Up Shit Canyon Without a Creek

A discussion on Frogs and Ravens has morphed from earthquakes to water resources – which was at least partly my fault. Maybe mostly my fault. So, here I am with a steaming pile of blame ready to plop back down on my own blog.

This isn’t the first time I’ve twigged onto a casual remark about how large, rapidly growing, arid megalopoles are sure-fire recipes for disaster. Having worked with the SoCal water supply for nearly a year now, I’ve been feeling like I should have a response, and what follows are some thoughts in that direction.

There’s no question that water is a tricky thing. California currently sustains itself by mining ground water to the tune of 1.3 million AFY, and turning our big brown granola eyes onto Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico for an extra 0.8 million AFY from the Colorado River [1]. The question isn’t if we’ll need to give up this water but when, and the real stickler is, how much will it hurt?

[1] Mining in this case means extraction greater than the annual recharge to the basin. It’s important to separate out unsustainable ground water mining from the “overdrafts” that often appear in dry years, when the year’s use is greater than the year’s precipitation; in a well-managed basin these years would be balanced out by additional recharge during wet cycles. I snagged the numbers from a white paper on climate change and water supply which isn’t entirely clear on what is and is not counted as overdraft in the sum, but figuring out exactly how much water can be safely drawn from Basin X pays a large chunk of my salary and some variation in the figures won’t hurt the larger issues involved anyway.

In addition to loss of supply, the Powers that Be are increasingly recognizing our obligations (both moral and legal, and I’m sure the moral obligations carry a whole lot of weight, har-de-har) to preserve valuable habitat by pouring water on it. And then there’s the growth of the megalopoles, as evidenced by new housing developments “reminiscent of California ranch style architecture” – which may sound like code for “thoughtless and ugly” to most people, but that’s an actual description from an actual development proposal [2] so I assume it means “inoffensive” in plannerese.

I don’t know where these people are coming from or what on earth they could be thinking; they can’t all be geologists hoping to cash in on lucrative water management crises, can they? It’s an important question, because even though I’m not quite sure how much the transition to sustainable water policy will hurt, I’ve got a very strong feeling that the place of its hurting will be in the pocketbook. People and industries have very sensitive pocketbooks and might move to Milwaukee if they’re hurt badly enough [3], thus presenting the tantalizing possibility that suburbia might eventually decide it’s sprawled enough.

[2] It’s at least sort of actual; I saw something along those lines several months ago and had to pause to think consider all the possible descriptions of current offensively bland residential architecture. Referencing an older style of offensively bland residential architecture for historical cachet is really the only way to go.
[3] Milwaukee has some of the lowest water and sewer rates in the country, and uses them to lure in thirsty businesses like the makers of watery-tasting beer. I cannot for the life of me remember where I read this, nor can I put together a Google search that brings in anything but deserved criticism of their policy of keeping those low sewer rates by dumping untreated effluent into Lake Michigan.

10:30 pm: It’s bedtime. I may use this space tomorrow evening for more yapping about artificial recharge (putting treated toilet water back into aquifers – almost but not quite entirely unlike grey water recycling), how not to be sneaky with your economics when discussing recoverable ground water resources, and what the preliminary word is from DWR’s climate change work group. Or I might put it in a sequel entry – such unpredictable enigma! Meanwhile, discussion has also cropped up on a second Frogs and Ravens post; any excuse for a ping.

Good night!

(Please don’t assume dumb things about endorsements express or implied from anyone else in the ground water industry or you’ll make an ass out of both of us, as the saying goes. I’d like to also say that these are my thoughts and not those of GeoMonkeyMonkey Inc., but without pulling out my contract to check the intellectual property clause, I can’t remember which of my water-related thoughts they own.)


  1. Rana wrote:

    Hmm… good post. The question of “what are they thinking” is an excellent one, though I’m often prone to retorting, “They’re not!” I myself have come to think that a related, perhaps more important question is “HOW are they thinking that?”
    e.g. It’s not enough to ask why they think building great gallopolises is a good idea (not least because then we get caught up in huge debates over what “good” means, and to/for whom). I think we also need to spend some time asking why they are able to even conceive of it as possible, let alone acceptable. What is it in our thinking that makes us blind to the consequences, or unable to see the consequences as anything but minor?
    That is, it’s obvious to anyone with a lick of sense that building a house in the middle of a freeway is a dumb idea, or that building a house with no water and sewage lines is a bad idea; why are we relatively incapable of seeing the same thing relative to larger developments in arid environments? Are they just too big to see, are we lacking the knowledge needed to see, or do our mental blinkers hide the need to see at all from us? (That wasn’t very clear, I know. Argh.)

  2. yami wrote:

    I was actually wondering what all the people moving here were thinking, as individuals. No one sits around thinking “Hey! I think I’ll help build a great gallumphing galopolis in Southern California!” – they decide to live here because they like the weather, or the job prospects, or the endless freeways or whatever, and having decided that, they suddenly realize that they also want to own a house which means moving to the Inland Empire.
    As long as it’s possible to build cheap(er) housing in the sprawls, there will be developers willing to do so. Moreover, new housing developments are required to write extensive environmental impact reports that include an assessment of the impact on local ground water sources… maybe I should make this comment Post Part II, though.

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