( – promoted by Robert in Monterey)
Rain falling on the skylight and roof, taps fluttering in waves.
The cool wet smell of new rain, so unfamiliar after the long dry summer and fall.
The drops of rain hanging heavily like dew on the leaves of plants, and the eaves in front of my window.
The long slow hiss of car tires on wet roads in the distance.
The sigh of relief, the hope that maybe this dry spell is safely over.
California is a bipolar state when it comes to water, doubly so here in the axle-pivot of the Central Valley. One year the rains never seem to end, and the century-old levees groan with the floodwaters, suburban sprawl waiting nervously on the other side of those earthen mounds for news of a breach, sandbags at the ready. Everyone pontificates for the cameras on the need for better flood protection.
The next year, the interminable waiting for that one big storm to materialize eventually withers into acceptance that the rain is not going to come, the forests dry to a crisp, reservoirs recede, leaving bathtub rings – memories of old storms – in their wake. Tentative conservation preparations are quietly made without jinxing things by announcing an official drought, everything contingent on how the next year goes. Everyone pontificates for the cameras on the need for water storage.
In truth, both flood and drought are tied together as a consequence of both our bipolar El Niño/La Niña climate and the geography of the Central Valley, the Sierras and the Delta. Before American settlement and subsequent terraforming – the draining of swamps, the diverting of water to canals, the erection of levees and dams – the valley had a certain syncopated rhythm to it:
As the rains fell, the seasonal wetlands of the valley, fed by the streams of the Sierra and coastal range alike, pooled and flooded into a shifting network of marshes and temporary lakes; in wet years it would occasionally turn the Delta into a huge inland sea, until the water eventually drained out to the Bay. Local Native American tribes such as the Patwin made boats out of bundled tule reeds and paddled around in them, fishing in the teeming waters. As spring came, flocks of migrating birds, of which the ones you see along the Causeway are but a shadow, stopped by to rest in those waters. As the spring rains finally subsided, the wetlands dried into fields of tule grass, and the flow of the rivers slowed, fed at lower levels by the Sierra meltwaters. The Patwin retreated up the creeks back into the valleys of the coastal range, as the searing Central Valley summers began, and their sources of water dried up.
When American settlers remade the Valley to suit the needs of a sedentary population, large scale agriculture and industry, a fundamental tension between a static civilization and a dynamic ecosystem came into being. Rivers were straightened and rerouted to respect property lines, roads and cities, valley clay was pushed up into levees to control floods, and in so doing the rivers lost much of their ability to cushion the force of a spring flood. The islands of the Delta were walled in and converted to agriculture, while the shifting flow of waters that made it such a rich ecosystem were diverted by canals over the centuries to water the fields of the San Joaquin valley and the lawns of Southern California, and in so doing have brought the Delta to ecological collapse. The rivers of the foothills, both in the coastal range and in the Sierra Nevada, were stopped up, their valleys turned into lakes and their waters diverted to cities and farms, and in so doing decimated the numbers of migrating fish such as salmon, which once choked the Sacramento River with their yearly migration to their mountain spawning grounds. The new cities and farms that these changes enabled created sunk demands not only on the water itself, but also on the cost of maintaining an ever-increasing network of protections and public works, so as to freeze the landscape in accordance with maps and city planning, and in so doing made the very dynamic equilibrium of the past hydrulic system into an expensive problem to be solved.
I am not an idealist here; we cannot go back to the status quo ante, not with everything that has been built, not with all the people who now depend upon that infrastructure’s maintainance. But we can at least admit that our insecurity with regard to the weather – putting aside for a moment the even greater threat of human-created climate change and its consequences for our civilization and ecosystem – is in large part a dilemma of our own making. We froze the landscape, we diverted the rivers, we remade the very lay of the land in service of the settling of California; and yet imperfectly, as the erratic swing of flood and drought reminds us, humbles us, from time to time.
As we debate how to best manage this environment that we have shaped for ourselves, it would be wise to consider the unintended consequences of our previous rounds of terraforming and meddling, and make our future steps with more care. Static systems will eventually collapse under the relentless dynamism of the natural world, or else require massive amounts of time, money and effort to defend. Would it not be far better to try to work with those natural processes than continue stacking stones and driftwood across streams like children, and then throwing tantrums when they do not hold back the water?
I am not convinced that the solution to California’s perennial water wars is another round of dams, canals, and demands on already-faltering hydraulic systems and fragile ecosystems. If the Delta collapses, the waves will lap upon the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California alike. Better in the long run to first work on reducing our profligate use of water, start treating it like the precious resource that it is, and try to find ways of living within our ecological and hydrological means. First and foremost, that entails accepting that we live in a flood-to-drought climate as a normal state, and not treating it like a unexpected crisis when the rain falls, or doesn’t fall. California has not properly accounted for its water, and working out a sustainable way forward should require sacrifice and accomodation from everyone who makes use of it, urban residents, industry, and farmers alike. Noone should go bust because of the changes, and yet noone should fail to put their shoulders to the wheel either. It is time to face the reality that it is pragmatic to build systems with the environment in mind, and the height of pie-in-the-sky idealism to assume that we are omnipotent to force whatever changes that we want in the natural world without consequence.
The sound of the rain tonight is calming, reassuring, but it should not lull us back into complacence.