Water And Its Discontents

The California drought has prompted Governor Jerry Brown to mandate a twenty-five-per-cent reduction in the state’s water usage. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / GETTY

The California drought has prompted Governor Jerry Brown to mandate a twenty-five-per-cent reduction in the state’s water usage. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / GETTY

Thanks to this post we learn that writers from one of our most valued sources of cultural and environmental long-form journalism and rapid-fire website posts sometimes travel to Costa Rica, and we can only hope they will consider Xandari a home away from home on such travels. But more importantly, in this post, we are reminded that the environmental footprint of the foods we eat is a relatively new topic for most of us. Did you consider the almond, the way you consider beef, to be one of the greedier foods, in terms of the water-intensity of its life cycle? Until reading this post we were clueless on that topic:

Drought City


“Los Angeles Residents Walk Up to 4 Hours Per Day to Look for Potable Water”: I read this headline in a small monthly that covers the coastal province in northwestern Costa Rica where I was travelling, but it took me a moment to realize that this was not about the city of nearly four million where I pay my water bill, and not a joke, though it was April 1st. Los Angeles, in this case, referred to a fifteen-family town in the Central American highlands. But my Los Angeles is in for it, too, and it is a measure of how imminent and ominous these changes feel that my mistake seemed, for a moment, plausible—a new extreme in a year’s worth of shocking news about the effects of the California drought.

Last summer, towns around the state struggled to get by on diminishing water supplies, praying for fall rains, which came intermittently but made no difference. Communities in the Central Valley, where groundwater has been pumped aggressively to irrigate farms, reported that the taps in their houses had run completely dry. And by the end of this winter, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada had dropped to five per cent of its historical average. Snowmelt typically provides about a third of the state’s available water in the warmer months. This spring, there will be nothing to melt. In those parched towns, and in the ones that are drying up now, summer is going to be hell, and September will be worse.

On April 1st, standing on a patch of mud in the Sierra Nevada that, in previous years, would have been a two-to-three-foot snowbank, Governor Jerry Brown responded to the dire results of the snow survey by announcing an extraordinary twenty-five-per-cent mandatory reduction in California’s water usage. How to get there? Stop watering lawns, medians, golf courses, cemeteries, campuses. Replace old appliances with water-efficient models. Make consumers pay more for water so that we will use less.

Brown’s reduction edict doesn’t (yet) touch the farmers, who, people often point out critically, use eighty per cent of the state’s water. Then again, farmers in the California’s Central Valley grow a quarter of the produce consumed in this country, and eighty per cent of the world’s almonds. Almonds require vast amounts of water; will it become considered ecologically incorrect to eat them, much as beef is by some? (A close reading of online comments threads says yes.) The executive order does address the unregulated, but also economically significant, growers of marijuana, singling out “illegal diversions” of the kind that are drying up watersheds in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Again, stop watering the grass.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that we are living a cli-fi novel’s Chapter One. In post-apocalyptic science fiction—a largely ironic mode—the givens of the recent past look painfully ridiculous in the bonfire light of the changed world. Think of Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” (a 2014 National Book Award finalist set in the weeks just before and the decades following a civilization-destroying pandemic flu), which holds up the objets of our material culture for grimy-fingered examination: Cell phones? High heels? Passports? Ha! These are curiosities as wondrous, remote, and useless to the novel’s countryless, lawless, electricityless survivors as Mycaenaen grave goods behind museum glass are to us…

Read the whole post here.

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