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Unspoken Options

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Like many people I recently read that 17 communities in California would run out of water soon. In 60 days or less. I perused 20 or so articles turned up in a Google search about this. Now reading a handful of articles certainly doesn’t make me any kind of expert on this complex situation, but I noticed a few things. Some ideas that were touted. And others that were omitted.

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Desalination was the most mentioned solution. Who doesn’t love big sexy technology. Most articles also mentioned that desal is both costly and energy intensive.

Money, in the form of a $7.5 billion water bond, is also high on the list. What does $7.5 billion buy? “…new water storage, presumably dams. The rest would be used for wastewater management, storm water capture, recycling and groundwater cleaning.” After the whole well documented history of dams in the west and the damage they do (they tend to kill rivers), it’s weird to read that dams are part of anyone’s toolkit these days. (Dams are beyond the scope of this piece, but check out Cadillac Desert and/or Dam Nation as a start if you’re unfamiliar.) The other (not-dam) strategies sound good, but … well there’s a whole mindset I’ll come to in a sec.

Time, of all media outlets, had some interesting points. They noted that 80% of water use is agriculture and suggested moving to drip irrigation. Saves water, sure. Also, drip is made from plastic, which clogs with minerals and also breaks down and needs to be replaced.

And this example perhaps gets at the heart of what I saw reading through these articles: there was a flatness, an across-the-board oversimplification coupled with a lack of new vision, a thinking inside a certain industrial box, inherent in every piece, whether it was from National Geographic, Fortune, Mercury News, or a government website. It was a very consistent experience.

Take desalination, a not-dam strategy. It’s an industrial system that comes packaged with an industrial blindness to environmental impacts such as cleaning chemicals, heavy metals, and brine on the ocean floor (note that brine is not seawater and can damage sea ecosystems). I didn’t notice any mention of outflow in the initial pieces I read. After searching, I found: “The concentrated seawater will be diluted before it enters the ocean in accordance with environmental regulations and as approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.” Pretty slim, compared to all the other info on that site about how environmentally friendly it will be and the jobs created and… you get the picture, I’m sure.

In East Porterville, hundreds of residents have no running water. They flush their toilets with water from a bucket. There is no mention of composting toilets or setting up humanure systems. We seem to be locked into these preexisting systems with no thought of changing. No mention of permaculture techniques, water harvesting earthworks, curb cuts, water catchment, fog harvesting. Greywater got a slight nod in Time’s piece, but most waste water reuse is, again, in the context of large, centralized, industrial systems.

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Brad Lancaster says that if we examine the urban infrastructure in place, one would have to conclude that we live in a hydrophobic society. We have designed in such a way as to get water away as quickly as possible. Flooding was a problem in Europe and the Eastern states and that mindset was brought to the west. But water and land are very different in the west and the same approach is not appropriate.

The solutions, as I see them, fall into two main (often dovetailing) categories: behavior and design. A NY Times piece focused on market based solutions to change water habits. A base line minimal cost for washing and drinking, followed by a steep increase “to make people think twice about refilling the swimming pool.”

In Australia (I forget which part), houses are required to have roof catchment. The cisterns have gauges that show how much water remains in the tank. At any time the house can be switched from the cistern to the municipal system. Water use went down when people could see how much water they had. The gauge changed their relationship to water and that changed their behavior.

There are a lot of people and groups experienced with permaculture-style design in California. I hope they are advocating for these decentralized, hyper-local, low impact solutions. And I hope their efforts are recognized, discussed, and spread. Because the industrial design systems we’re currently locked into haven’t served us well, not in the long term sense. And business as usual seems a foolhardy path. (On one of these sites there was an ad for artificial lawns next to the drought article.)

Here in New Mexico, the commission studying whether to divert the Gila River has been conducting secret meetings and refuses to release data on the proposed project. Its subcommittee is chaired by an irrigator. I’m not sure if that falls under design or behavior, but the basic question remains: what are appropriate responses to drought in the west?

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Other questions spring to mind. Should food be prioritized over ornamental plants and golf courses? That last question clearly has an agenda. Perhaps we should begin with fundamental questions.

Where does your water come from? What is your relationship to your water? Once you’ve used it, what happens to it next?

How do you feel about your answers to these questions? What would you like to see?

Written by Andy Bramble

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