Tapping Out

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The town of Porterville, California has been in the news over the past couple of months because it is one of the places where taps are running dry as the state’s drought grinds on into its fourth winter. Several municipal wells have run dry, some residents are coming to rely on charitable deliveries of bottled water. Images are shown of home kitchens with dishes piled high because there’s no water to wash them. Water rationing has come to an extreme here; it’s no longer voluntary, but based on the amount left in the plastic bottle.

There are a few points that strike me about the coverage I’ve read thus far, aspects that reflect the history and attitude of the western United States towards water as much as many unspoken assumptions in developed countries with traditionally plentiful water supplies.

The story, as it is framed now, tells of wells running dry amid climate-change driven drought. But that’s really only a small part of this story.

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

As I was reading an article in the New York Times about the travails of families without running water, I noticed that many of the families mentioned were agricultural workers who were coming home from a long day in the produce packing companies to find they couldn’t take a shower. Well, okay, that’s a bad situation. But presumably if there is still produce to pack, then the agricultural and packing facilities still have water, right?

No mention was made of who supplies water to Porterville, which lies in Tulare County, deep in the rich agricultural belt of California’s productive Central Valley. Why is the Central Valley so productive, if it’s in what’s a very arid climate?

Because of the Central Valley Project (CVP), a water redistribution program planned during the early 20th century, but  created mainly between 1930-1980 to move water from the rivers and lakes of Northern California to the Central Valley, land of rich soils and unreliable rainfall. The agricultural methods used in the Central Valley were never adjusted for the climate because there was no necessity – there was always water, thanks to the CVP.

But what about the municipal water supply? If there was water for growers, why are taps running dry? Because the city of Porterville, like many other Central Valley cities, is ‘self-reliant’ when it comes to water. It uses wells and surface water for the urban water supply.

If the 2007 Porterville Public Utilities Report is any indication, as of 2007 there was enough confidence in the groundwater supply that there was no Water Shortage Plan at all. This in spite of numerous multi-year droughts within the past 100 years.

The CVP isn’t responsible for the water of the towns and cities it helped create along with the agricultural plenty; at the same time, the CVP neither monitors nor enforces any specific, climate-appropriate irrigation techniques. Which means that up until recently, many growers were irrigating their fields using flood methods – 3-4 feet of water across entire orchards – using borrowed, unmetered water.

A broader view - groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

A broader view – groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Speaking of borrowed water, using bottled water for residents without running water means water depletion of another kind, since bottled water requires three times the amount of water in the bottle to manufacture and transport each bottle. That’s not including all the fossil fuel used in manufacture, transport and delivery. An LA Times article includes a picture of a delivery Crystal Geyser water to a home; Crystal Geyser uses water bottled in seven locations around the country, only two of them in California. The others are all at least 1000 miles away.

None of the articles include the aftermath of all those bottles: the non-biodegradable plastic waste. And when it comes to extra waste, don’t even get me started on the stories of Californians using paper plates and canned food to avoid cooking and washing dishes.

And all those lawn-watering restrictions, short showers and delayed toilet flushes? The proverbial drop in the bucket: Urban use of water accounts for 20% of all water use in California. The rest is all agricultural and industrial. Except that, of course, the agriculture and industry sectors draw from a different tap than everyone else – so maybe all those dying lawns and stinky toilets serve a purpose, after all.

The Porterville story, and by that I mean both the actual events in drought-stricken Porterville and the ‘story’ in news reports of taps running dry, is a parable for our attitudes towards water.

When we’ve got a lot of it, we are profligate. Extravagant. Realms are built on shifting shores in the belief that the years of plenty will last beyond our own short horizons.

The past century has been one of the wettest in the western United States in 7000 years, but water use strategies were based on those historically high amounts continuing indefinitely.

Telling the stories of the drought in ways that narrow the lens to individual or local tales of woe may win sympathy or readers’ eyes on the page, but if those stories stop at the human interest level, it serves little purpose in putting the stories in context.

And a lack of context means that the same practices of poor water management across all levels of planning, including different rights for different segments of society, remain below the surface when what is needed is a complete re-examination of our attitudes towards water and its use.

Below is a recent infographic on safe tap water around the world, or rather, lack thereof.

Source: NeoMam Studios

Source: NeoMam Studios

One response »

  1. A very nice well written piece. I am the geologist at the local college. If you have specific questions about what is happening here, I would be happy to try to answer them.

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