California Drought Anecdotes and Musings - Tales from the Dust Bowl
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.
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, 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.
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.
Read or listen to the Arax NPR interview
- Drought In Calif. Creates Water Wars Between Farmers, Developers, Residents : NPR
Fresno native Mark Arax has written about the war over water in his state for decades. "It used to be the farmers against the delta smelt fish, and now it's the urbanite against the almond," he says.
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.