Earlier this month, Governor Brown issued an executive order for Californians to reduce water consumption by 25% across the board. This made big news, but I didn’t really give it that much attention. I mean, it’s very much a necessary step for our survival, and I'm going to comply as best I can. But just because it's a necessary step for our survival is no guarantee that Californians as a whole are actually going to take it. Best case scenario, I'm predicting a 25% increase in griping and finger pointing.
There’s a Change.org petition protesting Brown’s order that's making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and it shows exactly what I mean. “STOP PUNISHING CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS!” whines the petition, addressed to the governor and legislature. “We have done our part. We have installed water saving toilets, showerheads, sprinklers, faucets, etc… Enough is enough! YOU have done nothing to prepare the state for water shortages... Time for YOU to get to work. Find ways to bring water to the state.” The petition goes on to helpfully list some solutions, the highlight being a “Waterpipe to Oregon/Washington States” to capture water from the Columbia River and bring it to California.
There’s so much to love about this stupid idea. The use of the term “waterpipe” in a non-marijuana related context, the author’s blind assumption that people in Oregon and Washington are just so fond of California that they’ll happily share the Columbia River… But what I love most is that when faced with an unprecedented drought of Biblical proportions, Californians think building a 900-mile interstate water pipeline is a better solution than watering their lawns only once a week.
The petition, by the way, has picked up about 60,000 signatures in ten days.
I know the drought is serious, but it doesn’t feel serious. Part of that is probably because I moved here right about the time the drought began, from a state where it rained constantly for most of the year. When LA would go for six or seven months between rainstorms, I just assumed that was what life was like everywhere outside of Oregon.
It also helps that all the really scary drought stuff isn’t happening in LA, a city that only exists because of fierce and unscrupulous acquisition of water rights. Lawns here are green. People wash their cars. Business owners in Hollywood still hose bums’ piss off the sidewalks in front of their stores. About the only noticeable difference is that the Venice Canals have become a foul smelling mossy swamp surrounded by multimillion dollar beach houses.
Then I go onto bleak news sites like The Guardian or Vice, where I typically read depressing stories about catastrophes in other countries, and instead see full size pictures of towns a couple hundred miles north of me that would look more at home in a trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road.*
*Yes, I know Obama and his anger translator Luther did that joke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last night, but I wrote the joke on Wednesday. Look, all I’m saying is, I am at least as funny as the president/the guy writing the president’s jokes.
I’m living in the middle of a catastrophe, but I’m also living in the middle of a big concentration of money and voters, so it doesn’t feel so much like a catastrophe yet.
When people here talk about the drought, the conversation usually starts with an acknowledgment of how serious things are (“Did you see that thing on BuzzFeed with the before and after pictures of the reservoirs? We are so fucked.”) before moving on to why we all secretly feel like this whole mess isn't our fault: Almonds.
Yes, as pretty much everybody in California knows by now, it takes an entire gallon of water to grow a single almond, because I guess almonds are the Hummer 3 of nuts. California, thanks to its perfect climate, produces 80% of the world’s almonds, and thanks to surging worldwide demand for more, farmers have been steadily pumping their aquifers dry to grow as many of these water-hogging nuts as possible. Statewide, each year’s almond harvest consumes enough water to supply every home and business in Los Angeles for three years.
This is what I think about whenever I don’t want to get out of the shower. Yes, the drought is very, very serious and we all need to come together to survive – but if I get out of the shower right now the water I save is just going to get dumped onto some extremely absorbent almonds. Not corn or potatoes or wheat, but almonds. Nobody out there is starving to death because of almond shortages. If you’re eating almonds it’s because they’re either thinly sliced on top of your salad or because the airport bartender gave you a ceramic dish full of them along with a black paper napkin as he handed you your $13 cocktail.
This is what I tell myself as my showers creep closer to the ten minute mark. I don’t see why I should have to make any sacrifices just because half a billion middle class Chinese people now have the disposable income to buy expensive imported salty snacks.
Does China know about pretzels? How much water does it take to make pretzels?
Mad Max jokes aside, I really don’t think this drought is going to be the end of all California civilization – such as it exists in the first place. That’s not a prediction that the drought is going to end anytime soon; some scientists are saying drought could become the new normal. But I think there’s enough human capital and just regular old money-style capital floating around in this state to make the new normal about as comfortable as the old one.
Most of California’s water goes to irrigating its vast agricultural operations - and since these irrigation systems were built when water was cheap and widely available, they're extremely inefficient. There's never been an incentive to build expensive desalination plants, or to try and convince squeamish people in the suburbs to drink treated, recycled wastewater.
When those ideas were brought up pre-drought, Californians balked at them. Now, faced with the mandatory 25% reduction in water use, everybody seems a little more open minded. And that’s how progress happens in California: We let our selfish culture of conspicuous consumption work us into a corner, and then we improvise our way out again.