© 2014 Joshua Stark
There is no such thing as California water.
There is no such thing as California water.
There is water in California, to be sure, from many varied places and of varying degrees of quality. Los Angeles, for example, sits immediately next to the single largest body of water on the entire Earth -- and reminds me of a line from Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
If you read any op-ed piece or news article, or listen or watch any reports on our drought, you may be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as California water. Alas, it is not so. Let me explain.
California is blessed with more climates than all other states combined; we have literally dozens of micro-climates, as well, and, it goes without saying (almost) that we have hundreds of watersheds. This is because our topography and our range of latitude are both extreme. We have the second longest coastline of any state in the Nation, the highest peak in the Lower 48, the lowest and driest places in the country, and the hottest place on Earth. California's seasonal precipitation varies from 2.5 inches to to ten and one-half feet (see this great map).
California is also very, very large. For example: The drive from Sacramento (considered by many in Los Angeles to be "Northern California") to Crescent City is the same distance as the drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles (if you don't know where Crescent City is, by the way, you legally have to move to Nevada and petition to get back into the State).
Now, consider the same water conversation on the Eastern seaboard: Do we talk about "East Coast" water as if it is one thing? Rarely do we consider the environmental, economic and social impacts of any policies in Portland, Maine, on Richmond, Virginia; more to the point, we would never consider pumping water from Portland to Richmond.
In fact, we don't even have language that would begin to encapsulate a conversation around water and watershed impacts between those two completely separated regions of our country. Nor should we -- it would be absurd.
Of course, our political boundaries make all things possible (or impossible)...
The reality is that this year, each region of California is experiencing a drought. The ecological impacts of one year of drought are tough, but California's weather is so diverse, and we haven't invested in the research to understand the extraordinarily complex implications of drought on each region.
Instead, we let our political boundaries frame our perception of reality, and when we try to shoehorn that perception into the physical reality of our gigantic State, we are left dumbfounded. This occurs when we try to understand our impacts on water -- like when we unnaturally store and pump water the length of New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina.
But, instead of putting more resources into understanding the implications of our ecosystem-shifting actions (like pumping water, but also like mandating that people stop using outdoor water), we make a boatload of sweeping assumptions:
We assume that we have California water.
We assume that all water has the same value everywhere.
We assume that water's value is only in its commercial or civic use.
We assume that water is "used" like a product -- consumed and poof! it's gone.
We assume that residential water use is always consumptive and bad, and that radically diminishing its use will have only good impacts.
We assume that we dramatically diminish our consumption of water, overall, when we cut back on residential use.
We assume that California (corporate) Agriculture is a foundation of our economy.
We assume that the Central Valley and Southern California would not survive without "Northern" California water.
All of these are terribly inaccurate assumptions, but the worst of all (in my opinion) is our assumption that all human water users everywhere are exactly the same.
But, just as we live in radically different ecosystems throughout our state, our use of water and the impacts of that use on the landscape radically differ.
I can provide myself as an example. I live 200 yards from the Sacramento River, on the edge of the California Delta and squarely within a riparian (or wetlands) corridor.
My ecosystem has evolved with certain features, a relative abundance of water being one of them. With our fluctuating temperatures (over 100 degrees F in the Summer, down to the high 30's in the Winter) and our wildly divergent seasons (all of our measurable precipitation occurs between October and April), this abundance of water has local impacts such as relative humidity, and its ease of access means that animals haven't adapted to go very far or for very long without taking a drink.
I have a tiny pond in my back yard. That pond -- plus a dog who doesn't care -- means a safe place for a drink for many local birds. I have identified five separate species using the pond to bathe, four of them native. Additionally, the safety of the space from the local feral cat population, plus my gigantic trees, has proven useful for nesting, and I know of four species of birds who are nesting in my back yard, alone (and I'm confident that there are many more). One species, yellow-billed magpies (endemic to California), is threatened with extinction from west nile virus, and so my pond management (using my pond to water my garden and trees every three days) may even be providing some help, as I have kept my mosquito population pretty low.
I don't use any fertilizer on my lawn, nor do I spray any pesticides on anything, so our runoff to the local river isn't any more polluted than when it came in. I'd like to say it's because I'm environmentally friendly, but I've never cared what my lawn looks like.
In fact, my habitat is very thirsty and my soil is porous, and very little of our water actually runs off into our curb (where it would evaporate and pour down a sinkhole, because our street doesn't have a drain).
When we shower, run the sink or flush the toilet, our water heads to a water treatment plant, where it comes out cleaner than the water that came downriver.
One variable I don't understand (but I expect is quite large): I do not know how much water is leaked out of bad city pipes and infrastructure on its way to and from my 1/8th acre lot.
Much of the water that we paid for and "used" then continues downstream, where some of it is collected, pumped 200 miles South, and sold by somebody who claims to own it. For some reason, my payment for the use of the water never resulted in transfer of ownership of that water to me to sell to this downstream entity.
Chances are great that this water is then sprayed into a field of alfalfa or an almond orchard, where it collects very large amounts of artificial nitrogen, along with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and locally occurring heavy metals. It then either evaporates, sinks into the local groundwater, or runs into the local river. Such water is not cleaned, and so its costs are borne downstream, in the air, and in groundwater aquifers. Through this landscape where "my" water flowed, cleaner because of me, it passed thousands of Californians whose groundwater is now so contaminated that they cannot drink it.
If I lived in a desert or a rain shadow, my use of water in such a way may be considered wasteful. But where I live now, with water such an important part of my ecosystem, dramatically curbing my water use may be the wrong thing to do.
I could write a book dispelling the other assumptions made above (eg., agriculture is 3% of our economy and is a huge burden on many Central Valley communities; if we cut all of our outdoor residential water use completely, we'd save about one-third as much water as we use on alfalfa in the State).
But for now, I only hope that this opens up a conversation about water's use and real impacts throughout our gigantic and diverse, and wonderful State.