Monday, November 17, 2014

The water haves and have nots

I have to admit that after almost a year of live tweeting California's drought -- and what seems likely to be at least another year of the same -- there are stretches of time where I can't help but feel totally numb to the amount of apocalyptic information that I have to sort through on a daily basis. But, today, there are a few things that have gotten my attention.

First, yesterday 60 Minutes did a really great segment on drought and groundwater depletion in California and around the world. If you care at all about water, food, farming, or national/global security, spending 13 minutes to get a compelling, curiosity-driven overview of the impact of aquifer drawdown on our lives and communities is totally worth it. Near the end of the segment, researcher Jay Famiglietti responds to a Lesley Stahl statement that "this is alarming" by saying "well, it should be alarming." And, though I'm not big on alarmism, in this case I will say: yes, yes it should.

The 60 Minutes piece covers many critical issues, including the rush to drill wells in California's Central Valley, even as most doing it know that it's simply not sustainable. They interview USGS researchers that find a five foot drop in groundwater levels in the space of a year. These are big issues, though they can feel abstract. But, a few other new stories from the past few days make it pretty concrete by showing how these issues play out in local communities. For example, Zoe Meyers, reporting for High Country News, delves into the very personal stories of two women and their families in the Central Valley that have completely run out of water. It's both baffling and heartbreaking.

Two other really interesting stories have come out that I find pretty disturbing because they really demonstrate, for me anyway, the absolute mess we find ourselves in. Both are about the short-term solutions that people are coming up with to cope with their newly dry wells. One story, from Mark Grossi and Lewis Griswold at the Fresno Bee, tells how homeowners with dry wells are buying large water tanks and relying on water deliveries, which are actually not entirely reliable. As somebody who grew up in a very arid, rural area where all the homes are on wells and our next door neighbors are the well-drillers, I 100 percent understand needing to do this on an individual level. The part I find more confusing relates to the larger structural issues, where it feels like one of the most convoluted and inefficient kinds of solutions possible. This really is us barely getting by, and not much more.

The other story, from Ezra David Romero at Valley Public Radio, delves into the business of delivering water to these kinds of residential tanks. He describes one tank driver filling up with water from a fire hydrant so that it can be delivered across the street (though he also hauls water as far as 50 miles). I know that this kind of thing is common in rural and often disadvantaged communities, like those of the Navajo and Hopi reservations near where I was raised, so I'm not shocked by it. At this point, if you can afford a deeper well, you can get one. If you can't, you simply have to figure out how to get by for now. We're perpetuating inequality with water haves and have nots, which often has cumulative impacts on some already beleaguered, albeit resilient, communities.

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