Flipping out intelligently over California’s drought

half-baked-freak-out-o

Everyone is flippin’ out about California’s drought, and with good reason. Skim the excellent California Weather Blog‘s last few months of posts, and it’s clear that the state* is going through a period of warmth and dryness that it has not experienced in thousands of years. And evidence over the last decades points to us being in the middle of a climactic shift with wide-ranging but hard-to-predict effects.

But as the flip-out reaches a crescendo, I’m finding the quality of the conversation on the drought to be a bit uneven.

Take this NYT story. The work of five reporters, it asks questions such as the following:

Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive? Will tourists worry about coming? Will businesses continue their expansion in places like San Francisco and Venice?

Which have the feel of comments thrown around during an editorial meeting, but which end up having very little to do with the rest of the article, terrifying as they sound. We’re also told the California Dream may finally be crumbling because desert communities are replacing lawns with palo verde trees and cactus. For me, this particular anecdote is a hopeful sign of innovation and adaptation — as is any reconsideration of the cancer-like sprawl that’s characterized much California development in the last 60 years. It’s the upside of the drought, in a way: forcing people to confront the limits of their environment, and using human ingenuity to keep moving forward.

There’s much to be confused about in this article. “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live” in California, a USC historian tells us. But did Mother Nature “intend” for North America to have 530 million? For Planet Earth to have more than 7 billion? Of the many observations that the Times could have chosen to quote, this one seems more on the useless end of the spectrum.

And what about little details like the fact that much of desert SoCal draws its water not from the extreme-drought afflicted Sierra Nevada, but from the slightly less dried out (but massively over-allocated) Colorado River watershed. (Compare precipitation in the Rockies to the Sierra in the image below, from the aforementioned California Weather Blog.) The report does not even mention the Colorado or the Sierra.

Then the story tries to link the drought to the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is quite a stretch. When we say we have to cut back on housing developments, what I assume we’re talking about are McMansion subdivisions in the exurbs with expansive lawns and golf courses, not high-density apartments in a NorCal city. And as Mother Jones has reported, the major strains on the state’s water come from other sources, mainly agriculture.

But the Times article essentially glosses over the all-important facts about who is actually using water in California, and what they’re providing to the state in return: Agriculture, which drinks up 80 percent of California’s water (as we find out toward the end of the article), accounts for just 2 percent of its GDP (which the article does not mention).

The picture that begins to emerge is not a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the water crisis, but a secret wish for a Walking Dead/ Mad Max-type drought-apocalypse society in which those surfing, sun-tanned, different-priority-having Californians finally get their comeuppance.

Artist’s depiction of hydro-militias in the water wars of 2030. (Source: http://walkingdeadaily.tumblr.com/).

Of course, the drought is cause for great alarm, and for a reevaluation of economic priorities across the West, including rethinking the way we grow and by how much. But it is not, as you might guess from reading only this article, a new and surprising situation. Those of us who grew up in late-1980s California remember well the fun of drought-themed school recitations: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down!” Since the early days of river-rerouting, California’s fantastically shortsighted exploitation of its water resources has ensured near-constant crisis in years that have even a little less than normal precipitation. It’s absolutely not surprising that climate change has tipped the state over the edge. (See the late Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for the classic history of Western water mismanagement.)

Here’s the problem with all of this: When we miss the long-term context of the crisis, and the Hobbesian droughtpocalypse fails to materialize, there’s a risk that the next time we have a good rain year, we forget all about the changes we need to make and just celebrate the short-lived surplus.  Which is what often happened in 2011, when the West got dumped on, and everyone wondered if we could stop worrying.

California does have solutions available. The question is just whether people are civic-minded enough and have long enough attention spans to adopt them — and whether we’re courageous enough to stand up to wealthy agricultural interests.

But in the somewhat confused conversations about the drought that I’m seeing, there’s not a unified push for these measures. Slideshows of empty reservoirs are great fodder for “These photos of Californias drought left me speechless”-clickbait, but they don’t necessarily tell us what’s really going on. Elsewhere, you’ll find people talking about their personal decisions to change consumption habits — certainly not a bad goal, but hard to use to effect really meaningful change in statewide water use. Take this viral-friendly graphic from the LA Times. Connect this to policy, and you’ve done something meaningful. Get a few conscientious consumers to avoid the mango bin at Wholefoods (even though most of the fruits are not grown in California), and you haven’t accomplished much.

Worse, until we have a less-panicked conversation, there will be space for right-wing responses to the drought like this absurd, opportunistic column by Carly Fiorina, which accuses liberals of pitting the endangered Delta smelt against California families.Besides highlighting the need for more poetic names for our endangered species, arguments like these are just populist propaganda for big agriculture and other water-guzzling business interests, who can’t be bothered to figure out how to be slightly more water-efficient for the common good. Until there’s greater clarity on the challenges California is actually facing, though, such arguments will find a toehold. (As an aside, how crazy is it that there are people who view it as waste any time a river actually reaches the ocean?)

Instead, what we need more of is this sort of sober analysis, posted to Robert Reich’s Facebook page a few days ago.

Why did Governor Jerry Brown exempt Big Oil and Big Agriculture from his order this week to cut water consumption by 25 percent? Big Oil uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day in California for fracking, acidizing, and steam injections – nearly 70 million gallons last year alone. Meanwhile, California’s farmers consume 80 percent of the water used in the state and generate only 2 percent of the state’s economic activity.

Oddly, the Governor’s order focuses on urban water use, which makes up less than a quarter of the water consumed here. California could save the same amount of water by requiring its farmers to increase water efficiency by 5 percent.

That’s what I call an intelligent flip-out.

*Note: I’ll soon be back in California somewhat permanently, which is partly why I’m taking such a renewed interest in my home state.

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