Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saving California

California has had quite a bit of trouble lately, and there is a lot of attention being drawn to the economic/housing crisis.  This crisis is a big deal, don't get me wrong.  We need to fix it.  Lurking beneath it, though, is something a lot more sinister.  Although it bubbles to the surface from time to time, it really isn't in the public consciousness.  Yet, it has the potential to possibly drive California into famine and war that has not been seen in the United States since the days of the Civil War.  Do you think I am being overdramatic?  Well, I hope I'm wrong, too.

Humans are adaptable, smart, tough, and stubborn. As a species, as a culture, we can get through a lot of incredibly harsh times.  The bottom line is, though, that we can not, and will not, survive without enough water.


Disclaimer 1: These views reflect my views only and are not associated with my project in Pittsburgh or anything happening in Vermont.

Disclaimer 2:  A lot of what I am going to say here seems impossible, from a political standpoint.  It probably is impossible, without major cultural and social changes.  It would be hard... but not as hard as going without food and water.

Disclaimer 3: This is really long.  I should be working on grad school work, so I should not have just typed this all out.

Most people in California 'know' that water is in short supply.  The thing is, though, that parts of California are extremely rainy and snowy.  Even in the southern part of the state, areas of the mountains average more annual precipitation than Seattle or Portland.  The Central Valley was once a wetland hundreds of miles long.  We HAVE water, but we are horribly abusing it.  Climate change, both natural and human-caused, are going to be a huge issue, especially for the Colorado River basin.  In addition to human-caused climate change, there is a chance the area is heading into a natural drought that could last as long as 50 years.  Our watersheds are in bad shape and getting worse by the minute.  Even if we don't experience drought, without healthy watersheds we won't have water when or where we need it.  We'll have it where we don't want it, during floods, and have none during droughts when we need it.

The states in the Southwest have already begun fighting over the Colorado River.  Lake Mead and the other reservoirs are getting drier and drier - not only due to drought but due to excessive use as well.  At some point the water situation will come to a head, and if the problem isn't being dealt with by then there are only  two possible outcomes: a full-scale depression/dust bown and migration of tens of millions of people out of the West... or actual open warfare.  California NEEDS to cut its reliance on the Colorado, by a lot.  Instead, we need to start properly managing our water resources within the state, especially the Sierras, the Coast Range, and the Transverse Range.

Here's what I think we are going to need to do:

  • Re-think how we use water in agriculture.  A lot of the water in California goes to growing food to feed to cows.  We need to stop doing this.  (This doesn't require giving up meat, just changing how we produce it).  A lot of agriculture involves growing plants like rice that require a lot of water.  We need to either make sure rice fields also provide values that wetlands provide, or else switch to other crops.  We need to reduce the waste and saltation that comes with irrigation practices of huge corporate farms.  Lastly, we need to recognize that agricultural land is also part of our watersheds, and we need to maintain the health of the waterways and groundwater IN agricultural areas.
  • Re-think ranching.  Some people think we should stop ranching cattle in the state altogether.  I disagree.  This results in a loss of food, a lost way of life, and increased suburban sprawl as the ranches are sold off.  We need to MAKE SURE ranching stays viable, while also incentivizing practices that maintain watershed health - the areas of the state where ranching occurs, while mostly dry, still collect produce water for the state.  We need ecologically-minded ranching emphasizing protection of soil and waterways.  I know that many ranchers would be willing to do this now - but the problem is that they are having so much trouble making ends meet that they have to graze as heavily as possible to escape foreclosure.  We need to look at ranching as a viable industry in most areas, but also as one of several land uses happening at the same time.  This land can also provide other types of meat (elk, venison), intact watersheds, and even recreational space if we do it properly.
  • Stop sprawl, somehow.  At  this point many can not afford the home they live in, but vast sprawling developments are still being built on pristine land, ranches, even fertile agricultural land.  Once the subdivision goes in, the land is ruined.  This isn't going to be popular due to how people feel about land rights and such, but one way or another we need to stop sprawling development, immediately.  This is not only an issue related to endangered species or conservaton for conservation's sake.  Suburbs destroy the function of watersheds and stop food production on the land they occupy - indefinitely, for all practical purposes.  Here's the big thing:  COSTS OF DEVELOPMENT NEED TO INCLUDE APPROPRIATELY-PRICED COSTS INFLICTED BY LOSS OF FOOD AND WATER.  How?  I'm not sure.  Economists, figure it out. 
  • Do you have a lawn?  If so, where is the water coming from?  Did you know that fisheries are collapsing and thousands are losing their jobs in the Central Valley due to lack of water?  I understand that there is a strong cultural 'need' for lawns and in some cases local regulations even require it.  People need to look very carefully at why they have lawns, and understand the consequences.  I personally think lawns will become very rare in California in the next 50 years.  There are lots of options though - beautiful native plants that require little water (avoid the flammable species if you live near fire-prone araes), cacti and succulents in areas that don't experience hard freezes, and urban agriculture that requires water but produces food in return.  Lawns are essentially agricultural fields that produce no useful product and require resources to maintain.  Some find them pretty, but I don't think they are worth the cost.
  • Do we need more dams?  Perhaps, but we can't afford to maintain the ones we have.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could have a bunch of dams that control floods and reduce droughts, but we didn't have to pay a penny to build or maintain them, ever?  Are you thinking that does not sound humanly possible?  Well, it isn't.  That is why we have to stop relying on humans to build dams and turn to a group that is much better at it.  It may sound ridiculous because they have been gone for so long... but Spanish accounts, old museum specimens, and even Native American rock art tell us that beavers were once an important part of California's watersheds.  We need to bring them back.
  • I mentioned that agricultural areas need to be looked at as part of watersheds.  Urban areas do too.  Billions of gallons of rainwater fall on urban and suburban areas each year.  We need to use the methods discussed in this blog - rain gardens, rainwater cisterns, and urban wetland and creek restoration - to use this water or get it into the groundwater for use later.  Yes, rainfall on urban areas is less than rainfall and snowfall in the Sierras, but it is not insignificant!
  • Is desalination a good idea?  Possibly, but only if we can find non-fossil fuel sources for the massive energy it requires to run desalination plants.  Otherwise we are just causing more problems than we solve.  In the short term, I don't think it is worth it.  In the long term, maybe.
  • We need to take better care of our mountain watersheds!  Vegetation communities like chaparral are misunderstood, villanized, and often bulldozed or otherwise destroyed.  The fact is, though, that chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, and other such habitat types hold the soil together so that water can infiltrate... and wetlands and healthy riparian areas hold that water in the mountains and release it slowly so that we can use it later.  A combination of too many fires, inappropriate fire control/prevention techniques, inappropriate development, and invasive species are destroying our chaparral.  If we lose our chaparral, and if we don't stop invasive species and development from drastically modifying or destroying our wetlands and riparian areas,  we can expect a drastic increase in flooding, drought, mudslides, and even fire frequency.  In northern areas, sustainable forestry may be able to produce wood for our communities while preserving our watersheds.  This is a good thing - but only if logging is done properly.  If not, we shouldn't do it at all.
  • Our fisheries are not just a recreational opportunity.  They are a potential source of food that may very well be vital in our future.  If we are smart, we can preserve and restore our fisheries without running out of water or denying water to farmers.  Instead of squabbling, let's be smart!
So... if you read this whole thing, let me know what you think!  How do we get this all done?  Did I miss something big?  I freely admit that my heart is now in Vermont and I may never live in California again... but I still deeply care about the area, and really hope things get figured out.  We have a lot of work ahead of us!

1 comment:

  1. Check out Surfrider's Ocean Friendly Garden info - I was most impressed with their approach. Some may say that this is a "finger in the dyke" approach - it only addresses a small part of the problem. It is something that homeowners can do, on their own.

    So, hard steps, big issues, small steps - they all are important. Do what you can and then do a little more.