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On a Roll

By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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About Drought Doubt

Uploaded: Oct 5, 2014
I must be in a state of denial. For sure I'm in the state of California, where water is a sometimes thing. As a reader pointed out, we are staring catastrophe in the face. And doing what?

Well, I see it in myself...nothing. Still watering the lawn. Even though the lawn really should go. The evaporative surface area of a lawn, someone once explained, is actually greater than a swimming pool. Be that as it may, my apartment patches of grass, however small, are still getting the hose. And I'm not getting the point – we are facing a regional emergency.

And another thing. I am still growing lettuce. Okay, only six at this point. But even those should be getting graywater, not Hetch Hetchy's finest. But I digress, for the real question isn't about me, but about us. What do we do?

Reducing greenhouse emissions is a splendid national goal, but so handily blocked by political opponents that I despair. No, what do we do on a local scale? Any ideas?

The water crisis and the energy crisis do have one thing in common – conservation is generally the cheapest option. For agriculture, crops like rice and cotton could disappear from California. As for urban water use, we can make major gains in recycling.

All water is recycled, of course, but what we're really talking about is processing sewage. Yes, the concept easily makes people gag. That's why we need to start talking about this now – the challenge is partly technical, partly public relations. Even the best technologies for reclaiming sewer water have taken time to implement. That is to say, it takes time to convince the public. California's best example is probably Orange County where sewer water undergoes osmosis, microfiltration and UV exposure – then emerges remarkably pure. The system even removes viruses and pharmaceuticals.

No one seems to be pushing hard for desalinization plants in California. The cost must still be relatively high. And more dams in the Sierras? Count me out.

What do readers know about our best strategy for a water-wise future?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 6, 2014 at 7:28 am

The "water emergency" is purely and completely a political problem. Water is an abundant, near infinite resource, if managed appropriately.

That means using the price system to balance supply and demand, with a single price for all, as with virtually all other commodities. It does not mean telling people not to water their lawns. They should make that decision themselves, based on how much it costs them. We never hear about the "bread drought", and the price system is the reason.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 6, 2014 at 10:18 am

Alan is a registered user.

If your small patch of grass isn't used for people to mill about on - replace it with an appropriate groundcover.

A simple example: 'Diamond Heights' Ceanothus takes very little, and, in my opinion, looks better than grass. We have a small patch - 3' by 10'. It took a couple years to fill out - it's slow growing - but that's an advantage, because it means almost no maintenance. The only time it looked a little sad was after the hard frost a couple years ago, but it recovered nicely.

Web Link

Some native grasses take half the water of many typical lawns.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 6, 2014 at 10:23 am

Alan is a registered user.

By the way: this is a very good time of year for planting drought tolerant and native perennials in California. Assuming we get a reasonable amount of winter rain, the amount of supplemental water needed would be minimized while the roots are getting established. Everyone thinks of planting in the spring, but for many items, now is better. There's many native plant sales this month.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 6, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Paul --
Bravo for a very well-written and thoughtful blog that tells it like it is. Bravo!

To Mr. Joseph E. Davis and everyone who thinks like him --
No resource anywhere is "infinite". Ever. And water -- even ocean water -- is not at all ":infinite" in supply. Safe, clean drinking water is precious, and is, indeed, in great danger of running out here i the western US, and especially here in California -- IF the amount of rainfall that we have come to think of as "normal" does not return -- which it may not. Scientists, using dendrochronology (determining wet and dry years by looking at tree rings) have learned that the climate during most of the 20th century was unusually wet, when compared to the past 1,000 years. But the population in the west -- and therefore the number of water users, has increased enormously. In 1900, there were approximately 1,.5 million people in California, whereas in 2000 there were approximately 32.4 million people living in California. These are hard facts from the US Census Bureau. There are now many, many more "straws in the glass".

The population of California in Year 2000 was therefore more than 21 times what it was in 1900! But the rainfall has stayed the same: San Francisco gets, on average, only 20 inches of rain per year.

And the frightening fact is that state officials have estimated that, at present rates of use, there are only 1-1/2 to 2 years supply of water left in all our state's reservoirs, IF 20th-century levels of rainfall do not return before then.

It is also frightening to learn -- again from dendrochronology -- that 100-year-long droughts had happened here in the western US!

So -- sad to say, everyone who insists that there is no drought is badly misinformed.

And every municipal water treatment plant must be given the money and people and equipment to copy what Orange County has done in recycling sewage. If they don't, the consequences will be too horrible to think of.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 7, 2014 at 11:31 am

Louise68, you are mischaracterizing my position. There certainly is a drought; nobody can deny that.

That is not to say that water is not a near infinite resource. I will direct your attention to the Pacific Ocean nearby. If we wanted to, we could desalinate that water. It would be expensive, that is for sure. My point is, we should think in terms of what it costs to get access to drinking water, instead of being concerned about wasting a finite supply.

Once one thinks in such terms, it becomes apparent that the real, underlying problem is that our political system is mispricing water. For example, we are subsidizing agricultural use which results in seeming absurdities like growing rice in an arid near-desert.

Fix the mispricing, charge the right price to balance supply and demand, and the "water emergency" will go away. It will indeed be more expensive to water your lawn during a drought, and that is as it should be.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 12:36 am

Joseph E. Davis --
I cannot at all understand why you still think that charging people more money for water will make it rain more. I know you did not say you thought that, but it must rain a lot more than it has in the past 4 years if there is to be enough water for everyone's basic needs.

Water is NOT "near infinite in supply". Porterville (in the Central Valley) is completely out of water! No water comes out of anyone's tap in Porterville -- none! And just how is your "raise the price and all will be well" remedy going to make water appear for the residents of Porterville?

And your remedy implies that rich people should be allowed to guzzle and waste as much water as they want -- because only they will be able to afford the outrageous cost of water -- if you get your way. That is very cruel to everyone but the rich and is just plain wrong. What about the vast majority of the people in California, those of us who are not wealthy? We will never be able to afford extremely high-priced water. Should we have no other choice but to move far away or to die, so rich people can continue to live in luxury? What will the very wealthy do then, when no one is left to fight fires, and to provide emergency medical services -- or any medical services, and to make sure that all the utilities work reliably, and to repair cars, and to repair computers and smart phones, and to keep the roads in good repair, and to service jet aircraft, and to raise and distribute food? What will the rich do when all the rest of the people -- the non-wealthy -- are gone because we cannot afford to buy extremely expensive water?

I say: raise the tax rates on the extremely wealthy and use the money for building "toilet to tap" sewage-recycling plants to replace all the sewage-treatment plants in California. It is imperative that we do this ASAP because 100% of the state of California is in an "exceptional" drought, which is worse than an "extreme" drought, and climate experts say there is no end in sight for this horrible drought. (Records they used are from examining tree rings from dead trees, records that go back 8,000 years. Droughts lasting 100 years have happened a number of times in that period.)

No -- your solution will never work. Mine might have a chance. 38 million straws in the glass is a lot, but maybe, just maybe, we all can make it through this horrible drought without an economic crash or a societal collapse -- or both. We have to try, and we must try to satisfy everyone's need for at least a basic minimum amount of water -- for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing, washing, and for growing food.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 7:21 pm

> it must rain a lot more than it has in the past 4 years if there is to be enough water for everyone's basic needs.

You are quite wrong about that. There is plenty of water for drinking and basic needs. There is not plenty of water for growing rice in the near-desert, though. And there may not be enough water for many lawns. We can and should use the price mechanism to discover the sacrifices that must be made during the drought.

There is no need to tax those malevolent rich people in order to implement toilet to tap. All we need to do is treat water like any other basic commodity such as bread. It is our messed up, unscientific politics and our irrational, emotional approach to water policy that is the only problem here. I'm afraid your proposals are symptomatic of the problem.

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