Before they became the drought’s demon crop, almonds were the San Joaquin Valley’s reigning beauty queen. Residents and visitors gushed glowing praise during the annual bloom and most everyone agreed food doesn’t get any better than a tasty snack that’s also good for you.
But that was before four years of drought escalated California’s long history of water woes into a finger-pointing frenzy that made farmers in general and almond farmers in particular everyone’s favorite water culprit. Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, calls it “water envy”:
“…when there suddenly isn’t enough water to support the lifestyle that has been created, water envy is more than just a matter of resentment or social friction. It stands in the way of making good choices during a pressing crisis, and it can prevent a state or a country from remaking its water rules, its water infrastructure, its water economy, in a way that fairly adjusts to a future of less water, or more expensive water, or both.”
Irrecoverable loss of water is a major theme in The Big Thirst because that’s exactly what happens after several years of severe drought, as the recent case of the drought in Australia so graphically illustrates
California, of course, has been floating along on the thinnest margin of water for decades. So-called “junior water rights,” also known as “paper water,” have driven population and agricultural growth beyond any reasonable hope of sustainability, always on the assumption that wet years could compensate for dry years and no drought would last beyond three years.
Now that it seems more and more certain we’re in a long-term drought with dire effects even a couple of wet years won’t alleviate, water envy is approaching critical mass. More and more people know it takes an entire gallon of water (a gallon!) to produce just one almond, and more and more people believe the state is wasting vast amounts of water to save just one fish.
Depending on your bias, agriculture uses either forty percent or eighty percent of the state’s water (for clarification, see “Water: The Numbers Game”). More and more people are demanding we stop watering our lawns, and backyard swimming pools have morphed from status symbols to artifacts of shame almost overnight.
Lost in the firestorm of accusations and envious accounting of water consumption by trees, fish, and lawns are basic principles like carrying capacity and sustainability. No one wants to admit that California is over-populated and over-planted. Instead, the routine cries are for less water for almonds, or fish, or front lawns, usually in that order.
The failures of “local control” and free-market mythology to refute the laws of nature are ignored mainly because money and power campaign endlessly to establish them as articles of unquestioned faith. The result is ongoing plunder of public resources by those with the means and opportunities while most everyone else engages in water envy.
In The Big Thirst, Charles Fishman writes that Australia’s problems with its ongoing drought, “are a gift to the rest of the developed world…they serve notice that the rules we have for giving out abundant water won’t serve us well when there’s no water to give out.”
For Fishman, the focus should be on “the rules” rather than on a blame game where everyone else’s water consumption is the issue. California needs to learn this lesson fast.
Neither almonds nor fish are responsible for our water woes. Instead, they’ve been brought about by an absence of rules that would have kept us from extravagantly spending resources we did not have. Now that the bills are coming due, we’re learning the hard way what it means to flout the rules of nature.