Water Falls

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This satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States, in 1999. Lake Powell  Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

This 1999 satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

A crucible for past, present and future examples of extreme climate developments, the western part of the United States – and California in particular – continues to suffer under extreme drought conditions.

Drought is nothing new in California. What’s new (or rather, not very old in geological terms) is a culture and economy built on water profligacy and the presence of 40 million people in California alone. Add in a couple more tens of millions from other western states that all rely on the shared Colorado River watershed, and a drought today looks very different than it did a century ago.

Many of the water rights in California were, however, assigned over a century ago and they are still in force today. Half of all waterway claims in California are in the hands of just 4,000 owners, and more importantly, the water use by these owners is completely unmonitored.

So, while the recently announced California water rationing and fines for overwatering are important steps in gaining some control over water waste, they will not affect some of the largest users in the state (and region).

They won’t have much real impact on those who can afford the fines or whose usage isn’t monitored in the first place.

More importantly, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental flaw in how we use water.

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above. Photo: PK Read

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above.
Photo: PK Read

Amid the talk of eight-minute lawn watering every other day, 500-dollar-fines for water waste and the dry, dry expanses of the famous California hills that should be golden at this time of year but are instead a dusty grey, we were surprised to see these water overflow pipes along the beach. Some were overflowing with what I can only assume was unrecovered excess garden irrigation water.

What a strange sight, the gardens following the erosion of cliffs and the ongoing supply of fresh water all the way down to the beach.

What a strange and outdated concept, this blithe assumption that water should be unlike any other key resource upon which we rely and in which we trade – arable land, forest, gold – and that it will never run out.

That we can just spill it as we please, never mind the consequences.

A cliff-top garden migrates down a cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day. Photo: PK Read

A cliff-top garden migrates down an otherwise rocky cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day.
Photo: PK Read

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