The lawns of the northern Sacramento suburbs are an ugly shade of tan, sort of a dull straw color that makes the houses look shabby, even abandoned. Presumably the rest of the lawns in Sacramento look like that, too.
Some 400 miles south, many of the lawns of Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo are still green. Maybe not as green as they were last summer, but a decent green. Maybe the homeowners are watering more often than they should, or maybe it’s just that Orange County is cooler than Sacramento County.
Lake Tahoe, down a little. As of last week, it had fallen about six feet, enough to inconvenience boat owners but not enough to detract from the loveliness of the lake. The pier pilings were exposed, meaning you couldn’t motor a boat up to the dock and load up your lunch and your wakeboards. But people could still swim at the private beaches of Incline Village or the packed public beach at Sand Harbor.
Across California, San Luis Reservoir was finally down, way down to a depressing level, giving support to Big Ag’s argument that their crops will be stressed before the harvest. Grape growers are grateful that the warm weather is ripening the crop early, avoiding the need for some late-season irrigation.
I’ve driven a lot in California the last couple of weeks and seen some of the impact of the drought. The Golden State is mostly crispy at the moment, scorched around the edges. Trucks rushing along I-5 create little dust storms. Sierra meadows are dry. The skinny Salinas River is 6 inches deep at San Ardo, shallower still before King City. The mountains surrounding the Los Angeles basin look more like the mountains of Nevada. Fires are everywhere.
The composite that emerges is that California has reached its limits. We seemed to think we could build more, plant more, just keep drilling wells, but the drought is showing us that the party is over. Sure, there seems to be enough water to get by, enough water to sustain the status quo as long as our next winter is a wet one. But just enough water. If we had to, we could blast giant Lake Tahoe open on the California side and nurture some more growth for a couple more years, but we’d have to cash in quickly to cover the lawsuits from the marina owners. Pyramid Lake on the Grapevine between Bakersfield and L.A. is nearly full, so someone in Southern California has figured out how to manage the supply or how to steal enough to keep the southland relatively smug. The drought is a function of weather but its impact is a function of politics and money. We have plenty of politics but the money to create new water, it has dried up as well.
The west side of the San Joaquin Valley used to be nothing but scrub-land, hardpan and sagebrush, alkali flats. Now it is half that and half almond trees and vineyards, lush rectangles that end abruptly where the water lines stop. The vineyards of Paso Robles now stretch inland for 20 miles before they give way to the desert. Surely the owners of much of the badlands dream of drilling wells or stringing pipes to make cash bloom for them as well, but the drought is telling us that that can’t happen or at least should not.
Along Highway 46 between the oil wells of Lost Hills and the wineries of Paso Robles, hundreds of fairly new acres of almonds look strong, a deep green, but some of the trees nearest the road look like they need a drink. One island of nut trees is failing entirely, its trees as bare as they were last winter, but there is only one of those islands visible from the four-lane.
Signs lining Interstate 5 in Fresno County criticize the politicians for creating a crisis in the fields. There are signs that remind us “Water equals jobs.” A sign in Kern County says “Growing Food Wastes Water?” but the closest crop is cotton.
I don’t mean to pick on the farmers, even the it-takes-a-gallon-of-water-to-make-an-almond farmers. They, like the taxpayers who paid for the dams, have invested heavily and they should be provided enough water to bring in their crops. But the drought should be teaching us that land ownership doesn’t come with automatic planting rights. We’re maxed out. We’ve reached the limit. Just because you can drill a well and plant pistachios doesn’t mean you should. Anyone who needs more water than they were using a year ago should be looking at other ventures. Just because your farm expanded in the last decade doesn’t mean it can grow in the next. Although there are already thousands of acres of grapes in the Salinas Valley, there is room for more. Our county government would likely say there is enough water. We should trust our county government why?
The same goes for homes and businesses. They say that capitalist ventures can’t survive if they don’t grow. It is time to test that. Yes, I’d hate to be a homebuilder or a carpenter now that California has reached its limits, but we’re out of water. If you build those 200 houses, another 200 already here will go without someday or they’ll have to pay a company like Cal Am ridiculous amounts to go through the motions to make some more.
Some say we need to build more dams to trap the water that rushes out to sea, “wasted.” Maybe we should have a few decades ago, but it’s too late now. Sacramento may declare an emergency to suspend the environmental rules but Washington isn’t going to go along. If we start planning dam projects now, we’ll start approving construction projects based on future water that may never become available. What makes sense is to improve the existing infrastructure. We can manage what we have better but I’m not going to pay big bucks so that someone in Wasco can plant walnuts or subdivisions and neither are you.
Closer to home, why are we still talking about Monterey Downs, the big horse-racing and housing compound planned for Fort Ord? If there is enough “extra” water in the ground for that project, great. There isn’t, but if there was, we could use it now to keep the hotels running and to take some of the pressure off the nearly defeated Carmel River. We don’t have enough water for our current needs so we’re going to say yes to making things worse for ourselves?
Next to the water-related signs along the inland highways are signs proclaiming “100 acres zoned commercial.” Give me a break. Drive into the next town and you’ll find hundreds of acres zoned commercial, some of it vacant, most of it dusty. I’ve got nothing against business. I’ve got something against nonsense.
California always was the land of promise, of potential, of possibilities. We believed the promises and exploited the potential. We have made great use of the possibilities, but we have done enough. There are other lands of promise and possibilities and some of them have water. We have created something special here, and we have, for the most part, finished it. Now it is time to take care of what we have.