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.

As the Imagined Becomes Real

Sometime back in mid-February, an odd series of events sent Marta to the web, and what she found there made my jaw drop! (Isn’t that the Internet formula to draw readers?)

What she found was that the cost of living in Northern California is not very different from the cost of living in Fort Collins.

Marta and I both work from home, via the Internet. We can both live anywhere in the world with Internet access.

We have been restless and looking to move since 2006. We just didn’t have a place to go to, and it was important to us to be moving toward something. We’ve considered places as far away as New Zealand. We’d seriously considered Spain, and were in the early stages of planning another trip there. We’d talked about every region, and virtually every state in the United States. Every state, that is, except California.

I’ve always wanted to live in California. My first choice of graduate schools was Stanford: had I been accepted there, I’d have gone in a heartbeat. I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Then later in life, I accepted the common wisdom that anyone who owned a doghouse with attached water bowl in California could sell it, and use the profits to buy forty acres in Colorado and build a McMansion, and still live comfortably on what was left over. I’d heard many stories of well-paid (by my standards) IT and tech wizards living in their cars, because they could not afford any kind of housing. Some corporations would buy out entire floors of office buildings, or even entire office buildings, then convert them to dormitories for their key workers.

No, thank you.

Marta has lived in California, while she was in school in Monterey, and has always wanted to go back. Again, the barrier was cost.

So this cost of living information was Big News, and we started to investigate. The investigation turned into imagining, the imagining has turned to planning, and the plan is becoming real.

290-wagonTrain2Marta and I are moving to California!

Our landing spot is a very small town about two and a half hours north of San Francisco, near the headwaters of the Russian River, in the middle of the northern wine country and redwood forests: it’s called Ukiah, population 16,000.

There are two main issues driving this change of location.

The first issue is weather.

I’m pretty much done with snow and ice. When I was younger, the smell of snow in the air was always exciting, because it meant ski season. But I know too many friends — better skiers than I ever was — who now set off metal detectors in airports and have a first-name relationship with a physical therapist. I sold my skis and boots years ago, and don’t expect to be buying new ones in this life.

Nothing has taken the place of skiing for me in the winter. Nothing except shoveling walks.

There’s a story of a sailor who grew tired of the sea, so he threw an oar over his shoulder and started to walk inland. Many weeks later, a child asked him, “Hey, mister, what’s that thing you’ve got over your shoulder?” and he decided he’d walked far enough.

I want to throw a snow shovel over my shoulder and start walking.

Marta gets up early to walk the dog — I rise later, after a hard night’s blogging. More than once, I’ve awakened to the sound of Marta crying in the kitchen or dining room, and I’ve leapt out of bed to find that she slipped on a sidewalk during her walk and smacked her head, or her hip. I even blogged about one of those incidents. We’ve both had more than enough of that.

imagesUkiah has what is called a “temperate Mediterranean” climate. It does get hot in the summer — days can peak at over 110° F. However, it’s dry heat, and unlike Texas or parts of the Midwest, the temperature invariably drops at night into the 50’s or 60’s. In winter, they see snow every two or three years, a light dusting that closes all the schools and then melts in a day or two.

No one owns a snow shovel. Many might not even recognize one. It sounds like the ideal place for me to stop carrying that snow shovel over my shoulder.

The second issue is more subtle.

When I moved to Fort Collins in 1988, it had a population of 85,000. It now stands at 152,000, and it’s one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the nation.

Some time in the last twenty-seven years, Fort Collins changed from a town into a city. It’s a beautiful city. But it’s a city now, not a town.

The change from year to year has been subtle. Each year, the traffic is a little heavier. Driving across town used to take seven minutes; now it takes twenty. Supermarkets are crowded. Lines are longer. There is more noise, and fewer smiles. Even the bike trails, which used to be exercise in relative isolation, get crowded on a fine spring morning.

It all came home to me the Wednesday evening after we returned from our trip to check out Ukiah in person. I discovered that Joshua Bell, the violinist, was playing the next night in Fort Collins. I ran to my computer, but tickets were, of course, sold out. They’d probably sold out within 24 hours of announcing the concert. That exemplified, for me, the whole problem.

A little town like Fort Collins in the 1970’s would probably never have attracted an artist like Joshua Bell, certainly not on any regular basis. A city like Fort Collins in 2015 can attract such talent, but you have to be quick and aggressive to take advantage of such opportunities. If you aren’t quick and aggressive, you miss out. Events sell out; venues fill up; there are no parking spaces.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I enjoyed opportunities like these. It didn’t bother me to brave traffic into the heart of Denver to see New Year’s Eve fireworks, or to park in some dodgy downtown parking lot to attend a talk or see a show. I would stand in line for hours at the theater to catch the first showing of a new film. I was perfectly happy to catch dinner at ten in the evening, stay out drinking until two in the morning, then get up the next day to drive to Larkspur for the Renaissance Fair.

That doesn’t work for me any more. I am not, in fact, growing quicker and more aggressive as the years pass. Nor is Marta. We miss most of the opportunities that a city offers, and a missed opportunity is not much different from no opportunity at all.

For a town of 16,000, Ukiah is surprisingly vibrant. We timed our trip there to coincide with First Friday, the Art Walk the town sponsors on the first Friday evening of each month, similar to the First Friday that Fort Collins sponsors. The event in Ukiah was more active and far more sociable, and we felt welcomed, though we were complete strangers. We went to the Saturday Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday year-round (unless Christmas falls on Saturday), and found the same kind of sociability, as well as fresh organic produce: the entire county was doing “organic” back in the 1960’s. There’s a symphony orchestra, an active music scene, and a long tradition of fine arts. There are numerous good restaurants, and they were all busy the nights we were there, in the middle of the town’s off-season (they do have a tourist season). They have festivals of one sort or another nearly every weekend, starting in spring and extending into the fall, like many of the small towns in Germany that I visited in 2002.

The best part is that the way people interact reminds me a lot of the town that Fort Collins used to be. People meet your eyes, smile, and greet you in the street: it’s a small town, not a city. It feels like going home.

So the imagined is becoming real for us.