Monday, March 22, 2010

Water Wars

If you love the beauty of the desert, you’ll enjoy reading books written by Craig Childs. Childs is a natural history writer and hiker. Recently I re-read the “Secret Knowledge of Water.” Childs has always lived in the desert, and has a unique understanding. His books aren’t academic, they’re poetic. The subtitle of “Secret Knowledge” is, “There are two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning.” Childs discusses this paradox throughout the book. The first section of the book discusses his expeditions in the state and national parks of Arizona. He is charged with finding natural water sources for the wild sheep, verifying that they don’t need human intervention. (They don’t.) Animals have a knack for finding water in the driest places, and Childs often discovers artifacts from native peoples in the water formations that act as natural cisterns for the rainwater. These natural cisterns are called tanks or tinajas. Tinajas are most often cone shaped, and can hold gallons of water in the driest places. Immigrants and hikers often perish in these unforgiving lands, but older peoples knew of the existence of these tinajas. The human artifacts are indecipherable, but clearly the same spots have been used for centuries. Childs describes the difference between a spring and a drip: to be labeled a spring, a source must produce a litre of water per minute. Drips, more common than springs in the desert, produce far less, and are sometimes just a trickle. Desperate hikers look for water in desert valleys, but it isn’t there. To find water, you have to look in the mountains, where water can often be found.

Just as dangerous as lack of water, too much water can kill. Flash floods claim as many lives as dehydration. Sudden summer thunder storm, incorrectly called monsoons, drown hikers in arroyos. These sudden storms are called “chubascos.” They account for much of the desert’s annual rainfall, and target certain spots unpredictably. Again, native peoples have a healthy respect and fear of water; Tohono O’odham Indians sing a lullaby which advises children “Do not drink too much water.” If you see dark clouds in the desert, again, your best and safest bet is to seek elevation. Rainwater can collect fast and furiously in arroyos and ditches, and often hikers are drowned in a matter of seconds.

California, like the rest of the Southwest, is in the middle of a ten year drought. In the early 1990’s, San Diego politicians and leaders called for mandatory water conservation. Many of us remember the days of “if it’s yellow it’s mellow….” You know the rest. Unwisely, this rationing was lifted when there was a very wet El nino winter. The bottom line is, San Diego is in the desert. This isn’t the Midwest. There isn’t enough water, period. San Diego, especially, is at the tail end of water pipelines. We are experiencing extreme rate hikes for water use, but there has been no wise plan proposed by city leaders. That’s short sighted. Phoenix and Las Vegas have water rationing, and residents no longer plant grass lawns there. Ironically, both Phoenix and Las Vegas have access to more water than San Diego, yet no one will have the leadership here to outlaw grass lawns.

If you want to know why government doesn’t work, try living in a condo homeowner’s association. My building is the very last one in the neighborhood to have a grass lawn. When last year’s board proposed desert landscaping, xeriscaping, we had a little contingency of Midwesterners throw a tantrum. Most Midwesterners are good, sensible, people. I’m from the Midwest. But we have a certain sociopath here from Kansas City who got himself elected HOA board president, on the issue of keeping the grass. Strangely, all the lawn happens to be in front of said new president’s unit. The rest of us don’t have access to it, but we are all paying higher dues so his grass can remain nice and green.

Future historians will debate the wisdom of irrigation in California. We are a breadbasket for the country, and our fruits and vegetables are delicious. Nonetheless, the irrigation needed for agriculture in the state is not sustainable. Still there are places like San Diego that allow large grass lawns, while farmers are closing their farms due to lack of water. Water rationing is coming, and politicians will have their hands full of people like the HOA board president here. I would like to have water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing clothes. There probably is not enough water long term for those necessary activities, as climate change contributes to the drought.

In the past, wars were fought for salt. Salt, necessary for life, and a preservative for food before refrigeration, was considered sacred. The words “salvation” and “save” come from the Latin “sal” for salt, and the importance of salt can be found in words like salary, salad, sausage, sauce. Today, salt is easily mined, and wars are fought for oil. Scientists and theoreticians foresee a time when wars will be fought for water. In some places, that is already happening. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has repercussions for densely populated India and China right now. Our time is coming. It may be too late for California now.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed that book by Craig Childs, as well. And water availablity is a very important issue which should be address by our government here in San Diego, city and county. As usual, we're way, way behind where we should be on this issue. Great article.