Thursday, February 23, 2017

Water Water Everywhere...but not a drop to drink

The rainy winter the west coast is experiencing has many in California already thinking about picking up their time honored tradition of watering their driveways, while their sprinkler systems feed their patch of Kentucky Bluegrass. While tempting to do, I would strongly urge us to use the current change in California’s weather fortune as an opportunity for a little self-reflection.

Where to begin? First, no one can see the future, so maybe the drought that has plagued California for the past 5 years is ending in the most biblical of ways, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. With 10-20 year droughts having been recorded throughout California’s history, our most recent dance with prolonged high pressure is a proverbial drop in the bucket. Then you add in the fact that during that brief 5 year period, farmers pumped so much water out of the central valley that the land subsided 1-2 feet in some places. But don’t worry; we don’t actually know how much water was pumped out of the ground because California doesn’t track that info, all we know is that our cup currently runneth over…so it’s best not to dwell on anything that might point to larger underlying issues with California’s water policies. Also, please overlook the arcane rules that govern water rights in the state, which has led, in part, to the over-pumping phenomenon that is contributing to the depletion of our natural aquifers. And as we marvel at overflowing reservoirs, we can see the gains that many advocates for smarter water policy had made, slipping away as we deal with the juxtaposition of going without, to having too much.

Remember when “brown was the new green?” As cities tried to market dead lawns as a show of solidarity with the broader effort to curb urban water consumption? Remember when there were cities in California whose wells ran dry and the state had to install massive cisterns so water could be trucked in? Remember when we realized that 102 million of our trees have died or are dying due to lack of water, when radio stations would publicly shame the most abhorrent water wasters? Remember when people cared about saving water because it was a precious resource? Yeah, me neither…because when the forecast calls for 10 Trillion…yes Trillion gallons of water to fall from the sky, why would you want to? Instead of conservation, people are worried about uninsured flood damage, loss of life, and infrastructure that's dissolving like cotton candy...and its hard to blame them.

So what now? In the short-term it would appear that we are at an inflection point—the abundance of what was once scarce has brought to light many problems, most urgently problems associated with our infrastructure that need attention…more than attention, they need sizable investment to address the deferred maintenance issues that plague bridges, dams, and levees nearing or past their designed lifespans. As evidence, California is faced with trying to find 66 Billion dollars to address the outstanding needs that have accumulated across its 1400 dams, 13,000 miles of levees, 25,318 bridges, and more than 50,000 miles of roads. And what’s sad and oddly prophetic is that as we witness what appears to be the catastrophic end to the most recent drought, the current situation highlights the missed opportunities and ignored pleas for funding infrastructure projects in the preceding decades that would have mitigated some of the crises we're currently dealing with. 

Which brings me back to water…

Water is something we take for granted because we’ve always had it and then for a few cities in California…they didn’t. One day, they turned on their faucets and nothing but groaning pipes trying to dry-heave the last remnants of liquid occurred, and this is the fate for many more communities around the state and nation if don't act now.

I would like to suggest, now that we're in a more comfortable place with the amount of water we have, that we use this time to continue the dialogue that was started under more dire circumstances. We need to talk about water:
  • ·        How we use it
  • ·        Who gets to use it and how much it should cost
  • ·        Aquifer management and tracking water extraction
  • ·        Water rights and agricultural and urban usage
  •       Aging Water Infrastructure impacts on Public Health
  • ·        Storm water capture and ideas to help keep what we receive naturally
  •       Building water resilience in the face of natural or man-made crises

You know, continue the tough conversations that were started, but this time do it without the pressure of staring down the barrel of a gun.

Finding water issues that need attention isn't the problem, convincing people that now is the time right time to talk about them is. Using the uncertainty that many communities across California faced not even one year ago should be all the prompting needed to continue the dialogue that was started, but I fear that the 'what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger' mindset will sideline those discussions leaving us ever more vulnerable the next time we get parched.

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