When you grow up in the Netherlands, you learn that water is more often your enemy than your friend: half the country lies below sea level, major floods have been part of our national history and with climate change happening and sea levels rising, the Dutch will have to prepare themselves for potentially more floods in the future. Water is everywhere in the Netherlands: continuous rainfall, lakes, canals in cities, and even when you travel by train and look across the green meadows, you can’t help but notice how wet the land is and how many meadows have ditches and canals.
Maybe there’s some cosmic irony in this, but I am now living in a place where there is no water. Although we have a huge puddle of water at our doorstep (The Pacific), desalination is still too expensive; I am no scientist, but it somehow blows my mind that we are on the cusp of curing cancer but we can’t seem to be able to make fresh water out of ocean water. Mark my words: the guy or woman who will find an affordable and manageable way to desalinate will become a California hero and will have his or her name imprinted on streets, buildings, highways and new towns.
When the first fur traders and explorers arrived in the West (including Arizona), the West was known as the Great American Desert. Even though both the Indians and Spaniards had set up irrigation systems, the greatest challenge for them already was the lack of water. However, when you drive through the green parts of San Francisco or see the green lawns, golf courses, fountains and blue swimming pools when flying over LA, you might not come to the conclusion that in California, water is in fact more important than oil.
One of the early explorers of the West, John Powell, already warned that the dry climate of the West would make this territory uninhabitable. When the Gold Rush triggered a mass migration to the West, this became apparent immediately; water was a scarce commodity: taking a bath in San Fran cost between ten and fifteen dollars and dirty laundry was “simply” shipped off to Hawaii. In fact, cable cars in San Francisco were developed by an animal lover who pitied the mules who had to walk up the steep hills of San Francisco for water deliveries.
The Mormons, who had set up shop in Utah, which is at least as dry as California, defied the odds of water shortages by building dams and irrigation systems, and their success was the beginning of the large migrations to and cultivation of the rest of the West, even though, as Marc Reisner writes in Cadillac Desert, in the entire world there has been only one desert civilization that managed to survive and that is Egypt. The American West is much younger than Egypt, so time will tell but with the continued growth of the California population, which, annually, is higher than that of any other state in the Union, questions of sustainability become more pressing. The late Marc Reisner was pessimistic– he argued that if the water supplies of California vanished over night, the vast economy of the state would explode like an egg in a microwave oven.
To satisfy the current water needs of California, there are more than 1200 reservoirs and more than 1200 dams. The Colorado, Columbia and Sacramento Rivers are responsible for our water supply, so all the water from our taps comes from mountain snow (surprising tidbit: while people cheer in California when it rains, rainwater is generally not being collected but goes straight into the ground and runs off to sea), but quickly runs away again when it reaches our sewers (there are now several initiatives and research attempts to see if we can recycle waste water– yummie!).
The greatest water hog is California agriculture: 85% of all the water in the state goes into the growing of the various and many crops. Discussions have now flared up about the ridiculous amount of water it takes to grow one almond, or what do you think of 9 spinach leaves? It takes about 8 glasses of water to grow those 9 leaves. But the California drought is not just a state emergency– it affects the entire country. Half the nation’s produce comes out of California, or as the New York Times wrote the other week “the average American consumes more than 300 gallons of California water each week by eating produce from California.”
While the farmers are already up in arms about the water shortage and conservation, they have been frantically looking for water themselves for decades and have been pumping up ground water, which means the ground water hasn’t gotten the chance to reach acceptable levels again and California soil just becomes drier and drier. Water in the American River has reached and all-time low and Salton Sea in Southern California, once a resort where the likes of Frank Sinatra would drink their martinis, is close to extinction, causing concern as it might turn into a Dust Bowl and we all know what that is, in this country.
Of course, the drought is a much larger problem for Southern California: when San Francisco was developing into an international port and cosmopolitan town within three years of the Gold Rush happening, Los Angeles was a dead small town in the desert, inhabited by a bunch of former Spaniards and Indians. A pioneer from Iowa who touched down in Los Angeles at the time described it as a dirty, desolate, corrupt, degenerate and depraved little place. This changed when the Mormons arrived and started growing corn, cabbage, oranges, avocados, artichokes and dates. At the World Fair of 1884 in New Orleans, people saw the first oranges which had been grown in Los Angeles. People had no idea you could grow those in the desert (key point: you need water) and thanks to the building of the Southern Pacific Railroad (1867) which made Los Angeles accessible, a migration of farmers and people with tb and other lung conditions, who came to LA for the healthy ocean air (irony when you think of LA smog!), started arriving in droves.
But this population growth required water… so Los Angelenos Fred Eaton and the Irish immigrant William Mulholland (of the famous Mulholland Drive) thought up the Owens Valley Water Project (1907). This meant that Los Angeles (and San Bernardino) extracted all the water from the Owens Valley (and the farmers who lived there) by building an aquaduct of more than 200 miles.
And thus it happened, Marc Reisner writes, that the dry and dusty Santa Monica Boulevard changed into an elegant French Rivièra-type avenue with palm trees. In Hollywood, where the first film studios boomed, water-wasting sets were built, and every new and successful migrant to Los Angeles wanted a green lawn in his front yard and a pool in his backyard. It was madness, according to Reisner, to build this fake tropical paradise in the middle of the desert.
By 1925, Los Angeles had grown eleven times faster than New York and this was only possible by bringing in more water from elsewhere. The majority of the water actually comes from the Colorado River and some people say that after it runs through California, and reaches the sea, it’s no longer a roaring river, a rivulet or a brook but it looks more like a dripping tap.
Nonetheless, this water management, however controversial and the biggest example of so-called pork barrel spending (water subsidies) has made the West habitable, even though the continued population growth aggravates the water emergency which is a threat to the environment and existing eco systems.
The Central Valley, which, due to the pumping of water from deep down, is one of the most diverse agricultural areas in the world but it is also one of the driest. The ground water has gone down so much that people pump even deeper. To replace all the ground water you would need a second Colorado River. Also, water has been subsidized so heavily that farmers buy their water for cheap and, because of that, grow more crops on desert soil which probably should be left alone. Plus the pumping causes sink holes, while lakes in Southern California, (like Salton Sea mentioned above) and Mono Lake, are disappearing to provide water for golf courses and swimming pools in Los Angeles.
On January 17th, 2014, California governor Jerry Brown announced a drought emergency as we were and are dealing with the lowest total rainfall in the history of the state (all 163 years of it). All of this comes a little late. Short-term planning to battle a returning drought is ineffective and even though the water numbers for April were better, with consumers using 13% less water, we will have a long and dry summer ahead of us. The drought increases the fire risk and if a major fire does break out, that will cut into the dwindling water supplies again.
As for water conservation: restaurants don’t serve water anymore unless you ask for it, hotels ask their guests to support a water preservation policy with regard to washing towels and linens and, at home, we are trying to conserve water by letting our lawns die, taking very short showers, and flushing/not flushing our toilets with the revolting motto: “When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.” (I do not need to explain that one, I hope…)
As I have already mentioned in my blog post My California: (https://inezhollander.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/my-california/) people from other states have a certain prejudice against us and our success: we may be successful as a economy, but we’re living on the edge, taunting impending disasters that are almost Biblical in nature: earthquakes, droughts, fires you name it. The drought, however, is not a California problem: it’s a national one and if we do explode like that egg in the microwave oven, this will affect and drag down the entire nation. While nearly every day another presidential candidate steps forward to run in the 2016 election, very few talk about climate change, the important commodity that water has become or how the drought in California may affect the nation and its economy. It’s the same short-sightedness that we see in local politics when it comes to sensible water conservation and sustainability.
When the Netherlands was flooded for the last time, in 1953, the government started a long-term plan to make sure a disaster of that stature wouldn’t happen again. It took tons of money and decades to build but the Zeeland delta, once one of the more vulnerable provinces in floods, is now protected by a sea wall. That sea wall is more solid and ever lasting than a single preventative water conservation measure we have put in place since the first drought in California. This state, this country can do better, but conservation starts at home, so drink WINE not WATER, as grapes only get better in times of drought, while potable water gets much worse…