California’s worst drought in a century has eased a little with two rainstorms as February has morphed into March. A trip through the state on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is giving me the chance to see how the “green and golden” state is looking now that a little water has come down.
After watching the sun rise during the station stop in Sacramento, I stared with unbelieving eyes as the train continued through Davis, the Delta, along the Straits into the East Bay Area, and from San Jose to our destination in San Luis Obispo. Much of what I saw was green.
Well-tended lawns and golf courses, of course. Even during a drought, some patches of green receive the moisture they need. What surprised me were the scruffy patches of grass along the tracks and in untended vacant lots. Green! Puddles and ponds all around. Farmland was intensely green, and marshy land was well supplied with wild water foul. Just like Oregon’s Willamette Valley that we had seen the previous afternoon.
The California hill country, which ordinarily is green from mid winter until May when it turns “golden,” was green. When the tracks ran close to the slopes, I could see that the stands of grass were sparse, but the color was true. In a few more days, I concluded, it will get longer and thicker.
What surprised me most, however, was the truck farming land around Salinas. Even though I had read that Central Valley farmers were probably not going to get irrigation water from the reservoirs, signs of active irrigation were evident in Steinbeck country. For the moment, at least, life in California continues as though it will continue the same as always.
My recent readings on the long-term climatic patterns in the southwest, however, have made it clear that this is not likely to be the case. In fact, the combination of drought-floods-fire that California has endured in recent months replicates a pattern that has been in place for eons in America’s desert southwest.
Most indications are that we are moving into one of the long, dry periods. Although dams and irrigation systems have protected us from the extremes for a century, it is increasingly unlikely that these engineering measures will be sufficient for the period that seems to be coming.
The book that I brought to read on the train—Shared Borders, Shared Waters—is a collection of essays by scholars and water scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Mexico, and the United States. They were prepared for a conference in 2009 at the University of Arizona in which the participants focused attention upon policies and practices concerning the use of water resources in two of the most arid populated places on earth. My interest in the book was initiated when one of the editors asked permission to use one of my photos as part of the cover art.
The essays discuss the way that two arid regions—the Jordan River Valley and the Colorado River Basin—are shaped by the scarcity of water. The authors discuss the history and water policy and practice in the several nations the coexist in the two regions that the book considers.
I am especially interested in the deeper political and ethical issues that arise water as supplies diminish and the engineering responses become ever more complex. These aspects of the mounting crisis are frequently discussed through many of the essays in this rather technical book.
In a few days, as I do this year’s week of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp for serious cyclists, I will again be surrounded by the reality of an expanding population in a land of little water. As time and energy permit, I will continue reading the essays in Shared Borders, Shared Waters. In this way, mind and body will be mutually engaged in experiencing what may be the most serious issue facing the human community in our time.
Because my interest in the issues related to water continues to grow, I may open a new “page” in my blog. Currently there are three: American Religion, Cycling, and Opinion. The fourth would be entitled “Water” or something like that. As the photo of the Columbia River Gorge on my masthead indicates, water has been in the blog’s background all of the time. It will likely become a more prominent feature as we move into spring when well-watered land produces the food on which we all depend.