California Water Wrongs

There is little doubt in my mind that we are not experiencing our fourth year of drought. What we are experiencing is a return to the historic norm that kept the Southwest dry for thousands of years before we arrived. Nor is what we are up against due entirely to global warming…yet. Check out The West Without Water, by Ingram and Malamud-Roam.

We easily forget that we Europeans have only lived around here for a few hundred years, and until very recently there weren’t many of us. The brief period since we arrived the climate was wet. There were even some years of flooding so severe that Sacramento was under eight feet of water for months. In normal years heavy snowfall in the Sierras gave us plentiful fresh water, enough to irrigate the entire Central Valley and create an agricultural miracle. Enough that the European-American residents in the south were misled to believe it was always this way, and they could recreate the green, green grass of Kentucky.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Photos from space show us the difference between the green years and the returning norm. Below is the California Central Valley. Lake Tahoe is at the intersection of the two state lines you see. Keep in mind that 2013, shown in the first photo, was already a dry year.


We’ve also seen photos of California reservoirs like this one. These are boat docks. The former water level was up near the road.

boat docks, folsom76-1

An important point we must remember is that these photos do not reflect the effects of global warming. There is little doubt that global warming is a hugely important part of the picture for water in the Southwest, but the above effects can all be accounted for by an ordinary return to the historic arid norm. When global warming is added to the mix it becomes frightening.

We are experiencing a return
to the arid norm that existed
for thousands of years before we arrived.

When population demographics are added it becomes still more frightening. The California population today is forty times what it was in the early 20th century. California has five million more people than Canada.

The message is crystal clear: only radical change will prevent us from experiencing a very serious permanent shortage of water. It will threaten every part of the lives of all 40-million Californians.

But all is not lost. We can do something about it. We just haven’t, and it’s getting very late.

When you look at the overall picture of how water is used in our cities, it becomes apparent that we are simply squandering the most precious resource we have. The greatest uses of potable water are for flushing waste away, and it is lost. When we do get rain, most of it gathers on top of impermeable surfaces and washes into gutters, and is lost as it rushes away into storm sewers that carry it to the ocean. The water we use for washing clothing, for showering, for cooking…almost all of it is carried away into sewers and lost.

We are simply squandering
the most precious resource we have.

Every bit of this city water can and must be recovered and used again and again. Many scientists have been working on these problems for a long time, but we haven’t paid much attention to them because there always seemed to be plenty of water. Several very workable systems, for example, can return water contaminated with human waste to the purest levels. Other systems use no water at all for human waste, and recover all urine for agricultural fertilizer, with feces used as fuel to dry it. This is not the old outhouse; it’s an ultra-modern, indoor sanitary system.

The reason we have huge and elaborate storm water systems is simply because our streets and sidewalks are impervious to rainwater. It runs off in great quantities and must be managed. But new building materials allow water to soak quickly through. This eliminates the need for elaborate oversized storm sewers, and allows rainwater to quickly soak through to replenish groundwater. What does not soak through can be recovered and purified, although this can be more difficult to treat than household water.

People living in rural areas can easily use these modern developments, among which are new types of cisterns. Such containers allow storage of large quantities of rainwater that can even be enough to sustain a household during severe drought.

Major projects should be started immediately.

But what are we actually doing, in cities like my own San Francisco? Almost nothing. If we are doing any planning at all, word has so far not reached the public. All these possibilities are available, all have had exposure via the public press, all could be put into place. But they won’t happen unless government starts by putting them on the agenda. It would seem that major projects should be started immediately, before the situation becomes an emergency.


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  2. Everything you write in this post is obvious once you point it out.

    But Americans in authority seem to have lost the ability to think beyond the next election or the next fiscal quarter.


  3. Thank you. Isn’t that 90% of our problem, that anything beyond the next quarter is terra incognita?


  4. When I first visited California and Nevada in 2005 and again in 2008 I could not, coming from Australia, notice the absolute disrespect for and appalling waste of water. Here in a land of what you might call perpetual drought we are very conscious of conserving and not wasting water.

    What struck me most however was the complete waste in what Americans prefer to call the bathroom, The size and amount of water in an American lavatory astounded me I don’t know how much water the lavatory pan holds in the US but I imagine it must be at least 3 times a an Australian and it takes a similar amount to flush it.

    I made a pilgramage to the Hoover Dam in 05, to me it is one of the wonders of the 20th century and was a must see. The water level was pitifully low as was Lake Mead, and just a few kilometres away in Las Vegas there are all these huge casino’s/hotels all with hundreds or thousands of suites each with a bathroom containing a lavatory holding I have no idea how many litres or gallons,

    I believe that the 4 complexes on the main corner in Vegas, MGMGrand etc have more rooms that the total hotels in the whole San Francisco area combined, and they combined with the total public ‘toilets’ throughout these establishment are just pouring water down the gurgler without thought or consideration as to where the water comes from

    It is becoming increasingly popular, for want of a better word, for mens public lavatories here to have flush free urinals, don’t ask me how they work I have no idea but work they do and they are completely odourless.

    Perhaps it’s time for the people of the USA to start taking a leaf out of our book when it comes to water preservation. There are several other steps we take I’ve only touched on the one.

    A few years ago in a particularly strong drought period the following practice was adopted and this little ditty was hanging figuratively speaking in every lavatory.

    “If it’s yellow
    Let it mellow;
    If it’s brown
    Flush it down!”

    We saved a lot of precious water.


  5. The common attitude seems to be one of entitlement. Someone else should be responsible. I’ll continue to water my Eastern plants twenty minutes a day if I choose. I see nothing wrong with my fifteen-minute shower.

    Government officials give us one years worth of water, yet nobody seems to be concerned enough to figure out what to do about it.


  6. […] California Water Wrongs by John Pennington. […]


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