Last week, in the middle of a record hot summer, and for the first time in California history, all the public showers at 44 state-run beach parks were shut down. "California is facing extremely severe drought conditions," announced California State Parks Director Lisa Mangat. "It is important for all Californians to conserve water at home, at work and even when recreating outdoors."
Without a public hearing, and without any research that this measure would actually save water, the Parks agency has deceptively used the drought as an excuse to shut down an essential public water service that was used by 15 million park visitors last year (that's more than one-sixth of all park visits).
Incredibly, this ill-conceived move will not even save the relatively small amount of water that State Parks claims it could. That's because cold beach showers use, on average, just 1.2 gallon of water, whereas when people are required to go home to rinse off, they will use an average of 17 gallons for a hot shower.
If just half of those impacted by this service cutback go home or to hotels to rinse off from their beach visit, then the beach shower shutdown will waste an additional 100 million gallons of California water annually.
Even if the shutdown did not consume far more water than it purportedly saves, it was still unnecessary to remove a public water service that has improved hygiene and served beach visitors for generations. Before the implementation of the beach shower shutdown, the State Parks agency, mostly through conservation, had already met Governor Brown's demand for a 25% reduction of water usage for every state agency. Assuming that the move actually saved the 18 million gallons that the Parks agency stated it "potentially" might, the beach shower shutdown would amount to just 4% of the total 446 million gallons now consumed at all 280 State Parks each year.
And so, the battle over who will shoulder the burden of the worst drought in California history has leeched from politics into public parks. What's more, the beach shower shutdown may well be the trial water balloon that initiates a flood of deceptive measures by government agencies eager to use water shortages as an excuse to drain important public services.
For this reason, our non-profit public interest media website, The Sonoma Independent just launched this statewide petition to demand the restoration of public beach showers in California.
Our Diminished Expectation for Responsive Government
Most Californians agree that we need to allocate water resources more wisely. This is especially true of agriculture, which consumes 80% of all water usage. The state's almond export crop by itself uses about 43,000 times more water than the beach shower shutdown purportedly saves.
Nothing could be more contrary to the public interest than doing what California State Parks has done: using the drought as an excuse to reduce public water services that benefit public health while using statistically insignificant quantities of water: beach showers, campground wash stations, restrooms, and water fountains. Last year, flush restrooms with sinks were replaced by porta-potties with sanitizing liquid at Hearst Castle, visited by 600,000 tourists each year.
How did water services in public parks become the fist major casualty of California's drought? The sad, inconvenient truth is that we, the people feel powerless to do anything about the continued erosion of the public services that our taxes supported for decades. California closed dozens of state parks in 2011 after the recession. But despite a prospering economy and a record surplus last year, a number of parks never reopened, including my family's favorite: Pomo Canyon environmental campground, nestled in the Coastal Redwoods.
I call this a diminished expectation for responsive government. Despite our funding of ever more expensive salaries and benefits for government employees, these days, few citizens even expect our elected representatives to maintain the level of public services that had been provided for generations. Instead, our collective powerlessness causes us to receive whatever carefully constructed propaganda is offered, and then walk quietly into the night of the new normal. A new normal of reduced public services for parks, beach showers, flush restrooms, sinks and drinking fountains, as well as libraries and hospitals.
"A Drop in the Wrong Bucket"
"Shutting water at Parks seems like a drop (and the wrong drop) in the bucket. There's got to be a better solution," observes Kristi H., a Sonoma County mother of two beach-loving boys, whose husband is a surfer. "More substantial efforts for conservation would focus on the out of control growth of grape agriculture, almond farms, and huge water bottling companies. These are the real culprits who need to be limited."
The 18 million gallons allegedly saved annually by cutting beach showers to 15 million beach visitors is the equivalent water usage as:
• About one day's watering of state highways. California's State Highway agency uses 11 times more water than all 280 state parks.
• Two months of watering of a single golf course. California has 900 golf courses.
• Six weeks watering of a single almond farm. California has 6,500 almond farms and exports 70% of the almonds produced.
Is This A Trial Water Balloon for Cutting Back Public Services?
Closing beach showers is likely to be the trial water balloon for using the drought as a deceptive excuse to further cut important public services. A Park's official recently noted that the agency would not rule out additional water cutbacks for sinks, bathrooms, pay showers, and toilets in state campgrounds and parks. Without public opposition, this cutback list might soon expand to include closing some parks entirely.
Additional service cuts would not be surprising, since Lisa Mangat, the recently-appointed Director of the most magnificent and widely used state park system in the world, came from the state's Finance department, without any experience whatsoever with public parks, or the environment.
It's not too late to restore public showers to state beaches and let our elected representatives know that we value parks more than propaganda. California needs to reduce water guzzlers--not public services.