Granted, I’m far removed from residing in California by this point, but that’s not to say I’m no longer a Californian–it’s still where most of my people are, and I still can’t help but cringe when I think about the current drought. Just a few years ago, the reservoirs in Northern California were somehow, miraculously, at or near capacity, one of the few times I can remember; now many are at less than 1/3, with little chance of relief in sight, and California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency January 18. It may rain this spring (fingers crossed), but most of what fills the reservoirs and feeds the various watersheds comes from snowpack in the Sierras–but a post-Christmas flight reminded me that if it’s not raining in the Central Valley, it’s not snowing in the mountains. From my vantage point above, I could see scattered pockets of snow, but none of the massive buildup that should have been in place by then; the occasional ski run, with artificial snow, looked frankly ridiculous. As we passed over the foothills, and then the edge of the valley, it struck me how dry the vegetation was. Usually winter is green, seasonal grasses thrive–but this time the color palette wasn’t merely the brown of recently dead vegetation, but the brown-faded-to-orange of long-dead and dried plant life. I’ve seen droughts before, I remember our well pulling up muddy water or sputtering along, I remember gardens and fruit trees and the orchard wilting in the heat and dry, but I don’t remember it being this dramatic (though it may have been, and I was just a kid and didn’t quite get it).
My garden may not have been particularly significant in the grand scheme of things, but the drought’s impact on California’s economy may be. The chart above is a reminder of just how much of that economic activity is agricultural, despite some of the impressions of folks outside California that it’s all Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The farming ain’t sexy, but it matters. The perception gap, however, is a reminder of just why water becomes such a contentious issue in California every time it’s in short supply (which is pretty darn often, and not really an abnormality): California is two states, with two different goals that both depend on water. Darcie was listening to an NPR show interviewing Californians about the drought, and a farmer pointed out that California can’t afford (in terms of water wealth, not dollars) to grow the nation’s fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other agricultural goods at the same time as it tries to grow its population–they both need too much water. But it has a major metropolis in a desert, lush golf courses bordered by sand dunes, a thriving Silicon Valley–and tourism, urban industries, and tech are driving economic growth more than agriculture, and have the political weight to show for it.
My friend Dylan Burge, a botanist at the California Academy of Sciences, has written about the City of Vallejo’s water sources a bit, thinking about where water comes from. In California, of course, it’s currently not coming at all. And that’s scary not just for the now, but for the soon–Dylan knows better than many that fire always looms as a threat, a natural occurrence in California’s ecology, but one that has been defined as a disaster and a danger and unnatural as California’s population has boomed, invaded ecological zones shaped by fire cycles, and spent heavily on fire control/fighting (Mike Davis has written about some of this in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster). Dylan grew up in a canyon outside of Chico, and the 1999 fires threatened his home; afterwards, we hiked through the charred manzanita and loose silt and ash of the burned-out zone. The state got lucky last fall, despite some big fires, but I can’t imagine it avoiding another horrible fire season.
Yet if there is rain, is snow, and the reservoirs recover somewhat (let’s be honest–there is no chance in hell they’re filling anytime soon), where does the water go? Does it go to an already precarious agricultural sector in the hopes of sustaining it, and possibly recovering it? Does it go to other industry and the urban areas in which they dwell, on the theory that it’s better to maintain something that isn’t quite so threatened? Does it go to people who are rationing?
The point? California may have to decide what it wants to be. And no matter what, somewhere/someone in California will get burned.
*And for the record, if California, and Butte County especially, produce that many of the nation’s almonds, then my pronunciation is more authoritative than yours.