Saturday, October 16, 2010

Watering Can

Another year, another Blog Action Day!  And hey, this time it isn't about climate change.  Yay variety!  Instead, it is a slightly related topic: Water.

I never used to think about water much before I moved to California.  It was just something that came out of a tap.  We would sometimes talk about Lake Michigan water, as opposed to other kinds of water, but that was simply a matter of taste.

I'm now living in a part of the country where it simply doesn't rain for about six months out of the year, and most of our rain occurs during a stretch from December-February.  This is a land that has rationed water use in the past, and may need to do so in the future.  It's a place where all the grass turns brown during the summer.  Water is a major political topic, and an incredibly complex one at that, pitching farmers, environmentalists, suburban homeowners, fishermen, power companies, and residents in the Central Valley all against one another.

The root problem is scarcity.  We don't get much rain, we don't have large sources of freshwater, and so we need to manage what we have.  During the rainy season, this isn't as big of a problem: local communities can collect rainwater in reservoirs and use that.  To keep hydrated throughout the year, though, we rely on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the eastern edge of the state.  When spring comes, the snow melts, and flows in giant rivers into the Central Valley.  From there... well, that's just the question.  Local farmers want to use it to water their crops.  Residents in Southern California want to use it to water their lawns.  Fishermen want to make sure enough water remains in the river so salmon can swim back upstream to respawn.  Environmentalists want to make sure that, while diverting water to other uses, the dams don't kill off endangered species like the delta smelt.  San Francisco wants to make sure they get enough water to drink.  And on and on.

It's pretty amazing that we can even have this argument.  For almost all of human history, water was local.  People would move around to follow water: nomads would move on to another oasis when their present one dried up; tribes would move their camps during the wet and dry seasons.  With the invention of irrigation (thanks, Civilization!), we could move around water to suit our own needs.  Now, a city could be built away from rivers with dangerous flooding, and long rows of ditches would carry water where it needed to go to water crops.

The industrialization of our society made this change even more dramatic.  We can use millions of tons of concrete to build gigantic dams, with the ability to completely reverse the flow of a river.  We can use locks and canals to bring ships far inland.  Gigantic public works projects can create impossible cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which could not exist without carrying in hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year.

It's tempting to say that we need to stop what we're doing.  California is straining at the limits of what it can achieve by shuffling around the limited water it has.  Population has boomed, we've already squeezed out almost all the efficiency we can through technology changes like low-flow toilets and showers, and with the specter of climate change looming, it seems likely that we'll have less and less water to work with.  People talk about California needing to downsize, to stop messing with nature, to clear out of the places that require engineering to be livable.

I understand the impulse, but I have to disagree.  Probably the best example is the Central Valley itself.  Without the elaborate system of canals and irrigation created by the Army Corp of Engineers, this would just be a desert.  With that infrastructure, though, it's arguably the best agricultural region in the entire world, and provides the lion's share of our nations's vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  It's a calculation we have to make: is the investment of water worth the result we get?  I think the answer is "Yes".

We need to start getting better at asking that question, and better at picking our answers.  We no longer have enough water to meet all of our needs, so we need to prioritize those needs.  Is a green lawn nice?  Yes.  Are salmon nice?  Yes.  Well, suppose we can't have both.  Which should we choose?

There are no easy answers.  We can keep working towards future technological solutions like desalination plants and wastewater recycling, but those are incredibly expensive and may not provide a panacea.  We need to have honest political discussions about what to do with the water we have.  Inevitably, those discussions will become arguments, and politicians will make enemies no matter what they decide.  We, as citizens, should hold our leaders accountable: they should act like adults, be truthful about the situation we face, and clearly present the tradeoffs we can make.

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