As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water – and the problem started before our current drought.--Jay Famiglietti, NASA senior water scientist, March 12, 2105
April 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order addressing itself to the severe water shortage in his state. The answer is that California will reduce its water usage by twenty-five percent by 2016. No excuses will be accepted. "The price of food may go up because the cost of water is getting much higher. That’s one thing," the Governor said on PBS last month. "And, in general, what’s happening in California is one variant of the change in weather and climate. And so other places have to look at this and understand we are—when I say we, humankind all over the world is putting billions of tons of chemicals, CO2, methane and other things, other greenhouse gases, and that’s warming and disrupting the very delicate web of life and balance in the hydrological cycle and in the climate."
The following uses of water in California are now against the law and subject to penalties:
- If you water your landscape, you are permitted no runoff onto adjacent property.
- If you wash your car, your water hose better have a shut-off valve that stops water from pouring out when it is not in use.
- You cannot use water to wash your driveway or sidewalk.
- You cannot water your landscape if there has been measurable rain within the last forty-eight hours.
- If you want water served to you in a restaurant or hotel, you will need to ask for it. Providing it without your request is forbidden.
- Irrigating ornamental landscapes with potable water is limited to no more than three days per week.
- Customers with even-numbered addresses may irrigate on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
- Customers with odd-numbered addresses may irrigate on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- Irrigation of special landscape areas or commercial nurseries may occur as needed, provided that the customer who wishes to irrigate a special landscape area or commercial nursery presents Cal Water with a plan to achieve water use reductions commensurate with those that would be achieved by complying with foregoing restrictions.
- Re-filling and initial filling of single-family residential swimming pools or outdoor spas with potable water is prohibited, except to maintain required operating levels of existing pools and spas or as a result of completing structural repairs to the swimming pool or outdoor spa.
- Filling or re-filling ornamental lakes or ponds with potable water is prohibited, except to the extent needed to sustain aquatic life.
Does any of this sound unfair? Or does it make sense regardless of the presence of an emergency?
Not all the burden is on the individual Californian, however. The State Water Resources Control Board passed rules that divide the 410 largest cities, water districts and water companies in the state into nine tiers, based on their residential per capita water use from last fall. They will have to meet the targets or face state fines of up to $10,000 a day. Communities with low per-capita use will have to reduce water use by only eight percent because they already have been conserving. Places with high per-capita use will have to cut thirty-six percent.
But don't big corporations have a responsibility to kind of, you know, lend a hand?
The Desert Sun newspaper reported that Nestlé was bottling water in drought-stricken areas of California and selling it for profit, all while its permit for water pipelines and wells in the San Bernardino National Forest lists 1988 as the year of expiration. Nestlé currently extracts water from at least a dozen natural springs in California. Nestle Waters North America has long drawn water from wells that tap into springs in Strawberry Canyon north of San Bernardino. The water flows through a pipeline across the national forest and is hauled by trucks to a plant to be bottled as Arrowhead 100 percent Mountain Spring Water.
I don't know why people drink bottled water at all. Where do you think the bottle goes after you jam it into your plastic garbage sack? The odds are excellent that it ends up in a putrefying landfill near some poor person's rickety apartment complex. Or it might make its way to that ten thousand mile mobius strip of plastic waste that circles from the northwestern shores of the American continent to Japan and back. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, wrote a book entitled Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. He argues that paying more for throwaway plastic when potable water is readily on tap is the result of fear-mongering by businesses that turned bottled water into the most successful product in a century.
Governor Brown has been doing a great job of protecting agribusinesses and the oil industry from being hit hard by the four-year drought, at least when it comes to their responsibility to stop making things even worse. As Evan Blake writes in The Ecologist:
Throughout his entire political career, dating back to the 1970s, Brown has been entirely beholden to Big Oil, while posturing as a defender of the environment. He has accepted at least $2 million in campaign contributions from oil corporations since 2006, including Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, Southern California Edison, Valero Energy, Tesoro Corp, Conoco Phillips and Aera Energy (owned jointly by Shell and ExxonMobil).
That bit about "posturing" hurts the Governor's supporters where they live. I should know. I have long been one of those supporters.
When Jerry Brown was elected California Secretary of State back in 1970, he litigated and won cases against Standard Oil of California, ITT, Gulf Oil and what was then called Mobil Oil for election law violations. Elected state Governor in 1974, he created the California Office of Appropriate Technology, sponsored tax incentives for rooftop solar, and repealed the state's oil depletion allowance. He may have been fiscally conservative (giving the state a $5 billion surplus before the end of his first term), but he was clearly otherwise progressive, boosting support for the California Arts Council by 1300 percent, opposing the death penalty, and appointing the United States' first openly gay judge and first openly lesbian judge. He has vehemently opposed so-called free trade agreements.
So when Jerry came out making demands on homeowners and residential customers implementing what I consider rules that people ought to be adhering to anyway, I figured the plan was a good one.
Zen fascists will control you
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face.--Jello Biafra, The Dead Kennedys, "California Uber Alles"
Could I have been wrong?
When I was a happy-being-miserable college student, the radicals who constituted the majority of my friendship base all hated Brown because he used to hang out with Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. That seemed unfair to me. After all, Jimmy Carter had been a fan of the Allman Brothers Band. I had been suspecting a major resurgence in pop music, something that would edge out the vile disco sludge that DJs were using to pollute our precious eustachian tubes. And even though I didn't hold much truck with Ronstadt and Henley, I preferred them over the friggin' Bee Gees, who were virtually hegemonic on the radio back then. The truth is that I was secretly harboring a fantasy of a Little Feat regime in the United States, one with Lowell George as President, keyboardist Bill Payne as Veep, drummer Richie Hayward as Secretary of State, and a special appearance by Frank Zappa as ambassador to Iran. Hey, a guy can dream, right?
Brown's decision to not put pressure on almond growers and industry is a serious call for inaction. Granted, push the farmers and prices for fruits, vegetables and nuts will go up, which means that retailers such as Wal-Mart won't buy them, which means they will buy them from other warm regions of the planet that are very happy to pay their employees sub-human wages and funnel the profits into drug cartels. Let's face it: when you buy food from Mexico, you are financing the illicit drug trade. There's at least one drop of human blood that gets sacrificed into every eight ball of cocaine that gets chopped and snorted, so let's stop kidding ourselves that the United States is some offshore island that does not impact and get impacted by every other country on this planet.
What the hell do we do?
One thing we can do is stop the phony free trade agreements that help facilitate the importation of foreign products, including groceries. The last time I checked, California was still a part of the United States. Instead of looking for ways to make it easier for Latin American countries to sell their wares here, the United States as a whole could make the economies of those other countries the problems of those countries, import tax them into smithereens, and actually drive down the price of domestic food in the U.S. to rates we haven't seen since the late 1960s. The downside to this solution is that it would likely start up a real immigration problem. Real? Yes, real. The one we supposedly have now actually does not exist--at least not if numbers matter, which I'm fairly certain they do. The United States has more people leaving than coming in at present, in large part because the economic policies of every President since at least Bill Clinton (and probably as far back as Nixon) has made it a priority to stagnate the domestic economy so that "real growth" is only measured in ways that benefit an extremely small percentage of the population while the rest of the people--black, white, brown, red--suffer the indignities of being brainwashed into believing that affluence means you have the latest wireless device rather than anything substantial.
What I am trying to say here--without getting too emotional (I try, folks, I swear I try)--is that this problem with water in California is not just a problem for one state. It is not merely a problem for the west or southwest, or only for the United States. As consumptive as our country is (using twenty-five percent of the planet's resources), we only share in the responsibility and we certainly cannot dig ourselves out of this tar pit alone.
In a recent article published by the National Geographic, writer Dennis Dimick advises that "When surface water supplies are low, hidden water supplies beneath the surface in aquifers, or groundwater, are drilled to make up the shortfall. A large aquifer under the Central Valley is being rapidly depleted to make up for shortfalls in surface water supply. A 2011 study indicated that the Central Valley Aquifer is losing an amount of water each year equivalent to the nearly 29 million acre-feet of water found in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest surface reservoir on the Colorado River."
And California, United States of America, is not alone. According to UNICEF, many other countries are experiencing something similar: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, China, Iran, India, and Morocco are all suffering uncharacteristic droughts of considerable duration.
To his credit, Brown has had the decency to lay the blame for the problem on human activities while most people running for higher office these days shake their heads and reluctantly admit that things are getting worse but want further evidence that people actually have had anything to do with the problem. That kind of reasoning wouldn't play well with their base of tax-evading survivalists who think that the only good police officer is one with the blood of a minority on his hands. So when California's Governor admits that our collective decisions to over-consume have placed us in this mess, he displays more honesty and courage than most.
What he might consider doing is crashing the next global summit. He could bring along Steve van Zant, Bono, Elton--hell, even Jello Biafra, and point out to the leaders that if they hope to enjoy the sunny climate of any place on earth, it would behoove them to apply the brakes to pollution lest the "tipping point" for climate death will collapse on our sniveling selves like those metaphoric dominoes about which those same leaders love to editorialize.
Most of the time I suspend my belief in political solutions. But this drought makes pretending a luxury we cannot afford.