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California - State of the Environment


California can only be understood by those for whom the symbols, if they come at all, follow the land itself in the order of apprehension: it can only be known in all its dimensions by the native, or by those like him, from within and never from without. — Wilson Carey McWilliams


A "Deep Education" column by Craig Chalquist, PhD, California native and author of Deep California, The Tears of Llorona, Storied Lives, and The Folly of Repetition or the Wisdom of Remembrance.


September 18, 2010:

Thinking Small about Water


The East Bay Municipal Utilities District now serves 1.3 million customers, all of whom require a steady supply of fresh, clean water. To meet this need through 2040, EBMUD's Water Supply Management Program has set the following goals:


- Maximizing conservation, saving 39 million gallons a day.
- Aggressively recycling, stretching the supply by 11 million gallons a day.
- Limiting drought rationing to 15 percent.
- Developing 43 million gallons a day through water transfers, groundwater storage and regional projects.


Most of the water comes from the Mokelumne River in the Sierras. One of the regional projects would include enlarging Pardee Reservoir, also in the Sierras. One purpose of the WSMP 2040 is to prepare for "future growth": more people living and working in the already crowded East Bay.


The WSMP represents a thoughtful attempt to balance human needs with nature's during periods of uncertain water availability. Decreasing the local carbon footprint, protecting wildlife, and minimizing habitat loss are built into a comprehensive plan that strives to be "robust," or what in ecology would be called resilient: relying on many integrated strategies (as the natural world does) instead of single-track solutions subject to inevitable failure.


Unfortunately, water loss and gain remain subject to the workings of larger systems. For example, the WSMP does not--and perhaps cannot--address key factors that drive the "growth" being prepared for, factors like real estate overdevelopment, overpopulation, petroleum-subsidizing politics that turn up global warming, agricultural overuse and runoff, or absolutely fabulous shifts of public wealth upward, leaving municipal infrastructure aging and underfunded.


Characteristically for this time and place, the WSMP relies primarily on big solutions for water management: shifts in reservoir levels, water "banking" along key routes, desalination plants, civic recycling programs, massive injections to restore depleted groundwater. "Graywater" was mentioned once in the WSMP report because it came up during a workshop for the public. Permaculture, a system for designing sustainable habitations, including those that minimize waste and store water in the ground, was not mentioned at all. Water-saving toilets were noted, but no debate about why we flush precious freshwater to begin with.


EBMUD's efforts, however creative and well-intentioned, are constrained by an assumption necessarily made by every official institution charged with serving the public: that all actions taken fall within the parameters set by governing systems. Imagine an EBMUD employee putting a video on YouTube to challenge archaic religious injunctions against birth control, or calling for campaign finance laws that block big money from politics. Yet unless we manage our population, clean up our politics, curb urban and suburban development, and provide education on sustainable food production and smart water use, we stand little chance of protecting fragile planetary resources for future generations.


As global warming melts the Sierra snow supply, fiscal shortsightedness deprives cities and counties of operating funds, and overdevelopment consumes croplands, irreplaceable water continues to run in toilets, storm drains, lawns, and impermeable paving. The formerly verdant Valley of Heart's Delight has turned to asphalt and silicon. By some estimates, the Great Central Valley of California, agricultural hub of the West, will support large-scale agriculture perhaps another forty years before soils deprived of water and exhausted by herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers give out.


Long-term problems and their proposed fixes have both originated in large entities: utility companies, multinationals, agribusiness conglomerates, megachurches, vast government agencies, petroleum syndicates. Patient work on a smaller scale--backyard, neighborhood, village, community; graywater, swaling, fruit trees, sheet mulching--might well furnish adaptations invisible to giant radar sweeps but effective in preserving what's left to preserve.





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