The Barrier of “Plenty” and the Challenge of “Place”

Jun 7, 2016

Hurricane Nina
Hurricane Nina swirls above the Hawaiian Islands (satellite image November 1957). Source: 

One of my fondest memories growing up in Hawaii was strangely a hurricane that caused all of the soil—from the front of the first (and only) home that my parents ever purchased—to run off down the street.  It was very disappointing for my dad, who had just seeded what was to be his very first lawn, watching the thin layer of rich volcanic top soil wash away, leaving only hard red clay.  It was exciting and fun for the kids, who got to stay home from school while torrential rains and heavy winds knocked down banana trees and power lines, and took out water mains.  Although Hurricane Nina does not seem very significant in the history books, I recall with perfect clarity that my father and others that worked along the Hawaii coastline were evacuated from their places of work to stay at home with their families for several days.  I remember sitting at the front window, peering out at the storm and feeling happy to be indoors and safe while enjoying quality time with my parents.  I also recall that we didn’t have running water for at least part of the time – my dad had to drive down the hill to fill buckets from a water truck.

For a few days, we took baths in buckets.  Mom boiled water on a stove, and then mixed in some cold water until the temperature was just right.  We used plastic cups to wet our hair and then to rinse off the shampoo.  We used wash cloths to soap up and rinsed off a cup at a time.  We were shiny and clean, and it took less than 2 gallons per person.  We used the rinse water to flush the toilet.

These memories served me well during the 1976/77 drought.  I lived in a flat in San Francisco at the time – one of 6 units.  Although it was unclear to me whether my fellow tenants would be similarly inspired, I resurrected the water saving practices my family had deployed during Hurricane Nina: I awoke a bit earlier in the morning so that I had enough time to boil a kettle of water, mix it with cold water, and bathe in less than 2 gallons per day.  I saved the rinse water to flush the toilet.  That, plus a brick in the toilet tank, reduced my personal water consumption to a trickle.  In peering out of my window to the small lawn and garden below that remained bright green and perky throughout the drought, I was very much aware that the landlord was probably not as diligent in trying to make sure that our building met our conservation targets.  I wondered, too, whether any of the other tenants were also boiling water to take baths in 2 gallons per day.  Ultimately, though, I decided it didn’t matter what they were or were not doing – I knew what had to be done, and I did it.

It’s interesting how much of an impact these small childhood memories have on our psyche.  It was just a few days in my lifetime that I had no running water and had to learn to make do on considerably less.  Yet, it had an impact – I know what to do, and I know I can do it.  I also know that in the scheme of things, it was a very minor inconvenience.  I also know how very lucky we—in California and the rest of the U.S.—are to have ready access to indoor plumbing and ample quantities of potable water, at least most of the time.

The Barrier of Plenty

Although many Californians encounter several bouts of consecutive dry years within our lifetimes, the recent drought has shown that we still have much to learn.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in turf incentives were rolled out over the past few years to encourage people and organizations to do the right thing – to stop pouring billions of gallons of water, most of it potable, onto lush lawns in the middle of dessert climates during a drought.  Yet, Californians still use far more water than we should for things that we don’t need; and we do not doubt that this year, far too much potable water will still be poured onto patches of unneeded (and sometimes, unsightly and scraggly) grass areas in strip malls, parking lots, median strips, and numerous other public areas where grass is not intended for recreation – only as an inexpensive visual barrier between one property and the next.

We also use much more water indoors than is necessary.  In most places, we did not need to restrict bathing to 2 gallons per person per day – despite the fact that we were in a multi-year drought, most people still had access to much more running water than they needed.  This is a tremendous luxury that few appreciate – it has been there all of our lives, just by turning on a faucet.  Only remote communities unconnected to a public water system whose wells totally ran dry were acutely aware on a first hand basis of what it meant to need to import water just to meet their essential needs: in bottles, in trucks, any way they could and at whatever the cost.

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I call this “the barrier of plenty”:  because we have so much, we waste a lot.

When water is widely available to most at very economical prices, we scarcely give it a second glance.  It is only when we are experiencing shortages of potentially serious proportions that we pause to think about using less.

I often think about how incredibly spoiled we appear to parched communities, and even entire countries, where our water supply “shortages” would be viewed as extraordinary gifts.   In a very insightful, well researched and immensely personal recounting of water deprivation due to climate and geology exacerbated by politics and greed, our friend Jamie Workman depicted in a compelling way the harsh realities of life in the Kalahari Desert.  Everyone should read his book, Heart of Dryness, to fully comprehend the immense value of water.

It is truly our most valuable resource; yet, we value it so little.

The Challenge of Place

Within California, as well as throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, a great diversity of geological and hydrological conditions exist, such that some areas get very little precipitation while others get too much, and some areas have very little groundwater while others have a lot more.  Ultimately, it is storage that determines how vulnerable any particular area is to drought.

Areas with substantial water storage capacity, both surface and groundwater, measure drought resilience in the number of years of carryover storage: i.e., the number of dry years that they can weather and still deliver critical water supplies to their residents and businesses.  Areas with very little water storage are highly dependent on precipitation to recharge whatever storage they have – in some areas, virtually every year.

Thus it is that Californians have been faced this year with the challenge of place:  Should all Californians be required to reduce their water consumption, even if their water supplier has ample supplies for its own service area?  What if saving water in one community does nothing to help another very needy community because those systems are not interconnected and there is no viable means of transferring water savings from one site to another?  This is the dilemma currently facing the state with respect to very small remote communities that are highly dependent on their own groundwater wells that are now dry:  although my family and many of our friends and colleagues diligently saved water, we had no means of physically conveying the water we saved to those in need.  Yet, it is also true that saving water during one year anywhere that there is carryover storage capacity helps to build water supply reliability for future years – if not for everyone, at least for the water users served by that water resource.

In a perfect world …

Areas that get too much water would be able to mitigate flood risks and damage by diverting excess water to areas that need it.  But we do not yet live in a “perfect” world, and the water infrastructure needed to make that possible within existing technologies would be prohibitively expensive.

In the meantime, recognizing that we have undoubtedly not yet seen the “worst” drought, we would do well to prepare by inculcating an appreciation of the true value of water in this and every future generation while continually increasing awareness about the many ways in which we can live very well with a lot less water.  In order to save it for those not-so-rainy days, we will need to support projects that increase local and regional carryover storage capacity.  We will also need to find effective means of addressing the challenges of place: assuring that all people always have access to at least the amount of water needed to sustain healthy and safe living conditions.

We don’t govern water.

Water governs us.

James G. Workman, Heart of Dryness

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