Hypocrites and Watering Cans

I get a little bit het up when it comes to water. I could beg off by attributing it to my childhood, growing up in a house with a 1,000 gallon rainwater collection tank as our sole source of water, but it’s also because I’m a dirty hippie (sometimes literally), and I care about things like, er, the environment, the salmon run, agriculture, and the ability to utilise natural resources efficiently and with respect to nature’s share. Living in California, I’ve spent much of my life acutely water and drought-aware, as the state has endured several dry spells during my lifetime.

As you may have noticed if you’re a fan of reading the news, California is experiencing a particularly bad drought year, one forecast by some researchers to possibly be the worse in hundreds of years. Climate researchers have used a rich wealth of data to look at how the state’s weather patterns have shaken down over the centuries, and the news isn’t good for California; it’s entirely possible that European invaders settled the state during a wet period, and that subsequent colonisation, policymaking, and decisions were based on viewing wet weather as ‘average’ instead of unusual. Now, we may be paying the price — the state could be on the way to a more extended dry spell.

That’s not good news. It’s not good news for a lot of reasons. California is heavily dependent on agriculture revenues, for starters. Desert cities like Los Angeles are made possible entirely by imported water. California industry, of course, devours substantial amounts of water too. And of course individual residents of the state enjoy a drink and a cool shower now and then, not to mention the chance to wash some dishes and do the laundry.

Clearly, the lion’s share of water used in California is used by agriculture and industry. That’s indisputable. But encouraging people to cut down on their personal water use is still a good idea, as every drop does count, and teaching people to be more aware also increases general conservation awareness. If people are forced to conserve water to keep in line with water use restrictions, they’ll be forced to consider the environmental issues that led to those restrictions in the first place. That might result in making them more engaged socially and politically. Or just more whiny about their water bills.

The thing about California, and I suppose other regions as well but the bulk of my experience lies here so I’m sticking with California rather than making generalisations, is that people here love to talk the talk, but they are not so fond of walking the walk. When it comes to water conservation we do so adore discussing the drought and climate change and how terrible it all is, but we don’t actually want to modify our own behaviour or change the way we run our lives, because that, of course, would be preposterous — that would be too much like work, and sacrifice.

This brings us, gentle readers, to the warm, sunny day when I was strolling down the sidewalk in Berkeley, thinking about what to make for dinner, when I was confronted by a terrifying noise. I cocked my head for a moment, to determine if I was merely imagining things — perhaps hallucinating the entire experience, wishfully bringing rain to life. It was the sound of water dripping on leaves, great gushing gouts of it, and I knew from looking up that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, as there hadn’t been for weeks. I squinted and swiveled until I found the source of the offending noise: a woman in a large straw hat, carelessly spraying a hose over her garden, including not just an assortment of suspiciously healthy plants but also a swath of emerald-green lawn.

She was spraying so much water that it was overflowing onto the parched sidewalk and trickling into the gutter. She hummed quietly to herself and pottered around, blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was standing mere feet away in a state of utter speechlessness, which, I can assure you, is highly unusual for me. I blinked several times, because I couldn’t believe my eyes, but every time I opened them, there the scene was, playing out before me, almost in slow motion, like a nightmare that just wouldn’t end.

I thought back on my own desiccated garden in Fort Bragg, filled with plants that had given up the ghost because I hadn’t watered them in months. I reflected on the handful of plants I’d managed to salvage solely by carefully parceling out water I’d saved from my showers and that collected from my dehumidifier. And I burned with, I confess, self-righteous rage and frustration that here she was, heedlessly and merrily using city water to water her garden.

I was appalled that Berkeley hadn’t put watering restrictions in place yet, that someone would water the garden in the middle of the day (the worst time for evaporative losses!), that someone could be so clueless and selfish. Sure, it’s just a garden. Yeah, her activities weren’t on the scale of major agriculture firms. But still. It irked me to see her, and others, for I quickly realised it was a plague of watering rogues, thoughtlessly dumping water on their gardens.

When you live in California, you live with the risk of drought. You try to plant drought-tolerant plants. You prepare for the possibility that your garden may go through lean times. You consider grass alternatives, for the love of all that is creeping groundcovers, and you don’t heedlessly carry on with the hose when the entire state is desperate for water as though there’s no connect between your actions and larger social issues.

Maybe I’m just a self-righteous dirty hippie, but I saw it as nothing short of hypocrisy in a city that prides itself on being environmentally friendly and aware — seriously, Berkeley?