situation where we are living so close to the edge that a drought pushes us over. We could live differently. We could live by using only the minimum we need, and letting the rest flow in the rivers and be used by wildlife. Instead, we have tried to capture and use every last drop. And when the drops are fewer, we are in a crisis mode.

Specific things I’d like to see:

  • Reduce domestic water use by gradually eliminating all non-native landscaping from yards. Lawns would be the first to go, and they should really be illegal. Lawns are for parks, not yards.  If we continue to waste water on yards, we will not have enough left to maintain our parks, an amenity held in common for the common good. Trees are a different matter because they increase the livability of a place and reduce energy use, but even non-native trees should be evaluated. Most of our individual water use is outside, and inside conservation, while useful, is only a tiny bit of the solution.
  • Restore the delta by identifying the least productive and most difficult to protect “islands” (weak levees) and returning them to the delta. Yes, I do think the farmers ought to be compensated for this, at least in part as a shared obligation, but trying to protect all of the agricultural islands will just lead to a failure to restore the delta. Of course breaching levees does not of itself accomplish restoration, as the level of the land and the flow of the waters has been so severely disrupted, but it is at least the first step. As we abandon the least useful islands, it will cost a lot of money over a long period of time for restoration. But in a sense, a lot of money was made, both by individuals and by the state, and now is the time to give back.
  • Agree that no additional northern California water will be routed to southern California. I am not suggesting that existing rights for domestic water use be curtailed. The situation is one we all had a hand in creating, and it has certainly had many benefits for the state as a whole. But enough is enough. We can’t build our way out of the fact that northern California is wet (most years) and southern California is dry. When southern California knows they won’t get any more, they will start working on rational planning for how to either increase the supply (desalination) or reduce the demand (conservation). And they will make economically rational decisions if they can see the costs and tradeoffs directly rather than have it hidden it a statewide effort.
  • Eliminate irrigation of all very dry and salty or toxic soils. The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is not really productive agricultural land. It has been forced to be so by putting immense quantities of water (for both irrigation and for leaching salts away), energy, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to work. None of this is rational. We need to go back to focusing on and using our productive lands where nearby irrigation from Sierra rivers, supplemented by rainfall, is enough. Of course in the Central Valley far too much of this land now has houses on it, another example of how cheap plentiful water has encouraged us to undervalue productive agricultural lands by letting us think we could grow food somewhere else without consequence. I am not suggesting a shift to groundwater. We have been mining groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley for too long, and we need to reduce pumping to the level of replenishment.
  • Shift towards healthier diets with more plant foods and less meat. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to be a vegetarian, but the celebration of eating large quantities of meat (Bacon Fest, anyone?) is a serious flaw in our food system. Meat takes far more water to produce than plants, both for raising the meat animals and for the crops they eat. Much of the water used in California agriculture is used on raising corn and soy for animal consumption, and in confined animal feeding operations. There are more water-efficient crops and more water-efficient ways of growing protein for people.
  • Stop thinking of large dam projects as a solution to our water crisis. I am not saying that there could not possibly be places where new small dams, or raising of existing dams, might not make sense, but the days of huge projects are over, and should be over. The idea that large dam projects can at the same time fulfill demands for water storage, flood control, and recreation is put to the lie by Folsom Reservoir and the others. I include in this huge project exclusion the twin tunnels. We’ve reached the end of the usefulness of that kind of thinking, and though we could in a sense “afford” some of these projects, it would only be at the exclusion of other infrastructure and social investments we need to make. It not just the expense that is significant. We also need free flowing rivers, more than we already have, for our benefit and the benefit of wildlife.

I would like us to realize that often our wisest decision is to just leave things alone, to let nature go it own way much more of the time. We don’t need to use everything, control everything, push our way into every functioning natural ecosystem. We can do with a lot less, and for those to whom money is important, end up with a lot more of that too.

5 thoughts on “benefits of the drought

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