Last month, listening to NPR, I learned that Sacramento, California is struggling with the installation of water meters on homes. There were two things I learned, both ungood: 1) Sacramento was installing water meters on homes, meaning, that they hadn’t been there all along. I found that astounding because water meters are the first line of defense in controlling water use. Charge people for the water and they’ll pay attention to the drippy faucet, they’ll be more likely to remember to turn off the sprinkler, maybe they’ll think about investing in more efficient water-using appliances. Or maybe they’ll just throw a brick in the back of the toilet. 2) The way they were installing the water meters seemed to guarantee that it would take the longest possible time to complete the job. I wondered if this was a deal, tacit or otherwise, between the contractors and the city, because the way they are doing it involved a lot more work for the contractors. Seemed to me that getting the water meters in place would be urgent, and dealing with other aspects of the infrastructure could be handled later.
In January, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to use less water. They didn’t. That is surprising because I thought everybody in California was a tree-hugging ex-hippie liberal, the sort of person who would come up to the plate to save the earth any day of the week, not just on Earth Day. Turns out, that’s only the people I know in California. Now, California is imposing mandatory water restrictions, which include fines. Now the Libertarians will have to pay if they want to be all Libertarian about using water.
In the meantime I’ve had a few conversations, on Twitter and Facebook mainly, but also here, about this. My friends and I found ourselves grumbling about California. Hey, I live a few miles from the Mississippi River on a glacial lake covered with a sand sheet. Couldn’t get much better aquifer than that; the rain falls, goes straight underground with minimal evaporation or runoff, and sits there ready to pump into the ubiquitous water towers that define most upper Midwestern and Plains cities. But we have mandatory water restrictions, usually for several weeks starting in mid summer, every year. Also, I’ve lived in several sates and there were always water meters. Always. How is it that California, suffering a severe to extreme drought statewide, has entire cities (at least a couple) without water meters, and only now has considered serious water restrictions? What gives, we grumbled? Why should we feel sorry for California when they seem to have brought at least part of this water shortage problem on themselves?
The whole thing made so little sense that I guessed that there was more to it. There must be context I’m unaware of, nuance I’m missing. And, a colleague of mine, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading experts on water in California. So, I sent him, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a note asking him if he could ‘spain all this. (Peter also blogs here at Scienceblogs.) He wrote back that I had just ruined his weekend by adding the last straw to the camels’ back; this is an issue he’d been thinking about writing a blog post on, and now he was going to have to do it.
Peter’s post contextualizes and adds nuance to most of my questions. I still think we have an open question that applies generally, not just to California: Why is it that we humans are so bad at doing what we already know is the right thing? Or, in some cases, don’t know but would if we only looked around a bit. As a New Yorker (who also lived in Boston for quite a while) this question has troubled me since the day I moved to Minnesota. I see so many problems here that are developing (or in some cases well developed) with the undirected evolution of our infrastructure, cityscape, sub- and ex-urb layout, and other things that, I think, could be avoided if only those in charge of planning, and local political and economic leaders, would spend a year or so living in the East Coast Metropolis. Apparently, California isn’t as coastal as often claimed. It is a former frontier, a frontier not so long ago, settled by people who forgot their roots the moment they pulled them up.
Years ago I visited the Las Vegas History Museum at the University of Nevada. Among the many displays there was a post card that blew my mind. The post card sported a photograph of dozens, possibly hundreds of artesian wells that had been tapped and let blow. It was a large, very gently sloped plain (the part of the city that today slopes down towards Lake Mead, east of the main core of the city) and each of the wells was sending up what looked like a geyser but was really just water spewing out of the ground. The point of the photograph, said to have been widely distributed back east, was to show that there is unlimited water here in the middle of the desert. Don’t let thoughts of aridity dry up your plans to come here and build! The water spews out of the ground!
The think is, not long (weeks?) after the artesian wells were tapped, tapped entirely for one purpose, to make this photograph of unlimited water, the wells ran dry. The marketing effort caused the demise of the local aquifer, right then and there. And Las Vegas, with its fountains, golf courses, extensive unchecked development, is as stupid today as it was then. This poignantly exemplifies the true frontier spirit that facilitated the settling of the west. That and a lot of guns.
Go read Peter’s post before you get mad at California for the reasons cited above, for only now metering and only now restricting water. Don’t worry, you can still be mad at California, but with the additional context supplied by Peter, your annoyance will be appropriately nuanced and informed. They are still doing it wrong. They are just doing it wrong in ways more complex and, in some cases, depressing, than you may have been thinking.