Perhaps because they’re so often bogged down by minutia or driven so hard under the Sisyphean pressure of content production that they don’t get the chance to exorcise their opinions, many journalists revel in the chance to stand back, take stock, and stitch together a few sweeping proclamations.
California, desiccating in its fourth or seventh or twenty-seventh year, depending on who you ask, of drought, has provided an ideal excuse for people of the plume to take a break from Cops ‘n’ Body Partz 24/7 and World’s Worst Muslim of the Week to ponder and pontificate on the fate of the Golden State.
These scriveners, at least for now, are using our dwindling water resources not so much as a metaphor of decay—we’ve moved beyond that, apparently, and will only return to it if we can find some young literary lovechild of Susan Sontag and Bret Easton Ellis who’s not bored stiff of the trope—but rather as a locus for discussing the inevitability of it. By and large these pieces include a few lines taking California to task for its hubris, its gall, its pretty face and debutante’s good luck. There’s always been an undercurrent of resentment when it comes to writing about California; the rest of the nation suffers its share of woes, the feeling seems to go, and there y’all are, month after month and year after year, complaining about nothing more than a bit of traffic and the next-best way to get to the beach on Christmas Day.
In reaction to Governor Jerry Brown’s April 1 Executive Order [PDF] mandating the first-ever statewide reduction on urban water use, Vauhini Vara titled her piece in the New Yorker “California accepts a drought-filled future.” Slate, The Atlantic, WaPo, Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor—you name the paper, it’s got a story on the drought, and more likely than not there’s a declaration, often accompanied by no small measure of perverse pleasure, that California’s desert chickens may at long last be coming home to roost.
Closer to that home, there’s still this sense of punitive consequence, albeit stripped of a little of the moral heavy-handedness of more eastern condemnations—though not necessarily any of the fear mongering: “Relentless drought is turning California into Nevada,” the L.A. Times said last week, which should be threat enough to get people’s attention.
But nowhere is this Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-Mother-Nature moral sense stronger than in a long and fairly informative but rather stilted and off-center piece a couple Sundays back in the New York Times. “A punishing drought is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been the state’s engine has run against the limits of nature,” the article’s blurb tells us. And this isn’t just a snappy line crafted by a click-baiting copy editor. It appears in full in the second paragraph, after a short burst of images representing the “symbol” of a “better life” that California “was.”
An early rhetorical question ponders some of the weightier issues that Nagourney, Healy and Schwartz believe the drought is forcing us to grapple with: “Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive?”
Really? It’s shower length that made Clooney an American prince and Jobs a modern-day Edison? And all this time . . . .
Urban water use conservation tactics that the state is requiring and Nagourney et al endorse—replacing turf with native landscapes, rebate programs for low-flow toilets and washing machines, etc.—will go a fair way in postponing what many have come to see as the inevitable. Sacramento would have us all believe that in twenty years, palm trees and Midwestern lawns will be a thing of the past, and that the Bentgrass-, Fescue- and Zoysia-carpeted front yards and street medians of even the most affluent areas of Southern California—the Beverly Hills and Shady Canyons—will instead boast Penstemon Apple Blossom, Blue Festuca and Featherweed.
For the record, I’m fully in support of people coming together to do their part, if for no other reason than to combat the assumption that even Californians but certainly those outside the state make that we’re little more than overgrown and entitled children who can’t be inconvenienced. And sure, I’ve always thought it was absurd that we have gigantic green lawns in a coastal desert. But I also love big green lawns, and as we’re starting to think about someday maybe owning a house, I think yeah, it’d be nice to have a lush grassy carpet for the kids and the dogs. Round here, this hardly even counts as cognitive dissonance—that characterization about entitlement isn’t necessarily wrong, and wanting absurd things, and all of them at once, is as Californian as poppies and quail, avocados and kale.
As property values soar and the middle class shrinks and fewer people are able to afford the houses that lawns surround, the lawn, that lasting image of the 1950s suburban American dream, has become both a symbol of not just affluence but arrogant, detached and uncaring largesse—the landscape equivalent of John Edwards’s four-hundred-dollar haircut. The L.A. Times Readers React series has been full of calls by affronted “regular” Californians for the privileged/elite/1% to toe the conservation line, of appeals to fairness and assertions that “the time has come to soak the rich” (the public is an endless font of cleverness) for their “contribution” to the current water crisis. Number crunchers at the Times have done the statistical work to demonstrate that this is to an extent true (which further belies the implication in Nagourney’s question), and it doesn’t take a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist to agree that the rich should take it upon themselves to reduce as much as the next guy.
But if we think about the costs of turning SoCal into a place that looks like the desert it is, how likely is that, really, to happen? I’m not talking monetary cost—the future is going to cost money, we all know that, and we’re all coming to terms with the fact that we’ve been trying to deny it for forty years. To return to Vara for a split second, the problem facing Californians is not so much how to accept “a drought-filled” future, but rather one in which water simply costs a little bit more. Not that this will be to anyone’s liking—like cheap gas, the general sense in America is that we shouldn’t have to pay much to have our basic needs met. “It’s only water!” I’ve heard people inform our receptionist and billing manager, too many times to count, when they’ve come in to pay a late bill.
No, what I’m referring to is something a little less tangible, something that can’t be measured in terms of gallons or cents, but that’s no less important for all that. I’m talking about the very idea of California.
“Until recently,” Nagourney et al go on to say, “it seemed that the California dream was sustainable: booming cities, wide lawns in the suburbs, green golf courses in an otherwise parched landscape and, above all, a vibrant agricultural sector in places not much wetter than a desert.”
Aggressive and untrammeled growth may not be the best philosophy to build an economy on, but it’s the one we have, and Southern California is home to the flagrant and inexhaustible consumer that is both the product and perpetrator of the former. Hollywood stars and the nouveau tech riche, the most visible of the rich and privileged, are our version of royalty. If you knew nothing of either culture, you couldn’t be blamed for failing to distinguish, amid the rag covers in the checkout line, between Kate & William and George & Amal—or Mark & Priscilla, really, for that matter. They’re just like us! the magazines tell us, but really they’re not—and that’s the point. They only play us on TV. In their “real” lives, these lime-lighted star/power couples represent the zenith of “democratic” American capitalism; you don’t have to come from money to make it here, and once you do, the world is your oyster. Popular culture loves stories of the rich and powerful misbehaving, but mostly as an expiation of their envy—and a temporary one at that. Envy may be the meat we throw each day to the black dogs that hound us, something we say we’re “working against” or lie to one another about being “free from,” but it’s also the fuel that keeps the whole acquisitive works working, and I’m not sure how many Americans would quite know what to do without it.
And so—what would be the effect of a “water-friendly” or “drought-resistant” Malibu? I don’t mean aesthetically—I suppose, after a couple generations, people might get used to sparsely colored desert moonscapes—but in terms of the mere fact of capitulation; if the rich have to suffer the same privations as the rest of us sad sacks who work for a living, what’s the advantage in being rich?
Please don’t mistake this for an attack on the wealthy qua wealthy—I’m referring to the most conspicuously consumptive among us, those poster children of discretionary spending—nor, on the other hand, as apology for a level of income disparity that rivals Rwanda. And please don’t think that by “envy . . . fuels” what I really I mean is “ambition” and “competition” and “self-reliance” and “bootstrapping” or some other constellation of conservative catchphrases; the blood my chest pump circulates is of a fairly Pink(o) hue. But I’m more of a realist than anything, and more than anything I’m saying that this is what America is. We may be able to stomach the disintegration of flint Michigan say, or even Detroit, but California? Not gonna happen. So let’s stop all the arm flailing about shorter showers and dead lawns, and start talking about, start building the kinds of things that are actually going to make a difference: direct potable reuse and desalination facilities.
The system by which Southern California has received its water for nearly half a century is woefully precarious and, in the best California fashion, wholly absurd. We’re bleeding the Colorado dry, and importing (when it’s available) snowmelt from a fickle and overly treed[PDF] mountain range four-hundred miles away via an environmentally compromised delta that is the front of at least four distinct yet overlapping philosophical battles and the subject of too many Jarndycean lawsuits to count.
As a result of all this and the current weather patterns, which climatologists tell us are only going to get more dramatic, the last two years the State Water Project has released a mere five percent of its contractual deliveries.
There are myraid “solutions” to “fixing” the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta being bandied about, the most popular of which, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is estimated to cost, on the lowest end, sixteen billion dollars. On the back of an extremely crumpled napkin, that works out to the cost of building enough desal plants to provide fresh water to 27 million people a year. That’s seventy percent of the state.
Add to this the fact that the BDCP is subject to perpetual reexamination, not to mention its kinship to the Peripheral Canal, a project first proposed thirty-five years ago and rejected by voters so many times since that it’s become taboo even to mention, and it’d be insane to wager even a penny on the Under of whatever timetable’s given, and I’m happy to count myself among those who consider it a no-brainer to spend that money on something else, something smaller scale, something closer to home. Why we’re trying to fix sixty-year-old infrastructure that was a crazy idea in the first place is beyond me.
Unlike the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which accelerated the Western rush that is part of California’s overpopulation problem and to which the impending crisis is inevitably and ad nauseam compared, we do have the technology to avoid the problem. It’s almost hackneyed to say it, but that doesn’t make it any less true: there’s an entire ocean mere miles from the largest cities and users of water in the state.
Before you roll your eyes and click the back button or whatever button gets you out of here, hear me out.
I know the road to ocean desalination and direct potable reuse—the purification of reclaimed wastewater for reinjection into the drinking water supply, rather unfortunately coined “toilet to tap” some years ago—is not going to be an easy one. Coming down from its rather headier reaction the week before, April 12’s New York Times ran a front-page article on the desalination plant being built in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, detailing a few of these: energy requirements, environmental considerations and consequences, the general expense.
Probably the biggest hurdle is the overstrong environmental lobby. I’m an ocean lover and a tree hugger at heart, but there’s no denying that the EPA has gotten too powerful for our own good. This is nowhere truer than in California, where bureaucratic environmentalists in burgeoning governmental agencies took advantage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the California Coastal Act (1976) to create labyrinthine regulations that make new infrastructure development, especially along waterways and the coast, a monumental task indeed.
It’s not that they don’t have a point; disposing of brine six times the salinity of regular ocean water and several degrees warmer will almost certainly have a negative impact on the sea life that gets in the way of that discharge plume. What and how much of an impact is not well understood, as “the majority of studies available focus on a limited number of species over short time periods and lack baseline data conditions,” according to the Pacific Institute’s 2013 report, “Key Issues in Seawater Desalination in California.” Considering that countries have been producing drinking water via seawater desalination for decades—half of the municipal supply in Saudi Arabi, a country where securing and burning the energy to power RO plants is not an issue, comes from ocean desal, and Israel is approaching the same level of reliance—one would think we would have a better idea of what was happening to sea life around those plants. But then you remember that many of the couple-dozen countries that rely on ocean desal—Algeria, Bahrain, China, Cyprus, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the UAE—care much more about water than about biological sustainability. Talking to the International Business Times a couple years ago, Israel’s Minister of the Environment Gilad Erdan said, “the country’s water needs are too important to give up desalination because of environmental concerns.”
It’s nice to think that we Americans are beyond all that, but again, really? We’re the second largest carbon emitter in the world with a pretty shitty chance at changing any time soon—it’s not, ultimately, concern for the environment that drives our policies regarding how we treat it.
The California Coastal Commission not only protects the biodiversity of the state’s coastline, but its scenic views, as well, and like with wind farms off the coast of New England or wave-capture fields off Oregon’s, there’s all sorts of NIMBY opposition to the interrupting picturesque coastline views with the domes and hum-generating towers of massive water treatment facilities.
Before I get to the “and yet” you all know is coming, I recognize I’m running the risk of spilling over into anti-conservation territory. As a decent recent article in Think Progress explains, the conservative cadre has taken to calling this a “man-made” drought, saying that all these here Libruhls who “put the needs of fish above the livelihood of people” have “shut off” the infrastructure that transports water across the state, and that if the “elites that live in Hollywood and in San Francisco and along the coast [that] support these radical environmental policies that cut off the infrastructure that’s been built” would just, I don’t know, shut up and go away, then the state would be as green as Eire in a matter of days. Except, of course, that there’s no snow to run off into streams and rivers and lakes and deltas to flow through that infrastructure, no matter how opened up it may be.
So how is saying building desalination infrastructure that may very well be environmentally damaging any better than Republicans calling, in effect, for the destruction of a species in order to get (let’s be honest, irresponsible) farmers and other everyday folks the water they’d like to have?
The answer is not one in favor of an obvious right over and obvious wrong. The answer does not conform to the harder-line environmentalists who my heart longs to stand with. The answer is very gray.
The answer is that harming a few stretches of the Pacific coastline is better than destroying a species that is the lynchpin of an entire ecosystem, and, to return to the cynical tone of my earlier rhetorical questions, probably more palatable than destroying the vaunted image California’s worked so hard for half a century to create.
We are here, and we are not going anywhere. The rich aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the Greenpeacers, and neither are the other 98% of us. And as none of us actually moved here to live in a desert, the lawns aren’t going anywhere either. In fact, estimates are that California will grow by an additional 12 million over the next thirty-five years, and they’re not gonna pay, more than a handful of them, for a million dollar house surrounded by shiny dust and dusty shrubbery.
None of this is to say that conservation doesn’t work. As Randy Record, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Water District Board of Directors said on April 14 when declaring that agency’s fourth-ever allocation restriction to wholesale agencies in Southern California, “Since 1990, per capita water use in the region has declined by about 25 percent. Today, we use less imported water than we did 25 years ago, even though the region has added 5 million more people.”
The massive desalination plant being built in Carlsbad, which has assumed the position of the trial run for Pacific Ocean desal (the Santa Barbara plant is a whole other story) will bring into San Diego upwards of 50 million gallons a day, or about 30,000 acre feet a year. Southern California grows by about 300,000 souls a year, who, using the state average of 100ish gallons a day each, require about 30,000 acre feet. The fact that the region hasn’t increased the amount of water it uses means that we accommodate each year’s influx of people by conserving the equivalent of one Carlsbad plant worth of water. Impressive, yes, and kudos to the agencies and users responsible for the reductions. But that strategy, such as it is, has got an end point. There’s only so much a person can conserve, and SoCal demand is getting what they call harder and harder.
But what’s easy about the road the Governor’s proposing? Cooperation is possible, but highly improbable. Likewise with asking for patience and sacrifice beyond a few years—what they call “moral suasion” has a fairly short shelf life, as well, especially when the “new normal” Californians would per force be expected to reconcile themselves to means slowing the engine that drives the metaphysical American Dream sector of the American economy.
And if the public sector doesn’t start planning its own salvation, the largest public water system in the world will quickly see itself transferred to eagerly waiting private hands. Public-private partnerships are a foregone conclusion—the Carlsbad plant and an equally large one being proposed in Huntington Beach are being designed and built by the privately held Poseidon Water for municipal and industrial use. So far, this is being done in close cooperation with those municipalities, but it doesn’t require Ray Bradbury’s imagination to foresee the day when Nestlé adds SoCal’s potable supply to its tentacular portfolio. As a reference, electricity in California (more of which later) is 85% private and 15% public. Currently the water industry is the inverse of that, and yes, I know that American jurisprudence holds that water is a public trust, but we’d do well to bear in mind that there is no water without electricity.
One of the strangest things to me about the fact that we’re doing water things the way we have been doing them for fifty years is that we live in the Anthropocene, in which we bend every other natural inconvenience to our technological will, and considering the membrane technology—reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, advanced oxidation and purification—that ocean desalination requires has been around for sixty-plus years, it’s surprising, even confounding why the technology has not been applied.
Confounding, until you follow the money. I’m still relatively new in this industry, and relatively low-level, but I do know this; Metropolitan Water District, which imports water from the Delta and the Colorado River for delivery to the western half of the state between Ventura and the Mexican border, controls the largest treated-water supply system in the United States. Unless MET is the organization building and benefitting from ocean desal—which thanks to their enormous size and bureaucratic methods is likely to take a long time indeed to happen (the “turning an aircraft carrier” analogy applies)—there’s going to be one heck of a lot of opposition to it.
It would be easy, if not downright tempting, to descend from MET into the simplest of conspiracies, except for one inconvenient truth, or at least set of circumstances; the player that stands to make the most money off a large-scale transition to the energy-intensive process of ocean desalination, Big Energy, has been largely silent on an issue one would think they’d be lobbying hard for and hemorrhaging money to demonstrate the absolute necessity of. The international energy lobby has managed time and again to stymie any meaningful action on curbing carbon emissions, from Kyoto to Copenhagen. (The jury’s still out, until June of this year, on the latest carbon reduction plan, but I’m not holding my breath. Or rather, I am. Or is it should be?) So why not trample the Coastal Commission and start raking in desalinated ducats?
The simple, and possibly correct, answer is simply that the time’s not yet right, that the risk : reward equation doesn’t quite pencil out yet—however you want to define risk.
That doesn’t keep wilder speculation from cropping up around the water cooler, if you’ll pardon the pun. The most popular—and I gotta say, not altogether incredible—is that Big Energy has been quietly biding its time for a hundred-year* drought (emphasis on quiet, because SoCal gets its energy from two separate coal-fired power plants—yes, coal, the same stuff we’ve been running on and ruining lives and landscapes with since the eighteenth century. So yeah, that clean-burning Prius? Runs on coal. But I digress.), which, whether you “believe” in climate change or not, is/was bound to show up sometime, and which we may very well be at the beginning of. Anyway, this scenario has energy lobbyists rubbing their opportunistic hands at our collective fretting, champing at the bit to swoop in and save California from itself—on the wings, of course, of the last Dust Bowl’s greatest legacy, that American “free” enterprise hypocrisy par excellence, the federal subsidy.
Lord help us if some real-life Citadel alumni in the Department of Homeland Security and the energy lobby are smoking that sweet legal chiva together while they watch season three of House of Cards. If they are, and this drought lasts another year, let alone three or five, it might not hurt to start scraping together a business plan for how to turn a dime on a FEMA occupation of the California coast.
* “Hundred-year” here in terms of frequency, not longevity. Like a twenty-five-year flood or a fifty-year storm.