Originally posted 7/3/2009
We can’t get enough of it. We drink it, swim and bathe in it, and flock to its shores to build our empires. In the kingdom of life, Water reigns supreme. Yet, even though it possesses enough power to wipe out cities with its waves and torrents, carve and split rock, and drown our fragile bodies, we still continue our mission to tame the beast—keeping it barred behind dams, trapped inside reservoirs, sailing through pipes, flying through fountains and suffocating in swimming pools.
We need water to live, and we’ll kill for access. We have been waging war against the land since settlers decided it was a good idea to inhabit places where water was scarce. I sit here, in Bishop, California, and am amazed I’m able to survive in this desert. Without man’s extreme manipulation of the natural will of water, the vultures would be picking at my dry, brittle bones.
Currently, I’m reading Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Dense, but incredibly entertaining and witty, the book is a detailed account of America’s absurd notion that cultivating land in the nation’s most arid regions is a good idea. Is it possible? Not permanently. That is the point of the book. We’re screwing ourselves over with poor planning and disillusionment.
The roots of the problem are both unnerving and comical. In the nineteenth century, to populate the states—particularly the ones most uninhabitable— the government promoted the idea that “Rain Follows the Plow.” Professor Cyrus Thomas, a climatologist of the times, said, “Since the territory [of Colorado] has begun to be settled, towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and traveled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture… I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases the moisture will increase.”
After hearing all the hype, settlers swarmed into the western states to cultivate all the so-called Eden-like land. The problem: most of the places people wanted to settle and farm were so dry they required heavy irrigation, and not everyone was as irrigation-savvy as the Mormons. One of these places was Los Angeles. In reality, given the location of this now-sprawling metropolis, the city should have never gotten so big. The solution to the city’s early water woes came in the form of surreptitious political plotting to divert (steal) water from a very, very long ways away.
In 1900, when William Mulholland, superintendent and chief engineer of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power realized that nearby water sources could not support the growing population of Los Angeles, he decided to construct an aqueduct that would pump water from Mono Lake, in the East Sierra, to the big city. Los Angeles residents voted to purchase Owens Valley Land and water rights for $1.5 million and construct the proposed 233-mile aqueduct. With mass amounts of water being diverted from the Mono Basin, the salinity of the lake has risen to 81 grams/Liter, roughly twice as saline as ocean waters. When salinity is allowed to increase above this level, surrounding wildlife is negatively impacted. Water diversions from the Mono Basin have left the main input streams dry. Also, as the level of the lake decreases, lakebed sediments are exposed to the air, causing dust storms, which result in air quality issues in the area. In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to help protect Mono Lake. With public support, the Mono Lake Decision was passed in 1994 which sets in-stream flow requirements for each stream entering the basin, prohibits the diversion of water from Mono Basin until the level of the lake reaches 6,377 feet, and protects public trust and fishery values of the area. Mono Lake is still in recovery.
Water is a huge issue. Some take its worth for granted until they are forced to live without it, or with limited use. Realistically, a desert is no place for people to survive. Yet, here I sit, in a café—kept at a bearable temperature by the swamp cooler, which uses water to chill the air— located in the middle of the desert. Thank god for water. Thank god for our ways of manipulating it. Thank god for the firemen who doused the fire a block away from our house, and for managing the fire that is now burning the hills of the Sierra in the distance. The sky this morning was hazy with smoke.
If only we could find ways to use water without abusing the sources we remove it from. What if we started thinking about how much water we use–for showers, washing hands, flushing toilets, watering gardens, irrigating fields, quenching the thirst of billions? Why do we need potable water in the toilet? Why don’t we feed our gardens with gray water (rain runoff)? If our reservoirs will quickly be running dry, why are we continuing to waste water in so many irresponsible ways? Treating water like gold—like the incredibly valuable resource it is—is the first step.