Thursday, April 13, 2017

Is there more to water than our use of it?

My first real, in the wild, naturally occurring vernal pool experience involved not just one, but three pools at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve, part of the UC Natural Reserve System. So much love.
One of my biggest challenges in working on California water is that it's all about water use. It doesn't matter whether we're talking supply or demand, efficiency or conservation, wastewater or infrastructure, above or under ground storage -- it's all about human use of water. The closest we get to joy or awe at the simple existence of water comes in around rain and snow, especially after many years of drought, but even those conversations become almost immediately about how much we need it and whether or not we are making good use of it.

Don't get me wrong, water use is important. Clearly. There's no danger that topic will really ever go away in California.

What I do think we lose sight of though is that water isn't just about our use of it. I know, right? It's hard to talk about though, particularly in the natural sciences, and I often struggle with words and concepts that get at other ways we might think about, talk about, and be with our water.

Last year I took a stab at writing outside the science bubble that I mostly exist in, writing about work by my colleagues at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality. Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott created this truly incredible public participatory artwork that helps people tap into their emotional experiences of phenomena including drought and climate change by focusing on language that may not yet exist for our experiences. It helped.

I started a photography project just kind of going around doing my usual thing, visiting water all over the state, but instead of taking pictures without people in them, I started to document people and their relationship to water. Swimming, floating, wading, kayaking, fishing, cannon-balling, whatever. It helped.

And, last weekend, I spent some time at UC Merced with folks from the Humanities program there who had undertaken a two year examination of water. The culmination of that work was a small conference called Water: Ways of Knowing and Being, and I want to highlight just a couple of talks because these folks really get it, they study it, they know it.

The meeting started off in a fascinating way, with the work of Rina Faletti, an art historian who has been developing an exhibit on industrial photography and California's waterworks. Both the exhibit and her talk about it were really insightful and gave voice to so many of my feelings around our utilitarian focus on water, from the perspective of some incredibly visually compelling historical photographs of the Central Valley Project as it was being built.

Casey Walsh from UC Santa Barbara gave a great talk on water as a "plural substance" -- that is to say, not all water is the same. He talked about how we both push in integrate/homogenize water into a substance that can be swapped unit for unit, while also paying a premium for waters that are considered to be unique. Such good food for thought.

Melanie Yazzie, a UC President's Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, spoke about "water is life" as a radical politics of relationality. I particularly appreciated her use of the term organic intellectual work as differentiated from formal academic scholarship.

I came away from that with some new partners in crime, as well as some concepts to explore -- mainly water as having agency, and some of the literature around the cultural value of water, which was helpfully summarized by Veronica Strang of Durham University.

We've still got a long way to go in bringing some of these concepts into more mainstream conversations about California water. I was sad to see that the more science and economics oriented folks at the conference did not stay to hear any of the other panels, for example. But, I am incredibly grateful to have been able to drop into this universe of folks that know water in a whole other way, if even for a little while.

As a side note for longer-term readers: it's hard to believe it's been almost a year since I wrote here. The latter half of 2016 was filled with a lot of being out in the world, having the opportunity to try out some new material in with various groups, learning a lot (plus some other stuff that knocked me out for a bit). Hopefully I'll write a little more often here, but who knows.

Related posts:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Writing on the other blog

One of my favorite water views from Wildcat Peak in Berkeley. Photo by me.
In addition to writing here on what as become a fairly occasional basis, I write things with some regularity for our blog The Confluence (and for other publications, but we'll deal with that later).

For folks interested in California water issues, the posts I've written this year:

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Holding out for a hero

So often in life, we want to be saved. We want miracles. We want to be rescued by a parent, by a prince, by a god, by technology, by science -- by a hero. And, who can blame us? It's the stuff of myth and legend and the stories we were all raised with.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Forging new paths in science engagement

The Pacific Crest Trail over the McCloud River. Photo by me.

I so appreciate this beautiful piece on "climate grief" and what it means for climate scientists. It was written by scientist Sarah Myhre and in a couple of my favorite passages, she says:
"We are hamstrung by our need for job security, funding, advancement, and promotion – because we, too, are juggling the demands of child rearing, aging parents, urban gentrification, and the winnowing of the middle-class.

Regardless, this is the time for a gut-check. Our job is not to objectively document the decline of Earth’s biodiversity and humanity, so what does scientific leadership look like in this hot, dangerous world?"


"I believe most scientists are also, quietly and professionally, mourning the loss of the balance of Earth’s life. The pain doesn’t stop. It’s carried upon every wildfire, coral bleaching, or marine die-off. But, we can use these waves of pain to inform our moral commitment to the present and future. It requires the brave integration of science and self, the acceptance of loss."

Monday, April 4, 2016

Chronic versus acute problems

When the California drought really got going, in the sense of a generalized panic about it, it was late 2013 / early 2014. The drought had actually started at least a couple of years before that. Now, here we are, a couple of years later, and by most accounts it looks like we're entering year five, despite a relatively wet winter in some parts of the state.

In those early days, I treated the drought much like I used to treat wildfire events when I worked on fire issues: as an acute problem -- an intense, urgent event that would have at least a somewhat distinct end. This is as opposed to a chronic problem -- one relatively unchanging in condition and with no definite end.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Data and values

There have been some prominent new calls for more and better data on water during the last couple weeks. Charles Fishman kicked things off with an opinion piece in the New York Times saying that the best and simplest answer to changing how we think about water is to "fix water data." Several days later, the White House held a first-of-its-kind water summit. During the live event, many speakers made references to better data, which were further echoed in the event materials

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

From drought to storms: El Niño in Hollywood

After ending my post on California water issues showing up all over the TV with a note about El Niño being next, Sharon Swart at The Hollywood Reporter put out this pretty great article on that very topic. It is filled with some kind of crazy stories, like this one from actress Dyan Cannon on the 1982-83 El Niño landing in her Malibu yard:
"'I ran downstairs, and the ocean was coming into my living room. Then I saw firemen falling into the pool; they didn't know it was there because it's covered with water.' While her house was drying out in Malibu, Cannon rented a place in Coldwater Canyon, where 'torrential rains came and the roof caved in.' She now lives in an L.A.-area condo, in part due to her El Niño misfortunes."

Sunday, January 10, 2016

California water and drought on the TV box

I'm a television watcher -- or more accurately, a watcher of what passes for TV these days: streaming things onto various screens. What can I say? I adore pop culture and I work pretty hard with my brain all day and sometimes it likes to rest on entirely brainless things.

But, here's where my worlds are colliding. The thing I tire my brain out on all day is water. And, more and more, water is showing up on TV. As much as I try to ignore it, it's been super interesting to see how far the California drought is oozing into the deepest reaches of our psyches, at least as reflected in everything from family dramas to reality shows.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Comfort with discomfort -- my theme for 2015

A great start to a snowy California winter on the Truckee River. Photo by me.
I've got a new article up at The Conversation on working with conflict and emotion around climate change issues (thanks also to New Republic for picking it up!). It's basically all around the idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable during a time when things are changing pretty rapidly. It has been a really interesting time to try to write about climate change -- I finished the article before the Paris climate talks started, but it just came out today, which might be even better timing, even though trying to keep it relevant as the talks progressed was a challenge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Longing for a revolution

I had to go really far away to a watery, watery land to find a really helpful book. Photo by me.
Some days, I feel certain that we are on the verge of some major cultural shifts. Other days...not so much. During the latter, I am grateful for anything the reawakens a deep sense of possibility. Recently, that thing was a serendipitous encounter with Land and Environmental Arta book that contains some unexpected parallels for where I feel we are in the sciences right now and provides a really interesting look at working from the margins.