Thursday, April 9, 2015

When enough isn't enough

Look at this gorgeous (and, yes, sadly snowless) place we live. Lakes Basin National Recreation Area in Plumas County, CA -- March 28, 2015. Photo by me.
We have enough and we'll never have enough. This is the unresolvable paradox at the heart of so many issues, and one that is playing itself out daily when it comes to discussions about California water. Since the now infamous "one year of water left" headline ran last month (don't worry, it was quickly refuted) and the governor announced a 25% water reduction for urban users in the middle of a snowless Sierra meadow last week, anxiety has skyrocketed and finger pointing has commenced.

On one hand, it is amazing and wonderful to see so much interest in water. At the same time, much of the conversation has been pretty painful. See, for example, the comments on a recent, highly problematic New York Times article (reminds me of the Stegner obituary: "It was The New York Times that broke his heart"). While I'm grateful for the thoughtful responses, simplified solutions like don't live in California, kill the almonds and lawns and fish, become a vegan, desalinate more, etc., are more common. What many seem to be saying is if only we all did or didn't do this *one* simple thing or -- more likely -- if only other people did or didn't do this *one* simple thing, the suffering would end.

This is where I'm realizing we are faced with an unrelenting series of unresolvable paradoxes, which can be really hard for the problem-solver in all of us to take (not to mention that they make terrible news headlines). The most fundamental paradox of all is this: we both have enough water, and we will never have enough water. Many of the most closely held disagreements over California water issues -- from whether agriculture is allotted too much or not enough water to whether people are suffering deeply or not enough from the drought -- stem from this paradox.

I can just hear the wheels grinding in the minds of those that might argue that these issues are in fact resolvable, which speaks to the nature of the challenge itself. You don't have to reach back very far to see that different flavors of the same issues have existed in the California water world for a long time. All I can do when standing on the shifting ground of "enough will never be enough" is allow for seemingly these opposing ideas to exist at the same time, and wait for some way forward to emerge.

Saying the drought offers an invitation to practice holding opposites is not a way of evading the very real changes that must happen, or deferring institutional work to the individual. For me it is actually a deep acceptance of the way things are and, importantly, a way to stay present in the the face of vast disagreement. It helps me to see that while there are no silver bullets, there are many valid approaches being carried out by many people who have to negotiate tough trade-offs and work at different scales.

Appreciating the deeply paradoxical nature of California water issues is a way of both freeing up the energy to keep on keepin' on and allowing space and time for new paths to emerge. It's not either/or, it's both/and. Now, back to work.

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  1. Good post - I also don't see any singular solution or point of all-critical importance as yet. What water there is still appears very cloudy to me. It is certainly interesting to watch the various arguments unfold, sometimes developing from ground level, and sometimes from the ivory towers.

    One thing is emerging I think: actual long-term planning and resource preparation for this drought event did not occur on a scale worthy of the relative size of California's economy or standing. And this is not even what one could consider the most severe possible drought. California has had a lot of good information on potential droughts at its fingertips for a long time, but somehow "leadership" did not take it seriously over the years. What I sincerely hope is that this really helps California sort out its resource management priorities for the next 100 years - there were a lot of rainbows to chase when the shortage wasn't so serious.....

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Scotty. Like you, I am finding it really interesting to see what unfolds on literally a daily basis -- so much at play right now. I also agree that a hopeful silver lining is the potential for re-imagining resource management. My attempt here was just to get beyond a "solutions" mindset and into one more conducive to a paradigm shift... takes patience. :)

  2. "Too much is not enough" is how I described the paradigm that has driven California water choices and the state's history in my book, WATER AND THE CALIFORNIA DREAM. Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. David, thank you for the comment -- I will have to check out your book, it sounds excellent!