Drying Up

images-1Two people responded to my Facebook post about moving to California with concerns about water. I’d like to talk a little about this, because it’s certainly been on my mind, too.

In the very worst case, if our experience turns out to be intolerable, we’ll leave. This move is a venture, even an adventure, not a life sentence.

In the meantime, I note that we’re coming from a low-water, drought-prone region. We’re accustomed to minding our water use. Marta replaced all of our toilets with low-flow units (she’s the handy-person in the house), and we’ve spent the last couple of years test-plotting various low-water vegetation around the house, with an eye to eventually eliminating the lawn and the sprinkler system (though we’d keep the drip lines in place). We’re prepared to do the same there.

I’m just beginning to learn about the water situation in California, but what I already know is that it’s considerably more complex than the simplistic disaster-porn headlines you see on the Internet.

The first thing to know about the water situation (anywhere) is that it’s almost always, and almost entirely, about agriculture. Here in Larimer County, only 17% of the water goes to non-agricultural purposes, and only 7% to “domestic use,” meaning those lush suburbs with their green lawns and automatic clothes-washing machines and backyard swimming pools.

The same is true in California. The water crisis is primarily about agribusiness, with the possible exception of the Los Angeles and San Francisco urban areas. If I were planning to buy a vineyard in Mendocino County, with the intent to make a living as a vintner, I’d certainly want to know a lot more about the water situation than I do. On the other hand, the existing vineyards aren’t pulling out their vines and replacing them with agave just yet.

The second thing to know is that seven-year droughts are normal to Northern California. With global warming, this could turn into fifty- or hundred-year droughts; it could even desiccate the entire state and turn it into a true, long-term desert. But the time-scale on global warming is fairly long, fifty to one hundred years on the inside, a thousand years on the outside. Yes, it makes sense to take action now to mitigate human behaviors that exacerbate global warming for centuries to come; that mitigation does not, however, include living in one place or another.

Another way to put this is to say that, yes, a century from now, Mendocino County may be an uninhabitable, waterless desert wasteland, in which case our great-grandchildren will not live there.  We do nothing to help or hurt the matter by living there now, while it is habitable.

Of more concern is the politics of water. The ghastly pictures you see on the Internet of dried-up lake beds and reservoirs has to do with draining them. They aren’t lakes that are just drying up of their own accord. They are reserves of water that are being used.

The same is true of the aquifers under the soil. These are not drying up: they are being used.

What drains the lakes, reservoirs, and aquifers is politics and free-market economics, and the lion’s share of that water goes to agribusiness. Perhaps it goes to fracking, too — I’m not sure where that boondoggle stands in California right now. Researching all that will give me plenty to blog about.

How it will play out over the next century is anyone’s guess. Neither of us will be around to see it. At the moment, however, Northern California got some rain this last winter, if not as much as they’d like, and the county has negotiated some additional foot-acreage in Mendocino Lake for local use, so the area continues to be eminently livable.

Far more important to me than any of these rational considerations about water, and foot-acres, and NASA climate modeling, is the question of whether our personal actions and life-choices are dominated by fear of what might happen, or joy in what might happen.

Our brains are wired to give more weight to fear than to joy. A big part of what we call “spirituality” has to do with overcoming this tendency to focus on the negative, and to instead cultivate an attitude of gratitude and joy. That’s true of Christianity (in its non-pathological expressions), Islam (in its non-pathological expressions), Tibetan Buddhism, Confucianism, Wicca, Druidry, and most other spiritual paths and practices you might care to list.

We’re moving from a land of forest fires, spring flash floods, drought, tornados, blizzards, and West Nile Virus, to a land of earthquakes, winter floods, drought, and whatever else.

It will be an adventure.

4 comments on “Drying Up

  1. Narda says:

    Jerry Brown has allowed fracking in some area(s) with resulting open pools of toxic
    Water, the end product of that extraction process. I can’t remember which areas, but surely any aquifers nearby will be at risk. I’m sure you’ll find that info online.


  2. Mark Meredith says:

    The Seven-year-droughts you have heard of are, um, kind of a funny joke excuse the locals believe in. In actuality, the 7-year droughts are pretty much back-to-back and continuous with little to no recovery period between. In my 35 years living there, there was always talk about the seven year cycle. But the cycle never ends. They just kept asking everyone (non-agricultural) to conserve more. Years ago they asked everyone to reduce their water use by 20%, then a few years later they asked for another 20%, then another 20%, and another, and now they have asked for 25%. Each time they ask sounds like the first time! I made up those numbers except the last one (because I don’t want to do the research,) but to my amazement, everyone became innovative and complied with little grumbling. People love living in California, so they deal with, and meet, the challenges. It’s impressive.

    I publicly state that I don’t miss living in California one bit…but that’s a lie. Despite the water issues, the California lifestyle is mostly awesome. I’m a little envious of you. But the water situation there is very real and directly affects millions. Although, mostly in Southern California and the Central Valley, where they shamelessly get their water from anywhere they can. The drained reservoirs and other lakes are evidence of the ravenous appetite brought on by the drought. Sadly, but understandably to some extent, agribusiness and deep pockets will get the lions-share of available water. Leaving small communities to fend for themselves. It’s an incredibly complex issue that not only affects those within the state, but all states in the SW region who rely on the Colorado and other rivers.

    I honestly believe the problem will resolve itself. Not by more rain, or desalinization. Rather by toxificaiton of fertile soils. The Central Valley is one of the largest productive growing regions in the world, if not the largest. To satisfy production lust, crops are continuously cycled with little (if any) recovery of the soils. The soils is supplemented with nutrients for the next crop. There isn’t much of a winter there and the growing season and crop cycles pretty much never end. There’s a LOT of agricultural science that goes in to making the land as productive as possible. The downside, however, is the build-up of toxic salts in the soil. They used to be able to saturate the soil with water to leach the salts away. Since water is limited and expensive, they’ve tried chemicals to neutralize the salts. But nothing works very well and the salts slowly keep building up. Already, a good portion of the Valley has been unusable because of leaching and toxic accumulatoin in the lower drainage areas of the Valley. These areas are getting bigger and bigger each year. I’ve read (again without references) toxic salts
    are building up everywhere in the Valley now. It’s only a matter to time for the biggest user of California water will no longer be able to support and justify their hunger. This is only my opinion. = )


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