On performative environmentalism and water

A mountain stream.

Every time it rains, seemingly everyone not from California asks if this means the drought is over. The answer is no. Not even when the state is flooding. No. Not even when it’s recordbreaking rainfall. No. Not even when reservoirs are overflowing. Their conceptualisation of ‘drought’ is not really in line with the reality, but it touches on a larger issue, which is that lots of people in and out of California don’t really understand drought, water use, water policy, and how these things fit together.

In the last few years, I’ve been treated to a constant stream (so to speak) of performative conservationism from the liberal camp. People carry on as though they personally are going to save the world by installing a regulator in their shower or tossing a brick in the toilet tank. That’s because of some pretty terrible messaging from people who should know better, but it’s incredibly naive and speaks to the need for some solid water education.

So here’s the deal: Radically cutting down the amount of water you use in your house (using a low-flow dishwasher, which is more efficient than using the sink, using a high efficiency washer, tossing a brick in the toilet tank, cutting down on shower time, replacing landscaping, checking for leaks, etc etc etc) will obviously mean that you are, uh, using less water. In cities with mandatory reduction programmes (more on this in a minute), it can help you get in line with, say, a 30 percent savings target. It may lower your water bill, depending on how utilities bill consumers.

If your city relies on a stressed water source, you will also help to ensure that everyone can get the water they need, if you are collectively reducing the amount you use, which is a good thing. And it’s why some cities set savings targets. Others are subjected to them by bigger agencies, which want to preserve groundwater or reservoir supplies. Changing your personal use habits can be a good thing.

But in the bigger picture, it is literally a drop in the bucket.

The leading use of water in California is irrigation. Period. There are a lot of ways to calculate usage, but overall, it’s a lot. That’s because California grows a lot of water-intensive crops and refuses to change its farming practices. It could be refusing to cultivate some crops on the grounds that they are not sustainable. It could be using drought/low water farming techniques. It doesn’t. Instead, the state reacts to consumer demand, but also to use it or lose it water policy; if farms don’t use their water allotment, they’ll be cut off from using that much water in the future. Imagine being given eight glasses of water a day and being told that you have to use them all up, or the next day, you won’t get as many glasses. So you use them all up, because the water is there, after all, and because you might need a full eight glasses some day. Want to change this? Change the way water is distributed and pressure the industry to change what it grows and how.

Next comes thermoelectrical power generation, which uses a pretty big chunk of water. There are other options for power generation, but this is one that’s still widely employed across the state. Want to change this? Demand different modes of power generation and push to get new plants on line ASAP.

So-called ‘public supply’ is next on the list (self-supply domestic, i.e. wells, accounts for around 0.5 percent of water used in California, fyi), but this is a little bit misleading. Around half of the water used in urban areas actually goes to landscaping, not household uses. So it LOOKS like people use a lot of water around the house, but the real problem is lawns and gardens, not whether you cook your pasta in four cups of water or eight. (That said, the Food Lab has solid reasons for recommending that you use less water to cook pasta.)

Below that, aquaculture, mining, industrial, and livestock all use (comparatively) trivial amounts of water. Certainly some changes could make them more efficient and it’s great to recommend those.

Yet many liberals in California have seized on the idea that they can save the world with their personal water use. This is because this is what they have been taught, and because it feels immediate and actionable. I can go out and buy an extremely expensive washing machine and Do Good for the Environment, or use a shower toggle to make my showers slightly less wasteful. The problem is that people who are obsessed with these minuscule nickel and diming approaches to water use aren’t facing facts with the real issues with water use. They’re using electricity, but not pressuring their providers to seek sustainable methods of energy generation. They’re eating tons of food, but not being careful about what they buy and from where — it’s all water-intense crops like lettuce and broccoli, or tomatoes grown in very wasteful ways, or meat, which uses a lot of water through fodder production.

To really change how we use water in California, we need to look beyond our houses. And that requires work. It’s often boring work that doesn’t pay off immediately and doesn’t carry the satisfaction of immediate rewards, but that’s also how these things go. Change is slow and often dull. But what would happen if people invested energy in reforming irrigation policy? Or pushed the agriculture industry to make radical changes? It’s not an easy quick fix like installing a new showerhead, but it will yield much better results.

Image: Water, Nathan Hall, Flickr