Wednesday, June 17, 2015

California's rich think water can simply be "bought" into existence

If there is one thing “good” about being in the top one percent of the wealth pile, it is the expectation that you can buy your way out of life’s tribulation, no matter how scarce are the available resources or out of control the inflation rate is, or how expensive health care is. But there are some things that just cannot be bought—like, say water while stranded in a desert; the desert world laughs at money, just as Thurston Howell’s money was completely worthless on Gilligan’s desert island. I always wonder why a millionaire would bring a suitcase of money on a three-hour cruise on a little fishing boat anyways. 

For the average person, $800 a month—about $10,000 a year—sounds like a pretty penny just to keep a roof over one’s head. But for the wealthy of southern California, a water bill of this amount is one of the more “modest” inconveniences of living in perpetually sunny and dry So-Cal, and keeping one’s acres of lawn “green” and swimming pools filled. In the midst of one the worst droughts the state has seen, it is seen as a basic “right” of the rich to use as much water as they wish, as long as they can “pay” for it—and few apparently regard the drought as “their” problem anyways. To some of us, this sounds like the typical unmindfulness of greed, that money can buy personal “security” regardless of how bad the situation is. But like Prince Prospero and his fellow privileged nobility in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” in the end, no one can escape the world, or the literal drying-up of a resource like air—or water.  

The Washington Post’s recent stories on the mounting disaster suggests that for many people in California, the reality of the drought hasn’t really hit home yet (much as the “drought” in Washington state hasn’t), despite increasingly restrictive water usage rules and supply. People who live in tight urban areas generally require considerably less water than those who live in rural areas, especially the wealthy in large estates and ranches with their vast lawns and gardens to keep “green,” but more so agricultural businesses. Urbanites probably think adjusting to a little drop-off in water allotment requires just a little common sense, like not allowing the tap to run uselessly when brushing one’s teeth, or shaving. Californians also apparently take “comfort” in reports that they individually use (slightly) less water than residents of other typically “dry” states in the west and southwest, although considerably more than residents of colder climes, because of snow cover and frozen temperatures make swimming pools useless. 

Farmers, on the other hand, have specific water requirements to keep them in business; agriculture uses up 80 percent of California’s water needs. As diverse as California’s agriculture is, it is perhaps surprising that it is almonds, walnuts and pistachios that soak-up the most water, at 1 trillion gallons annually each. But it is cattle that leaves the largest overall water “footprint,” because of water requirements to raise and feed them. 

Because people are not the principle users of water, the Post note that there are those well-off who abhor “the culture of ‘drought-shaming’ that has developed here since the drought began four years ago, especially the aerial shots of lavish lawns targeted for derision on the local TV news,” but others see irresponsibility, “people who tolerate leaking sprinklers and the resulting cascades of wasted water” who are “just thinking of their own lives.” So much so, apparently, that the exclusive Rancho Santa Fe residential area saw a nine percent increase in water usage before more restrictive rules were put in place, by residents who hoped that by using as much water as possible to raise their “normal” usage level as high as possible would insure that a subsequent  water “quota” will not hurt them significantly.

Just how bad is the drought? According to the Post, an estimated 63 trillion gallons of water normally seen in California’s reservoirs has simply evaporated away—about 240 billion tons of water since January, 2014. The largest water storage lakes are 30 percent of normal capacity; aerial photos show Lake Oroville little more than a pond, its normal shore line replaced by a “lake” of barren dust. Satellite imagery of mountains where the snowpack accumulates for summer runoff that keeps reservoirs filled are also virtually barren. 

But some Californians (and residents of other states) take comfort in the fact that much of southern California receives its water needs from the mighty Colorado River, whose sources in the Rocky Mountains still yield a net surplus of water. Yet the innumerable dams on the river which diverts its water to cities, towns and agricultural regions has taken its toll. By the time the river runs its course to the Gulf of California, it is reduced to a bare trickle—and often there is not even that left. 

If the Colorado ever ran dry, anyone who sunk their money into water-hogging pleasure palaces and ranches won’t have enough money to buy themselves out of that mess on the real estate market. By that time, any “shame” they might feel for their irresponsibility will fall on decidedly deaf ears; maybe they should have sunk their money into personal desalination plants instead.

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