After Water
June 3, 2015 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm hoping that enough pain will finally lead to a reform and an integration of CA's water rights policies. That would be an excellent start. The bottom line is that groundwater is not renewable on human timescales -- not at the rate it's being withdrawn. One of the scariest phenomena in the sustainability arena is the Jevons Paradox: as our conservation techniques become more efficient, the public overcompensates by using more of whatever resource it might be. In other words, we can engineer all the fancy supply-side solutions we want, but until we address conservation on the demand side, we will keep burning up resources.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Before Porterville, before the almonds and the gold

The whole "it's the almonds!" thing irks the hell out of me. Not so long after this not-so-subtle dig, the author's own chart of where the water goes shows that animal agriculture takes up 2.5x more water than almond farming; the largest single segment (other than the maddeningly vague 46% "other" -- pro tip, if your graph explaining something is 50% "no clue," it may not be a graph worth having) on the chart.

What are all the almonds used for? In large part, to make dairy and food substitutes for people who want to get away from animal products. The math ain't hard.

Alternatives to animal-sourced food are a solution, not the problem. If you want to reclaim water from agriculture, turn to your highest sources of inefficiency -- meat and dairy -- and not the very thing that can help you move away from it.
posted by Shepherd at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2015 [12 favorites]

How water-efficient is Soylent Green as a source of protein?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:48 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Shepherd: "The whole "it's the almonds!" thing irks the hell out of me. "

This is a narrative device indicating a vector in time and not an accusation. The other 46% percent is typically reported as "crop irrigation" in reports - the vagueness is a source data issue. I think that considering the 24% of water used for animal ag would be a useful exercise before going to crop usage.
posted by boo_radley at 10:54 AM on June 3, 2015

I really enjoyed the format of this article. I think it's also the first one I read to talk about how this is starting to impact actual communities, beyond farming. This whole thing just gets scarier and scarier.
posted by erratic meatsack at 10:59 AM on June 3, 2015

Just because Almond Milk might be a good replacement for Cow Milk doesn't mean that Almonds should be raised in what is essentially a desert.

If we are talking efficiency I think you could look at Rice Milk, or Soy Milk, or even Hemp Milk as being more water efficient than Nut Milks.

Granted I find that Almond Milk and Hazelnut Milk tastes better than Hemp Milk and Soy Milk but I can give up nut milks for the sake of society.

The unfortunate thing is that California's water rights really don't incentivize effective and sustainable water usage. Everyone knows that there is a problem but nobody wants to be the first to disarm.
posted by vuron at 11:36 AM on June 3, 2015

Almonds should totally not be grown in California- chop 'em all down and let consumers deal with the consequences.

Just saying this because I'm a concerned citizen- not because I have 20,000 pounds if almonds in storage, waiting for the prices to skyrocket. .
posted by happyroach at 11:55 AM on June 3, 2015

> This whole thing just gets scarier and scarier.

Last weekend I was talking with someone who was complaining that it was getting harder and more expensive to find broccoli in grocery stores in our neck of the woods. Where is much if not most of the broccoli you buy here in Ontario grown? That's right!
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:14 PM on June 3, 2015

What struck me about this article and why I chose to post it here is how Susie Cagle went beyond HURF DURF ALMONDS AND CATTLE and got into the local politics and people's lives.

One of the implications that might not be immediately obvious is that growers have been relying on aquifers to make up the shortfalls in rain and runoff: the communities around large farms don't have city water, and their wells are pumping muck now because there's no current regulation for well water use. People are driving hours to get water, or the county is delivering bottled water to them. That's the real crisis, I think.
posted by boo_radley at 12:32 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Slightly-better-than-average NYT op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof had a better-than-usual-for-him piece on the water crisis in which he clearly explains that, yes, the beef is the worst, water-consumption-wise. I know that Cattle as an agricultural product in San Luis Obispo County has been dropping almost steadily in recent years, even before the drought (and an uptick a couple years ago occurred only because more cattlemen had sold off their entire herds to get out of the business). The only cattle I've seen since moving here 10 years ago are in small groups in fields beside the highways*, and I still see about the same number in the same places I drive by. I wonder what difference 'free range' has in the water consumption (yes, the fodder in the fields need water but wasn't most of it provided by natural rainfall and how does THAT change during the drought?)

*and those cattle are out-standing in their field!
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:36 PM on June 3, 2015

Can we seriously quit referring to California as a desert? There are plenty of crops that grow well in a mediterranean climate, they just happen to not pay as well as almonds and beef.

Don't want almonds and beef grown there? quit buying them.

The problem that is eluded to in that article, but needs much more exploration is the religio-political issues at hand. While California in sheer numbers is a solid blue state, the Central Valley and surrounding regions are a very dark red. Policies driven by the larger population centers has caused a huge rift in California culture, where valley residents feel underrepresented and persecuted by LA, SF and other dominate cities. They valley is by far poorer than the rest of california, and most people I know see legislation as a way for the state to take what little they have left. It's not a lot of fun dealing with the "Jesus is our Lord, not a swear word" crowd, but they are also the ones growing our food.

Putting the reins on the corporate farms in the valley while convincing the citizens they employ that it is for their own good requires we have our facts straight, especially when it comes to what climate zones they are in.
posted by The Power Nap at 1:49 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

This time last year I was living on a rural property with well water, and the well pipe cracked just when the landlord was laid off. Living without tap water introduces a lot of stress. If you do cook or even just prepare food you can't wash dishes, so you have to buy premade food which is of course expensive and bad for you, or else disposable plates and utensils for assebled-but-not-cooked food, which adds up and is less bad but still bad for you. I was carrying around water bottles and a camelback to fill up opportunistically. Hygiene becomes a huge hassle, you need to pay for a gym membership, or have friends who let you use their bathroom without making you feel humiliated to ask, or just suck it up and brush your teeth in public bathrooms. I had several minor skin infections from nicks and scrapes and a fungal infection (and BO from all the fast food) by the time I left this situation. Running a household like this and with no end in sight must be awful.
posted by 3urypteris at 1:56 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

For some reason I absolutely hated the first few paragraphs, but I just loved the rest of the article once she got to Porterville. She set the scene so perfectly by talking about the environmental and historical factors that shaped Porterville: its geologic history, its Native people, the river control systems that shape its ecology and its landscape. I really appreciated that she included lots of direct quotes from real people. The graphics are so fantastic too, especially the maps.

She does an especially magnificent job of highlighting the environmental justice issues that are inherent in this story (as in almost all stories of environmental degradation). I had never heard of valley fever but it's a great example of the way that exploitation and degradation of the landscape almost always hits the poorest people the hardest because they are pushed onto marginal lands and rely on the environment for more of their living, and/or those lands are used as dumping grounds for rich peoples' garbage and pollution. She made the socioeconomic injustice of this situation come alive in a really lovely way.

Climate change is going to force us to confront the limitations of our control over nature in ways that will be very painful for everyone, but especially for people living in poverty. While we might have been able to construct river control systems that profoundly changed the way that people lived on the landscape, those systems may be reaching their limits, and we don't yet have technology that would allow us to refill entire aquifers - and if we do come up with those systems, they'll undoubtedly be based on taking water from poor marginal communities and sending it to agricultural centers. I wouldn't be surprised if we started pumping it like natural gas (and we may already be).

My favorite line in the piece is this: "There is nothing on which we rely so completely for survival, and yet we have done precious little to prevent its waste, its sale, and its destruction." This is so true and so inexplicable. My theory is that many Americans have been able to live in ways that allow them to take the entire natural world for granted for generations now, whether because of our environmental engineering or because of their occupational abstraction from the extraction of natural resources, and that this has allowed us to become completely delusional as a society about the things that we need to survive. One person even says it outright in this article: "I was like, what do you mean there's no water? No water?? Everyone has water!" and this is a very widespread belief, even for people who might consciously know it to be false.

There's this cargo cult thinking that our technology will always conquer natural forces, that once things get bad enough somebody will surely do something about the problems so that we can keep living the same way we always have. But the people who believe most strongly in this cargo cult are the folks who are the richest, who make policy, who adjudicate the water rights - so they can go on in their delusional world where surely somebody will do something about the abstract 'water problem' while the poorest folks do not have the luxury of pretending that things are otherwise. It's going to be one of the hardest problems to overcome in not just preventing climate change (where we've already seen this script play out), but also in climate adaptation. By the time rich folks can't deny the problem anymore, many people in poverty will already be devastated by the effects.

tl;dr: the capacity to ignore environmental degradation is an expression of economic privilege
posted by dialetheia at 3:10 PM on June 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

(and really I should have said socioeconomic privilege - she does a really great job highlighting the intersectional environmental justice and immigration issues)
posted by dialetheia at 3:24 PM on June 3, 2015

I grew up in the Central Valley. Not near Porterville--I had to look up where that is, and being positioned halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield, it is essentially Nowhere as far as most Californians are concerned. I grew up within daytripping distance of San Francisco, where I now live.

But even though my hometown is less than a two-hour drive away from SF, it is very much another world. In the summer, the temperature can be as much as 50 degrees hotter there than here (this is absolutely not an exaggeration). The air quality is so bad that childhood asthma rates are multiple times the national average and have been since I was a kid. And it's maddening that it can be so awful to live there, because it's generally acknowledged that the Central Valley has just about the world's best farmland. And hardworking, kind people--Susie Cagle draws them so well I'm already willing to believe that Donna Johnson will be the next Cesar Chavez.

But the incredible thing is that the Central Valley isn't even seeing the worst of the drought. That award probably goes to the Imperial Valley, south of Palm Springs and east of San Diego, where the Salton Sea (California's biggest lake!) is drying up and the uncovered lakebed is unleashing fresh hell on everyone for miles around.
posted by psoas at 4:08 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am somewhat familiar with Porterville, and its upstream cousin, Springville. My mother and sister spent their final years there, and one of my nephews learned to direct water in several oddly disparate ways: as a supervisor/laborer at the golf course, he installed and maintained their grass and such. You can't really appreciate the irony if you haven't been in the area. Americans will build golf courses in Hell. Maybe they already have. He also tended the irrigation of one of the huge orange groves, which produce the best oranges in the world. I was around the area when lake Success was built. Big trucks hauling tons of rock made tire imprints in the soft asphalt. Driving in their tracks, we could hear the whine of their tires, same as if the sounds of the wheels had been recorded on vinyl. The nephew changed careers in mid-stride, as it were, when he took his Harley off the highway between Springville and Porterville, pretzel-izing his Harley and lopping a few branches off the top of one of the oaks before coming to rest in a rock pile. He learned macramé and hydroponic gardening while he recuperated. He was fortunate to get through it with the loss of a few toes on one foot, but he carries enough metal in his legs to set off the metal detectors at two different airports at the same time.

Old farts in the foothills always complain about the citification of their beloved hills. Ranchers and farmers share the perimeters of their large holdings with retirees living on their little ten and twenty-acre ranchitos. These ranchitos are the ones that suffer the encroachment from city folks when the retirees die off, and their kids divide the property into acre-lots, which they sell off as single-family ranchitos, so they can afford to move to the city. So it goes, a feedback loop of increasingly bastardized land. If you've lived anywhere along these mountains, you will have been impressed by the density of its lore, brought into focus for you in ways dependent on who your associates are. If you marry into the ranchers, your roots go back only about 150 years, max. If you marry into the Monos or Miwoks you have a longer, darker heritage.

Although my stomping grounds was a few miles north of Porterville--the foothills east of Fresno--I frequented the area. You could write an article similar to this one about Centerville and places up the Kings River. Same with the San Joaquin River. Somewhere near Stockton there's a community called Atwater. I believe it was named by one of the Spanish expeditions headed south, because it was a good campsite. In English: At Water. Atwater is along the old Yokuts trail that ran from the Sacramento area to Bakersfield. The Yokuts were a valley tribe, perhaps the largest in California. By the way, they are Yokuts as a tribe, and an individual is a Yokuts, too. It's not an English word. I use the past tense with caution, because Yokuts still exist among us, although not in the numbers they once enjoyed. My last reading of this was around 70,000 souls once graced the valley.

Many towns in the San Joaquin Valley lie along this trail--you can find the older settlements' ruins a days walk apart, all the way to Bakersfield. In Visalia the last remnants of huge Valley Oaks reside in Mooney Grove, now a park, but it used to be a welcoming, shady place to camp when one traveled the valley. It really is a desert out there, when you get away from the rivers. In the pre-American days, many Spaniards were given huge tracts as landgrants, which they farmed, and mostly ranched. This was a fairly short-lived phase that actually treaded fairly lightly, if you don't look at it closely. In truth the Spaniards and Mexicans didn't get to far from the coast in any great number. A small family controlled many square miles.

Literally hundreds of other tribes populated the major rivers and their tributaries. These are usually called Rancherias, after the Spanish custom, and some of them counted their members in the hundreds, while many others would number only a few dozen souls at any one time. They formed a net of communities that embraced both the coastal mountains, and the Sierras. The Yokuts and other mountain tribes held rendezvous in the high country with Utes, Paiutes, and others on the eastern flank of the mountains. They would meet in such places as Mono Hot Springs and have a great time (sort of the way we interlopers do nowadays). The California tribes brought goods such as baskets and arrows, the eastern tribes brought rare obsidians. The California tribes used a sort of wampum to signify, so that a hunter, for example, might trade a hide or haunch for some arrows. These people lived much better than a marginal existence for centuries. But the eastern tribes were heavily busted with a gradual climate change that turned the eastern flanks from a semi-tropical paradise to a true desert. The tribes split into smaller units, better fit to divide the increasingly sparse resources available to them.

The California tribes underwent similar upheavals. The tribes along the central coast--the San Francisco Bay area--seemed to be the most stable with respect to their food supply. The central and Sierra tribes migrated up water courses, living in smaller units.

I mention this not to glorify a pre-industrial era. Personally I'm happy enough to never have had to deal with the California Grizzly, or needed to hunt the valley elk and bison. But it seems to me the discussion never really turns to the elephant in the room. We base our wealth on an increasingly expanding economy, fed by an increasing population base.

Maybe we can use that as our epitaph: We grew, and kept on growing until it killed us. The fundamental unit isn't where we get the calories, but population. Maybe we can avoid the inevitable apocalyptic adjustment that will natural come. But it won't be because the vegans or carnivores among use win the argument over water usage.
posted by mule98J at 5:20 PM on June 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

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