I just got back from a week-long backpacking trip in the High Sierras, and what I saw shocked me.
It’s impossible to escape news that California is in the midst of a terrible drought, but it took spending five days in the backcountry of Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park to give me perspective on just how dire the water situation in our state really is. Creeks and rivers that should be raging are barely ankle deep. Peak summits that should be encased in snow and ice are exposed and dry. As soon as I got home, I downloaded photos from the trip, and started looking online for photos from previous years.
Below are two photos – I took the one on top two weeks ago looking West from the shore of Summit Lake in Humphrey’s Basin, at an elevation of roughly 11,000 feet. The one below was taken by a fellow backpacker almost exactly 4 years earlier, on July 6th of 2010, a nearly perfect “average” snow year based on data from the Department of Water Resources. The contrast is indeed stark.
So we know there’s a drought, and we can see the difference in charts and graphs that show snowpack and river flows. But living in urban communities there’s a gap between what we know, and our behavior. After all, the water still comes out of our faucets just as fast, and the price we pay for residential water has barely nudged, leaving both our perceptions and our pocketbooks intact. Without additional action, there is little beyond personal responsibility to motivate people to conserve.
Earlier this week, the State Water Resources Control Board approved stiff new fines for conservation scofflaws. Californian’s caught wasting water – hosing down sidewalks instead of using a broom, over-watering landscaping – may now be subject to a $500 per day fine. But as we’ve seen with other environmental issues like Save The Bay’s efforts to enforce outdoor smoking bans, regulation means little without consistent enforcement.
While it remains to be seen whether the recent emergency drought declaration by Governor Brown, or the State Water Board’s approval of fines will change behavior, there are still significant gaps in how we manage water in California. Statewide management of groundwater resources continues to lag behind other western states (although an interesting new court ruling may change that). And the Bay Delta region continues to be one of the longest standing bureaucratic and political messes in the state.
As the adage oft attributed to Mark Twain goes, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.”