More and more I think there should be an entrance exam for anyone visiting California, either for tourism or for permanent residence. And that exam would be all about understanding the ecology of The West — possibly with several volumes of John Muir and Wallace Stegner as texts. Because while both those great environmentalists advocated living lightly on the land, they understood, perhaps more than anyone not from a Western Native American tribe, that The West is an especially fragile and delicately balanced ecosystem. I say this in the midst of what is being called the worst drought in California in 500 years. While we can’t control Nature, we can go with the flow of what Nature mandates and live within those parameters. But you can’t do that if you have no clue what our ecology dictates.
What gets me on this rant is that, even in the midst of this devastating drought, which has been going on for three years now, there is so little media coverage and so little awareness. I know the media is geared to cover things that happen instantly — like a mudslide or a snowstorm. So an entire state dying of thirst over a protracted period seems to be just too boring to rate any coverage. (In fact, only Aljazeera America — a surprisingly good and balanced news source — seems to be doing ongoing in-depth coverage of our drought.) Now this year, the situation has reached such a crisis point that the rest of the country just might start to notice when the 50% of the U.S. grown produce and beef that California provides just doesn’t show up in the grocery stores. Then again, maybe people don’t even notice that already the stores are filled with Mexican produce at a time when California’s Central Valley should be kicking into growing overdrive. What’s happening is that farmers are fallowing more than half their fields because they can’t afford to irrigate them and cattlemen are selling off their herds because they don’t have the forage for them. (That’s before we even talk about the fishing industry, the cost to municipalities, the increased threat of wildfires.) Being in the Ag business in my own small way, I’ve been aware of this situation for a few years now. But certainly anyone else who lives here or travels here frequently should be aware that Governor Brown has called for water conservation. (Although why, at this juncture, we don’t have mandatory rationing is beyond me. What’s he waiting for? The last drop out of the last dry well and emptied reservoir?)
We finally had a series of rainstorms this past week — rain that state geologists measuring our all important water-producing Sierra snowpack say lifted us just barely out of the worst snowpack on record and “from a devastating situation to a dire one”. You’d think we would have been dancing and celebrating in the streets. Yet, I was surprised to see whining comments on Facebook about our “terrible” weather. When I gently reminded each of these posters that this was life-saving weather given our devastating drought, the reply was a long list of personal inconveniences caused by the rain. Because, while our recent rain may be the difference for many California farms between crops or no crops, apparently that can’t even compare to a delayed flight. When I reiterated what was at stake here — family farms going under, an agriculture industry on the verge of collapse, municipalities running out of water, a state in crisis — another poster referenced the Washington mudslide and noted: “Well, we need the rain, but it’s a shame it came all at once.”
And herein lies the problem — our drought and the rains that precipitated the mudslides aren’t some curveball Nature has thrown at us. They are weather business as usual in the West, which has an ecology that is vastly different from anywhere else in the U.S. Over hundreds of thousands of years, most of the West’s flora and fauna developed an ability to deal with seven to eight months of zero rainfall, then a full year’s supply in just a few short months with relatively few intense rainstorms. Yet so many people think this is just a sunnier version of New England which, unlike The West, has full rivers and abundant rain year round. So they come here and plant water-thirsty non-native plants, take hour-long showers, and hose off their driveways using gallons of water when they could do the same thing with a broom and some elbow grease. On the other end, they cut down the native trees which have an amazing ability to soak up huge amounts of water in a short period of time. And read this if you don’t know by now that the Washington mudslides were caused by clear cutting the slope of that mountain, something geologists and local Native tribes had been warning about for years. What every visitor and resident of The West needs to know is that this place is semi-arid — with the duality that we are always on the verge of drought and always in line for chains of water-heavy Pacific storms that dump huge amounts of water on us (God willing) in a relatively short amount of time. Only if you know these facts can you act and live accordingly — saving water even when it’s not an official drought and respecting that we are going to be deluged at points.
So should I bust people’s chops for complaining about our rain in the middle of a historic drought or musing that “it’s a shame we got all this rain at once”? Yup, I’m afraid I should. Because those comments indicate people who don’t understand the unique ecology of The West. And it’s a short step from not understanding that this isn’t Connecticut to planting a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn in Tucson or trying to grow an irrigated rice crop in Bakersfield. Yes, the media has let us down terribly. As has our Governor, who should have had the state on mandatory rationing over a year ago. But that’s no excuse. Would you go to Oso, Washington and complain that the muddy streets are ruining your shoes? Would you go to a famine-starved country and bitch that there is no street food? NO. So don’t come to a state in crisis and complain that the only thing giving us a shred of hope is an inconvenience to you. Believe me, you’ll get real inconvenience when you see the price of produce this summer now that California yields are going to be down by as much as 50%.
So don’t complain about any rain we get here in California. Or I’ll tell you to get off the lawn. In fact, I’ll tell you that you shouldn’t even have a lawn. Unless it’s California bunchgrass that needs no irrigation, can go dormant during the dry period and then spring to greenness overnight when it rains.
And the rest of you — read John Muir and Wallace Stegner.
Note: Those of my readers who went to Ivy League colleges may recognize my post title as the Dartmouth College motto . It’s roughly translated as “the lone voice crying out in the wilderness” or “the clamoring voice in the desert”. Which is what I feel I am sometimes on this subject.