Raising the Level of Water Literary in California
By Jonah Raskin
In a state defined by too much or two little water, a small army of California academics keeps a close watch on rainfall, flood, drought, dams, rivers, lakes and the urban, suburban, and rural consumption of H20. Allison Lassiter, perhaps the youngest and one of the best and brightest in a crowded field of water scholars and practitioners, has launched a new book with fifteen essays by many of California's savviest hydrologists, climate scientists, geologists and professors of law. Sustainable Water moves from dire warnings to bright forecasts. In that regard it reflects the dualities of the Golden State itself that swings all too often from fear of the impending future to fantasies about a perfect world in which humans and nature live in harmony, happily ever after. In her own feisty introduction to the volume, Lassiter writes that the state is dryer now than ever before in recorded history and perhaps dryer than it has been in 1,200 years. "In all likelihood, managing California's finite water supplies will forever be contentious," she concludes. She adds, "Even so, California water does not have to be defined by its crises."
A native of Boston, with degrees from MIT, Cornell, and UC Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in landscape architecture and environmental planning, Lassiter has lived in Melbourne, Australia since about the first of August 2015. "I'm here to learn about Australia's problems with water," she says on the phone. "I want to see if we can outline some lessons from the drought that gripped this country in the twenty-first century." She's already learned that the consumption of water is one-third less than what it was before the Australian drought and that water conservation has become a way of life. "Australia is a culture of the short shower - four minutes max," she says. "And Australians use far less energy than Californians. Everyone air-dries laundry."
Lassiter began to edit Sustainable California in 2012, before the current four-year California drought began to flex its muscle. Now, her book is as timely as a ticking time bomb, though the author also recognizes that even if there are floods this rainy season the issue of water won't go away, not with depleted groundwater, greatly diminished snow pack in the Sierra Mountains, a growing population, and climate change which means hotter summers, more evaporation and increased demand for water by all living things. "If Californians have water fears and anxieties there's good reason," Lassiter says. "There is no quick fix to the problem and no silver bullet, either. It's much more complicated than most people believe. When we talk about water we like to find crops like almonds and make them emblematic of the whole situation. That's far too reductionist."
Sustainable California is lively and provocative with real food for thought. It's also more than a tad academic. After all, most of the contributors are professors, policy wonks and researchers with degrees from Yale, Harvard and Oxford who use technical terms that will be unfamiliar to the average citizen, such as "confined and unconfined aquifers," "safe yield," "sustainable yield" and "groundwater-substitution transfer." The authors are mostly male, white and privileged. It's unlikely any of them have dug a well, built a dam, decommissioned one, or fixed a leaky pipe. Some water experts aren't included such as Brock Dolman, the founder and mainstay at the California Water Institute, who coined the water mantra, "Slow it, spread it, sink it, store it and share it" that doesn't show up in the pages of Sustainable California though it's a good example of a complex concept translated into everyday language.
Lassiter herself writes without jargon and doesn't pull any punches. As a graduate student investigating California's levees with a group of researchers she aimed to get to the root of the problem when she posed the question, "Why do we have levees in the first place?" A radical without sounding shrill and a change agent without demanding immediate total transformations she can be emphatic when she wants to be. "Our water laws are far too complicated and messy. They have to be overhauled," she says on the phone from Melbourne where it's cloudy with rain in the forecast. "Water has to be reallocated and ground water and surface water have to be managed conjunctively." Occasionally, she's poetic as when she writes in the Introduction to Sustainable Water that, "Drought is a magnifying glass, revealing that California's water supply is inflexible and brittle." Her aim throughout is to enhance the dialogue and to raise the level of water literacy.
For years, TV meteorologists have called the winter storms that arrive on the coast of California from Hawaii "the pineapple express." Only with the current drought have they begun to use scientific terms like "atmospheric river."
In the first chapter, John T. Andrew -- who works at the California Department of Water Resources -- cautions against "alarmism" which he calls "absolutely the wrong answer and message." But he goes on to predict that climate change might "bring biblical blights, droughts, flood, and rising seas to California's water resources." He admits, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, "This may be preordained for a state that named two major rivers for the Holy Sacramento and a saint." In chapter eight, Daniel Wendell and Maurice Hall paint a picture in which individual well drillers solve their own immediate problems but add to the larger water crisis for entire communities. "The tragedy of the commons will arise," they write, "whereby each pumper pursues their own short-term benefit to the ultimate detriment of all."
Chapter Ten, which is written by Sasha Harris-Lovett and David Sedlar, the author of Water 4.0, takes on the topic of the reuse of waste water in California, sometimes popularly known as "from toilet to tap." Sedlar and Harris-Lovett point out that the use of raw sewage to improve soils isn't new. They offer a quotation from Karl Marx who criticized the city of London for dumping waste into and contaminating the River Thames. "Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture," Marx wrote. "So far as their utilization is concerned there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy." Great wealth, he suggested, might be wrought from human excrement.
In the afterword, Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute, begins by saying that the water problem in California is more difficult than rocket science, but then he goes on to describe California in 2050 when, in his words, "California has solved most of its severe water problems." The nuts and bolts of how that will happen he doesn't explain, and while he mentions, "powerful interests vested in maintaining the status quo," he doesn't name names. Near the end of his afterword, Gleick reminds readers that the state of California has acknowledged "the human right to water." Still, you won't hear Governor Jerry Brown or any U.S. Senator from the Golden State remind voters of that right.
"We have a long way to go," Lassiter says. "But we can make substantial changes. We can even persuade home owners to give up their lawns, which are English imports and not really appropriate to a semi-arid climate like California."
Sustainable Water will probably be read by professors, graduate students and policy wonks. The ideas and the concepts deserve greater circulation. Someone, perhaps Lassiter herself, might translate them for thirsty Californians so that they trickle down to the greatest number where they might do the greatest good.