Embrace the Drought

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Saint Basil, Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo by the author.

I walked my dog in the receding evening light of Walnut Creek last night, the new 2017 air chilly but refreshing. Resolved to be more mindful, to actually enjoy the manner in which my dog takes his sweet time to do his business, I noticed the sound of rushing water. A rivulet coursed down the road into a slit beneath the sidewalk above which the city stenciled “Drains to Creek.” Though it had rained a fair amount early in the morning, for the moment the skies held back. So what was the sound of so much water all about? I followed the flow of the miniature stream up a gentle slope to its origin – a green garden hose left running. I would have turned it off but for the man with a full head of unkempt curly hair washing his black, flawless Tesla in his driveway.

Lest I give you the impression I live in one of the Bay Area communities often referred to as a bubble or a bastion of leftie, liberal-leaning progressives, I assure you this is the first Tesla I’ve seen in this working class neighborhood comprised of condos, apartments, duplexes and single-family homes peopled by Latinos, South Asians, Caucasians, Eastern Europeans and Russians, among others. Our streets do not have expansive landscaped lawns and gardens, the likes of which were watered even during the height of the drought such as those in Beverly Hills and Woodside. Our community is modest by comparison to that of actors and athletes who were publicly shamed for exceeding their allotted water during California Governor Jerry Brown’s mandatory 25 percent water cutbacks in 2015 (I think these folks were punished enough, but if you want to read about them, click here and here). So when I saw the Tesla, the hose running and the wasted, soapy water draining to the creek, I wanted the man’s name smeared across the news. As quickly as I plotted what I might Tweet about his profligate water consumption, he turned the hose off.

I asked myself, what is a bit of wasted water when it it’s been raining? When the ski resorts are getting tons of snow? When rain is 58 percent of normal and we are more than 50 percent of the way through the water year? Is it that big of a deal, Mr. Tesla’s running hose? Would confronting him really make an impact on how he thought about the drought?

I decided to let it go. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mr. Tesla represented everyone, and that everyone has stopped caring about water because everyone thinks the drought is over. Since I was part of this everyone, all my efforts to catalyze a new dialogue, to spark a creative literary response to the thousands of news stories on the drought, and to craft a new whole from the myriad parts, to make sense of our uncertain future, had come to naught.

I was being melodramatic, I know.

But I long for dryness, for more water cutbacks, for more conservation and for more suffering. Because we have not yet learned the lessons of an abundance of aridity.

I realize the folly of my philosophical perspective – I want more drought so that we can improve how we adapt to it and to learn how to really live within our means. Yet I realize that more dry years mean more hardship for ranchers, farmers and some rural towns that ran out of water. It means more animals losing their homes and potentially their ability to survive. It could mean that people and businesses will give up on California. Good, I can hear my Dad saying, let them leave. Too many people here already.

I let my mind drift to forced migration programs. What if the state of California were so dry that we needed to reduce the Golden State’s population and send them somewhere else? Which state or country would want us? Would I go? I decide that as a third-generation Californian and one who respects water, that I should be permitted to stay. After all, I’ve proven my love. I left and I came back.

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Not the Poconos. Mount Tom from Bishop, California. Photo by author.

As a thirteen year-old in the eighth grade at Home Street Elementary School in Bishop, California, I could not wait to leave the small rural town for the more sophisticated suburban setting of Lakeside, California. Well, Lakeside may not be any more sophisticated. Its high school – El Capitan – was best known as “El Crapitan” due to its large, pungent agriculture department and rodeo grounds adjacent to the campus. But at least Lakeside was less than 45 minutes from Pacific Beach and the cool surfers and the fighter pilots at Miramar.

Leaving Bishop was a warm-up for leaving California – I attended college on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, just an hour and fifteen minutes from both New York City and Philadelphia. There would be brick buildings, the ghosts of Ben Franklin, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette and the capital of finance and Broadway theatre close at hand. I waved goodbye to my parents and my sister from the body of the jet at Lindbergh Field, crying while clutching a stuffed animal. But I didn’t cry for the West. I was tired of it. Some weeks later a friend invited me to the mountains of Pennsylvania and that’s when it started – my repatriation. The Poconos, I learned, were not the Sierra.

After college, a weekly paper internship in Philadelphia and two reporting jobs in Washington, D.C., I rounded the corner from McPherson Square to the metro station that would take me back to my shared house in Arlington, Virginia. The afternoon light hit the late spring day at such an angle that I saw, and I swear it’s what my brain told my eyes they were seeing, the horizon, the ocean, the sun setting in the West. It was merely a mirage – perhaps a slant of sun slamming into the asphalt bound earth. It tricked me and I blinked. The water transformed back into pavement and federal office buildings. It was time to get home. To California.

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The State of Dry: Eighteen percent of California is in “exceptional” drought, 40 percent is in “extreme” drought and nearly 58 percent is in “severe” drought. Note the only parts of the state that are doing well are in the North. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL. 

Yesterday the Department of Water Resources performed the first snow survey of 2017. The water content of our state’s snowpack is at 53 percent of average, which the agency feels is decent news considering they prognosticate significant winter storms in the coming weeks. But the U.S. Drought Monitor is concerned that too many warm storms have created more rain than snow. Melting snow is what gives us about one-third of our drinking water. The overall picture is better than last year, but almost 60 percent of the state is still in “severe” or worse drought condition. In most contexts getting 53 out of 100 means a failing grade; 60 out of 100 is a “D.” Yet these scores buoy me enormously.

Perhaps there is still time, time to learn how to embrace the drought, time to figure out how we’ll deal with less water in the future. Or maybe this gives everyone a chance to learn to love the world that the drought creates, rather than merely fearing it and fighting it, shaming one another within it and hoping for more, and generous winter snow storms. The above average kind.