While backpacking this week, walking from Auburn to Sacramento in large part in order to see the drawn-down Folsom Reservoir and the living North Fork American River that has been revealed, I had a lot of time to think about water use and drought.
I see the drought as an inflection point where California could change directions towards a sustainable future. We basically have two choices: 1) try to spend and engineer our way out of the drought crisis, or 2) bring our behavior within the limits of nature. Of course ultimately, we cannot spend and engineer our way out, we only delay reaching the limit and hit that limit all the harder.
“Part of the reason we’re not using the meters as a method of enforcement is we’re not looking to put folks out of business,” said Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the city of Sacramento’s Department of Utilities. “But if we can help encourage them to find different ways to use water, maybe they can find other savings elsewhere (such as converting to low-flow toilets). Maybe it’s not 20 percent, but at least we’re trying to help contribute to the solution.” (Water cuts: It’s honor system, SacBee 2014-01-29)
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.
There are two topics related to the drought that I’ve not seen discussed, so here goes.
1. Water meters: Only about half of water customers in the City of Sacramento are on water meters. The city has committed to installing them for all customers by 2025, as court ordered. The lack of water meters is a relict of the old attitudes that water was plentiful and limits were not needed. Clearly, though times are gone. But the city is still on its gradual plan of implementation. No one from the city has, so far as I know, suggested that the implementation be accelerated. Why not? Well, it is expensive since it requires not only meters but other water infrastructure work. Other than that, I think it is just inertia, the feeling that if we just keep doing what we were doing, things will eventually be OK. But that is the attitude that got us into this fix to begin with. It is time to spend the money, now, this year. That will take moving money for other purposes, many of them valuable and needed, to water meter installation. But what is more important in the city right now than water?
2. Westlands Water District: Westlands represents itself as the provider of water for family farmers, and who wants to hurt family farmers? But Westlands is in fact home to huge corporate farms. This district, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno and Kings counties, serves some of the driest, most salt-laden soils in the entire San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. It is largely land that should have never been farmed to begin with, and certainly should not be farmed during a drought. Yet Westlands holds immense power in the state, and is, as much as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the reason for the tunnel project to ship more water to the south. Most of that water will never reach the residents of southern California, it will get only as far as Westlands, where it will be wasted on extremely dry, low productivity lands. I am not against farms or farmers, and believe that everything we do in response to the drought carefully consider the history and needs of family farmers. But the Westlands is not those farms nor those family farmers. I believe we must simply cut off Westlands so that the water we do have can go to more productive family farms.