*Alternative title: “Brown is the New Green” as local water districts are imploring residents to ‘let your water thirsty lawn go brown’ over the summer (essentially, die a slow death) and then replace with drought tolerant landscaping in October.
The fragility of the oil markets always led me to believe oil was our most precious resource. From images of the 1979 energy crisis during the Carter Administration to more recent oil shortages due to natural disasters, especially hurricanes, we’ve all seen the panic buying and hysteria the long lines and high prices at the pump creates. After all, how do we function in our daily lives without gas in our tank? (I can see the smug look of Prius owners staring me down as I write this).
But water is far more vital to our survival than oil; in fact, water is life. When astrobiologists explore new planets for life, they search for water as this is the common ingredient for all life forms, from bugs to plants to pets to humans. The formula is simple: No water, no life.
Perhaps like you, I never really gave water too much thought as it always seemed to flow abundantly. You turn on the faucet, presto magic, water pours incessantly. We soak our green lawns daily, wash our cars with the hose running and even spray our concrete driveways just to “cool them off”. A total disregard for water control…but why not? Water was like breathing air – free and limitless.
But Californians are slowly awakening to a new reality. Mired in a water shortage of epic proportions, our drought is the new conversation at the office water cooler (no pun intended). We all started to notice the incremental changes in the weather patterns these past four years, culminating with 2014 being the hottest year on record. Our ‘rainy season’ consisted of one wet weekend in February this winter. In early May, our Fire Chief declared our vegetation was as dry and brown as it typically should be in late August and to expect record brush fires this summer. The local news now features daily tips on how to conserve water. Our Governor recently declared a mandatory 25% reduction in water usage effective immediately. California’s water officials now routinely cite Australia’s experience, which is the world’s driest inhabited continent and suffered a massive drought for over a decade. We can no longer escape this dilemma and the majority of us have finally had our epiphany that water is rapidly becoming a scarce resource.
But, in my humble opinion, the real tragedy is far more dramatic than the current complaints of having to turn the water off while brushing our teeth. No, what truly breaks my heart is the gradual shift in the breathtaking beauty of California. The landscape is changing. What was once lush and green is now brown and dry. The iconic palm trees that line our streets are laced with dead branches. My local park of three fields is shut down for the summer as they rip out the grass and replace with plastic turf, to the fury of dog owners and soccer moms. Homeowners are acquiescing as our “Cash for Grass” policy calls for the removal of 50 million square feet of residential lawn in the state by offering rebates. Neighbors are replacing their beautiful green grass and thirsty plants with brown mulch, small stones and strategically placed succulents. Gated communities are voting to overhaul their entire landscape to reduce costs and avoid spiking association fees due to water penalties. Curb appeal is losing to economic realities as virtually anything not attached to a sprinkler and irrigated is dying. The net total effect will ultimately resemble a desert. Even California’s legendary redwood trees are stressed to the breaking point as city officials have had to cut down dozens already.
California is in a perfect storm: victims of a prolonged drought, unseasonably hot winter temperatures and reduced irrigation mandates. Perhaps this is the new normal. There are no easy answers despite promising advances in desalination but even new technologies in purifying water will not prevent our gorgeous Golden State from transforming it’s precious, idyllic scenery. Prayers for rain.