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.

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