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California Drought Anecdotes and Musings - Tales from the Dust Bowl

Updated on May 10, 2015
Signs like this one from one of our few feeble downpours are becoming increasingly scarce across the desiccated Southern California landscape.
Signs like this one from one of our few feeble downpours are becoming increasingly scarce across the desiccated Southern California landscape. | Source

No Tap-Dancing in California

The thirsty citizens of California aren't exactly tap-dancing in the streets right now. When the Governor of California has imperiously declared "Those days are over," in regard to swimming pools, verdant golf course greens, Hollywood style showers and unfettered lawn watering, then the time has come to keep the tap and the trap shut, or risk a burdensome fine from the municipal water authority that is probably unpayable and will certainly mean packing up the pickup like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath and migrating off to wetter climes.

My wife is literally terrified of turning on the faucet these days. Peering apprehensively about for signs of Governor Brown's water police hiding in her kitchen, her hand hovers nervously above the tap for several seconds before finally mustering up the courage to turn on the flow for whatever few miserable microseconds are necessary to barely wash the residue from the dinner plates. The poor woman wakes up in the dead of night to water the backyard lawn by moonlight. We have no sprinklers installed there, and she is deathly afraid that agents of the water gestapo will catch her using the hose, a capital crime these days. My uncomfortably brief showers are scarcely enough to service the hygienic needs of a Chihuahua, much less a 6 foot 3, 230 pound ape of a man whose employment under the relentless SoCal sun entails lathering up into a putrid, salty, slimy sweat on a daily basis. These are the new realities of the California lifestyle. The Joads and their Okie kin are no longer arriving in California by the droves, but something of a reverse migration is taking place as pampered California beach bums beat their surfboards into plowshares and head back to the well watered agricultural states from which they originally emerged.

Okay, that latter part may be something of an exaggeration, but if this unforgiving drought keeps up for another year or two, the mass depopulation of California may indeed become a reality as the meager Sierra snow pack is no longer sufficient for the water needs of the most populous state in the Union. In celebration of this state of affairs, I submit to you these admittedly scattered, random thoughts of one drought beleaguered Golden State resident staring thirst in the face and praying for the life-giving bounty of rainfall.

These ducks on my route are the only ones enjoying the swimming pool these days, which has been shut down and is slowly evaporating into the withering atmosphere.
These ducks on my route are the only ones enjoying the swimming pool these days, which has been shut down and is slowly evaporating into the withering atmosphere. | Source

Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

I don't believe the Governor has announced a direct ban on swimming pools yet, but many homeowner associations, eager to cut costs and use the drought as an excuse to screw their residents out of benefits paid for with ridiculously costly association fees, are using the drought as a convenient excuse to shut down these water wasting recreational facilities. Although most pools were up an running during spring break, after the governor's water restriction apocalypse was announced the gates on the pool area on my mail route were barred and an unsightly scum of leaves, sticks, and dead insects has been slowly gathering on the gradually receding water surface ever since. The ducks you see in the photo above were actually in favor of the Governor's proposals, because they no longer have to compete with water hogging homo sapiens for a dip in the water. I sort of like it myself too, because I don't have to run a gauntlet of howling children splashing me with Styrofoam floaties and shooting me with super-soakers as I make my way to the pool facility's bathrooms.

A bullet train across an empty, bone-dry farm landscape?  Really?
A bullet train across an empty, bone-dry farm landscape? Really? | Source

A Bullet Train, Really?

One of my primary complaints against Governor Jerry Brown and his suddenly heavy handed handling of the drought is the lack of foresight he has shown in responding to a serious water crisis that is now running into its fourth year. While the natives of the state cry out with parched throats for the sweet, cooling comfort of H2O, the governor stubbornly pushes along in his quest to build a high-speed railway into California's dusty Central Valley; a normally bustling agricultural haven that could be largely abandoned by humanoid life forms if the precipitation trends continue at the current pace. It seems to me that the enormous funds spent on this $60 billion or so train boondoggle could have been better served constructing desalination plants along the coast to convert ocean into drinking water. California, after all, has an enormous, inexhaustible pool of water right off the coast that is often overlooked in times of crisis, even though it stretches 6,588 miles from San Diego to Shanghai! Your bullet train may be a noble idea in better times, Dear Governor, but when the farm fields dry up and people move on to greener pastures who is going to be around to buy a ticket?

As it turns out, someone has responded to the cry to turn the Pacific Ocean into the world's biggest sports bottle! Right here in San Diego County, a Carlsbad desalination plant is scheduled to open in November, 2015. This facility is expected to produce 50 million gallons of fresh water per day by 2020, roughly 7 percent of the county's demand. Sounds like a drop in the bucket, but it's a start.

I was in the process of backing up when I came across these Tumbleweeds, a ubiquitous sight on the California landscape these days, and a candidate to replace the poppy as a more appropriately symbolic state flower.
I was in the process of backing up when I came across these Tumbleweeds, a ubiquitous sight on the California landscape these days, and a candidate to replace the poppy as a more appropriately symbolic state flower. | Source

Read the Story of Tom Joad and Another Legendary Drought

Steinbeck Rolls Over in his Grave

I get my drought news from more credible sources these days. My work commute radio selection has become extremely snooty and high brow of late, although if you caught a glimpse of the dirty floor mats and general disarray in the interior of my Honda Civic you could never guess that I am putting on airs about anything. Ever since I discovered that AM news is more social media and movie star updates than relevant world and national event reporting, I have switched over to National Public Radio (NPR) on the FM dial. What Corporate America has been hiding from me all this time has been an eye opening, illuminating, educational revelation.

On April 30th or thereabouts I heard a radio interview on NPR with writer Mark Arax; a very articulate gentleman who, if he writes as well as he speaks, must be a pleasure to read. Mr. Arax was promoting a book on the water wars of the West, and a section of his work concerns a small California town called Fairmead; a place largely settled by people of African-American descent. Mr. Arax refers to these settlers as the "Black-Okies," because they migrated to Fairmead during the height of the 1930s Dust Bowl days when thousands of drought beleaguered Sooner farmers were heading toward succor in the then bountiful Golden State land of milk and honey. Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck described this desperate migration in his famous novel "The Grapes of Wrath," which focused on the plight of a white family named the Joads and the resistance and hostility they encountered when trying to find work in the fields of the Central Valley.

If Steinbeck were alive he might have cause to reprise his magnum opus in a modern vein. As Arax describes, the struggle between the giant corporate growers and the small plot, dirt-scratching subsistence farmer, as typified by the character Tom Joad, has not ended.

When Big Almond recently moved into Fairmead, the small "Black-Okie" farmers scratching out a living from the dirt learned quickly where they stood in the pecking order of the water hierarchy. Although they had managed to squeak by in this community for decades, they were no match of the voraciously thirsty drills of the almond magnates, greedy machines capable of boring down 1000 feet beneath the surface. Here is a quote from the Arax "Fresh Air" interview that says it much better than I ever could.

"And the one family that I profiled, the wife was literally looking outside across the street at this new almond orchard going in. And the farmer was testing his pump that day. And the pump was probably a thousand feet deep into the ground. And their little pump that was pumping the water for their house and five acres probably reached 250 feet into the ground. And as soon as he tested that well, everything went dry in the house - the kitchen sink, the bathroom, the toilet - all, alas, burble. And it's been dry ever since - a year. And now they're hauling water and setting up these kinds of contraptions, not unlike the contraptions they had set up a half a century ago when they first came."

For several years now I have been driving up and down the Interstate 5, past little Central Valley wide spots on the road like Fairmead, on my way to San Jose to visit my son who is in college there. I come from a farming family, so naturally as I see the signs along the Interstate blazing out messages such as "Congress Created Dust Bowl," "Stop Costa Pelosi Boxer DUST BOWL," "No Water = No Jobs = Higher Food Cost" I naturally tend to side with the farmers. But then I chance upon interviews with wonderful writers like this Mark Arax who talk about how almond planting mega national corporations and conglomerates have come in from far flung places across the ocean from Mumbai to Shanghai and literally sucked the water away from small American farmers like the ones in Fairmead. This causes me to wonder. Who is really financing this seemingly "grass roots" roadside sign campaign? Who is really responsible for the Central Valley Dust Bowl in California? Who is the real motivating force behind the giant tunnels being built to pull more water away from the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta at the expense of wetland restoration, the project that our beloved governor Jerry Brown has told us to "shut the hell up" about, unless we have spent "a million hours" studying it, as he claims to have done?

A single almond really is worth its water weight in gold in the 80 gallons needed to grow just one. Therefore, perhaps in the interest of water conservation and in the interest of supporting beleaguered farmers in Fairmead and similar places, it is time to reconsider almonds and other water-intensive luxury snacks until we can get a grip on the drought. I am willing to forswear minced almonds on my ice cream bar for the time being, if other people will take up the banner as well.

More seismic activity in this locale recently than Nepal, as restless Johnny rolls over
More seismic activity in this locale recently than Nepal, as restless Johnny rolls over | Source

Water, Water Everywhere...

When I was just a baby, my dear old Dad used to lull me off to sleep by reciting the Coleridge poem "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," whose famous line "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink - Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink" put me out every time, even better than a thimbleful of whiskey in the formula, another infant sleep aid he was partial to. Of course I'm joking and it's too late to call child protective services anyway, but even though my Father had the lines of the poem slightly out of sequence, the relevance of the words to the California drought applies even today, so I thought that in closing I would meditate upon these lines of verse a bit.

Seems strange that here in California, where there is indeed "Water, water everywhere" in the form of the largest body of water in the world just miles away from where I write, we should be in the middle of a severe water crisis. The problem, however,as another Hub Pages author pointed out recently, is that the world's water supply is only 2% freshwater. Even though that 2% is more than enough to meet humanity's drinking, hygienic, and agricultural needs, most of it is not in the right place. Getting the fresh water to the right place, and of course I am biased in saying that California, right now, is the right place; requires multi-million dollar canal and tunnel building projects; and sometimes requires out and out theft of water from other states and even countries. Our Southern neighbor Mexico is lucky if it can get so much as a trickle from the Colorado River these days, a mighty stream that cut the Grand Canyon and used to roll unimpeded into the Sea of Cortes.

It is going to be a long, dry summer here in California, and we the citizens of the state are going to be waiting anxiously and prayerfully for the coming winter, when hopefully the El Nino will return and with it the blissful salvation of H2O to our shores. If these drenching, revitalizing rains do come back than my random ramblings on drought subjects will seem quaint and nostalgic in retrospect. If not, then this article may just be the advance guard for further drought manifestos in the future, each one more desperate and serious in tone. Only time, and the meteorologist, will tell.

Is Big Government, Big Almond or both the real culprit?
Is Big Government, Big Almond or both the real culprit? | Source

Who should bear the brunt of Golden State Water Rationing?

See results

Music to Dehydrate by - RATM The Ghost of Tom Joad

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    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      February is most typically our most rainy month justthemessenger, but as I recall that February was fairly dry. You just hit the rain lottery, I guess. Thanks for reading.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 2 years ago from The Great Midwest

      Rant on my friend. I suppose the Colorado River's shrinking water volume doesnt help California either. How ironic for me to read this considering it rained at least twice in less than a week the last time I was in California. Of course that was way back in February 2014. Both sunny L.A. and sunny Longbeach were unsunny much of that time.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you sujaya. I was aiming for more of a dry effect. Oh well.

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 2 years ago

      gives a watery effect

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      There are no easy answers Audrey. Agriculture uses 80 percent of our water, but we have to eat and farming provides a lot of jobs. Desalination can give a significant boost for residential use, but it's a long way off. Thanks for reading.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      I am a bay area resident--we use every drop well as we can--and use all our gray water as well. This is a long term problem though and I do not think desalinization is the answer--I am not sure what is

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Svetlana. The water crisis is turning into what we Americans perceived Soviet Russia to be, neighbors turning in neighbors for supposed "water crimes." Just the other day a busybody neighbor who saw me watering the lawn at 6 in the morning was asking me uncomfortable questions about my water use. This neighbor has never spoken to me before. A little weird, and a little uncomfortable. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 2 years ago from California

      The HOA takes care of our water bill so we're not feeling the drought yet - personally. But the atmosphere of doom here in California is palpable. And residential use is a drop in the ocean - excuse the pun - compared to agricultural use. The practice of flooding the fields instead of a smarter drip system like the one in Israel - that's the biggest issue. But Big Agro is just as reasonable as Big Pharma, so right, lets police people who are watering their lawns or taking long showers.

      Great hub, as always! You exposed the issue lightheartedly, but without compromising the substance.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      They are already building one out here in Carlsbad, Poolman, and it is supposed to come on line in November. They built the plant on the site of a power plant they are shutting down, which is already on the water and already has the pumping mechanisms to bring in seawater. I think we are going to see more of this. Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      I wonder what the actual cost of desalinization plants would be to build and to operate. Could solar and or wind power help cut the costs to an affordable level? Technology keeps advancing and perhaps these are not as unaffordable as we may think. Perhaps severe drought is just not as important as global warming and nobody is researching solutions?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      That is interesting Deb, I will have to take a look at that. Thanks for dropping in and contributing to the discussion.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Nestle is bottling water like crazy on native land in California, and not batting an eye over it. I know this due to signing petitions for good causes, such as this.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      I hope the Governor considers what he is doing or there will be a lot of people with no water. We have been dry here until yesterday it finally rained after all the grass turned brown. I also think desalination would be good in California as well as South Fl. if it was not so expensive. A very necessary hub.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      There will be no easy fixes MelRootsNWrites, we will all have to bite the bullet. But hopefully we will come out of this drought more conservation conscious. Thanks for reading.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Jerry Brown is always panicky Sheila, and always scolding us as if we were children. I hope you are keeping your head above water over there. Stay dry and thanks for reading.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Mel, what an interesting read! I've lived in CA all my life and seen the rain cycles come and go. I was a child during the 7 year drought of the 1970s. Water rationing was no fun with 7 people in the household.

      Part of the problem is the El Nino years. We cut back quite a lot in the 70s and were water frugal in the 80s. But, when the El Ninos came in the 1990s we all got lax. It is really hard to think of scarcity when rivers and streets are flooding. I think this is why things like the expansion of almond groves went unchecked. Household need to do their share, but agriculture must also bear some of the burden.

      I don't think there is an easy fix to California's situation. I do see some positive movement in some areas like the reuse of grey water. And, that one company in the SF Bay Area swears that it's water taken from toilet waste is completely drinkable. I think we're still far off on affordable desalination. It's still incredibly expensive because of the amount of filtering that needs to be done. We need to put money into research. I am sure a financial incentive would make it more profitable to come up with a cheaper way.

      Thanks for the thought provoking piece!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 2 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      I wish I could send some of this rain your way, Mel! I don't remember the last time we got this much rain for so long. We are having flash flood warnings almost daily here in southern Oklahoma. It sounds like Jerry Brown has waited too long and now getting a bit panicky!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I could definitely see how there could be a disaster domino effect tsmog. Thanks again.

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 2 years ago from Escondido, CA

      I agree with the what was shared, however regarding the fact we are in a 'real' drought one must consider our consumption habits too. Just a passing along a thought. A very complex conundrum one might say regarding water and California. A natural disaster having repercussions giving cause to other disasters? I dun'no . . .

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. How are things in British Columbia? Has the sparse rain and snowfall affecting the rest of the West Coast been felt there as well? Thanks for reading!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting hub, Mel. I appreciate the information that you've shared. The California drought and its implications are certainly worrying.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Your solidarity is duly noted and appreciated Poolman, I suppose we could switch to poor man's peanuts until wetter times return.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      I love almonds with beer. Just saying I could do without if it would help you guys with your drought problem.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Almonds are delicious Poolman, especially with beer, but the problem I think is this trendy Almond milk that is not even as good for you as people have been fooled into believing.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Eric Dierker you could always pass your bathing strike as some kind of religious restriction and become an even greater guru than you are over there in Spring Valley. I smell so bad when I finish work my wife wants me to take 10 baths, but out of respect for the drought she has limited me to five scrub downs in a metal basin with a horse brush. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Larry Rankin when I heard there were tornadoes in SW Oklahoma recently my very innapropriate reaction was laughter, because I was thinking about Melvin and the forlorn writers hunkered down in a storm cellar. The weather forecast keeps telling me there is plenty of water, it's just that most of it is not in the right place. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Ann for your nice words. Our rather arrogant governor Jerry Brown has his fingers in everybody's pies. He seems absolutely peeved the drought is distracting people from his choo-choo and any criticism of his policies is met with a stern "shut the hell up!" I appreciate you dropping in!

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      Mel I thought it over and I really believe I could go the rest of my life without another almond.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Tsmog I was trying to find online how many nuts an almond tree produces, but I wasn't immediately successful. When you add in your "other things" like cooking, a single person's daily water needs can grow one almond. If we just guess a number and say one tree produces one thousand almonds then we have a person's water for about two and two thirds years. I am not saying we don't need almonds or the jobs that come with them but they are thirsty little buggers, and I think could take a cut along with everything else. Thanks for reading!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A marvelous article. What a way you have with words. We really are a funny lot down here, living in a desert and just expecting unlimited water. I am so happy to not have to water my lawn or wash our cars. And I just love not bathing everyday. Oh well to each their own.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Trying to find humor in the tragedy. Here in Oklahoma we're on the other side of the spectrum: floods.

      Great read!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      B Leekley I would much rather see those small truck farmers prosper instead of the Almond growers, most of whom are financed by multinational conglomerates. Alas, I think those days have passed. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Interestingly enough Poolman, the desalination plant I discussed is being built on the site of a power plant that is scheduled for closure. They will be using the same pumps they used to cool the plant. Once in a while they do things right. Thanks for reading!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      This is a serious issue in many countries. You've treated it with your usual humour whilst retaining a serious attitude. Love the 'scarcely enough to service the hygienic needs of a Chihuahua' line!

      Your style makes for such easy reading, Mel, and your thoughtful and well-informed discussion gives us much to think about.

      It's always the businesses and government's 'fingers in pies' that rule the day, isn't it?

      Great writing. Good to get back to one of your hubs.

      Ann

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 2 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Fantastic Article, well written and well received by another Californian. Great humor with a serious intent as we all are learning everyday.

      One flush equals at average 3.5 gallons while average per day per person is 5 equaling 17.5 gallons. A shower averages 50 gallons for 10 minutes. That means 67.5 gallons of water x 4 becomes 270 gallons of grey water before we cook, wash the dishes & the clothes, and sip hopefully 8 glasses of water each. That is just a day for the average family without watering a lawn or washing the car (if it is legal to do so in your neighborhood . . . it is not in mine).

      Mind Boggling . . .

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      A voted in the poll that agriculture should bear the brunt of water rationing because I read that agriculture there uses 80% of the water. I wonder if some of the agriculture can be decentralized. I'm 72 now. When I grew up in Illinois, nearby Kenosha County, WI had lots of cabbage farms. Our county, Lake, had dairy farms, alfalfa, and soybeans. Where I live now, Kalamazoo, MI, back then had celery farms. Then the Midwest got strip malls and housing developments and CA got the crops, which Midwesterners buy at the grocery stores. If Midwesterners were to have more backyard gardens and truck farms, less of our food would have to be shipped thousands of miles and CA would need less water for agriculture. Make sense? And I wonder if CA central valley is an appropriate place to allow crops such as almonds that hog the water.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      Mel - Many years have gone by since I lived and worked in California and my memory is not what it used to be. But, as I recall, there were several major rivers in Northern California pouring billions of gallons of fresh water into the ocean every day. I always assumed the job of these rivers was to keep the ocean full or they could have used pipelines to send some of this water to Southern California.

      Years ago I read where desalinization plants could be easily coupled to nuclear power plants that would then serve a dual purpose. I never heard of this being done but I guess it is possible.

      But I'm sure the money boys believe the bullet train is far more important than getting water to the needed areas in California. A politician placing a higher priority on a train than on water is no surprise. Very few politicians took any of the Logic Courses that used to be offered in college.

      I feel badly for the residents of California who are in for a long, hot, and dry summer.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thanks for reading Akriti.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I guess the drought is a touchy subject for those outside of the Golden State as well, Bill. It is indeed a western problem. My making light of it is my way of exposing its utter seriousness. Thanks for reading!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      No laughing matter, this drought. Those with foresight, if there are any, could have predicted this happening a long while ago. Sadly they didn't, or nobody listened to them. I suspect, and I hope I don't sound like a harbinger of doom, that we are going to see this get worse before it gets better. Even up here in Washington, our snowpack is like 10% of what it normally is....not good news in the west.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 2 years ago from Shimla, India

      Nice :)