Friday, August 29, 2014

In which I get very worked up about water in California

I took a road trip from Los Angeles to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest last weekend with Di. On the way back down the 395, we noticed a Crystal Geyser plant. We were incredulous that this plant existed in a hot basin just a couple of hours west of Death Valley. Practically all we could see on either side of the highway was dry, parched grass.

Yesterday I saw a link to this article about East Porterville on Facebook, a town whose wells have run dry and who now have to resort to using bottled water. The photo for the article showed boxes of Crystal Geyser being distributed to residents.

East Porterville is on the western side of the Sierra, at very close to the same latitude of a Crystal Geyser plant.
I've fallen into a vortex of links about the drought and about Crystal Geyser in the Eastern Sierra. In 2012, the plant in Olancha alone proposed to pump and profit from the equivalent of nearly 4,000 individuals' water usage: about 120 million gallons per year. There have been concerns about this plant since it was first proposed in 1996: Corporate giants slurp up a tiny town's pure water.

That Sierra granite makes California water taste so good. Except now there's no snow on the Sierra.

Crystal Geyser is only one of many companies profiting from drying up California, in large part because "California happens to be the only Western state without groundwater regulation or management of major groundwater use. In other words, if you're a water company and you drill down and find water in California, it's all yours."

The more I read about the drought, government policy, and the bottled water industry, the angrier and more frustrated I get. The idea of allowing people to buy the best-tasting water essentially privileges those who have the economic access to buy water over the public's right to have potable water out of the tap.

I haven't been able to find any information about business regulation in relation to the drought. Is it just not being covered, or is it not happening? I imagine that the economic impact of restricting business' water use is a concern, and it is often cited that "reclaimed water" is used for corporate lawns and golf courses rather than potable water, but it just doesn't make sense to see huge expanses of green while individuals are urged to let theirs go brown or face possible fines.

I make the the drive between Los Angeles and the Bay Area often (which I recognize is also environmentally problematic). Along the way, there are long stretches of dry, dusty land displaying signs that say things like "Congress-Created Dust Bowl," "No Water = No Jobs," "Water = Jobs."
Image source
From reading Cadillac Desert, I've gathered that agricultural operations in California should never have grown as immense as they have. While the Central Valley has incredibly nutrient-rich soil, California doesn't have the water to support huge export agribusinesses (which aren't sustainable even when there is sufficient water).

Water in California is complicated. The majority of the us live in a desert, but we do not live or do business as though we are. This drought is not our first wake-up call. Whether we're going to answer in any meaningful ways is yet to be seen.

What the report about East Porterville made me realize is that the small rural towns without immense political and economic capital are going to suffer first, while our populous urban centers will be able to keep putting off the very real consequences of this drought for some time. We get to think about this drought in the abstract, when it is not at all abstract.


Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower came up in our conversation on the roadtrip, as it often does when talking about California and drought and climate change. The book's starting point is just 10 years from now, and we were dumbstruck by how easily we could imagine the world looking the way Butler describes. More on that in another post.