California is experiencing a “severe drought emergency,” declared by Governor Jerry Brown last month. The electronic highway signs that used to warn you about catastrophic traffic meltdowns now say: “Serious Drought. Help Save Water.” President Obama traveled to the Fresno area last week, for a photo op with Brown, and some vague promises of federal aid.
But here on the ground, as it were, there is no water shortage at all. L.A.’s notoriously emerald lawns have never looked better. Water fountains flow freely, everywhere. Children are frolicking on the interactive “splash pad” in downtown’s multi-tiered Grand Park — think the Spanish Steps, in molded asphalt. When I asked people how they were adjusting to the drought, I drew blank stares.
Water is the story of Southern California. L.A.’s first major water grab, from eastern California’s Owens Valley, is the city’s foundation myth. If you followed the convoluted plot of the movie “Chinatown,” you remember that the John Huston character, Noah Cross, was conspiring to cheat rural farmers out of their land and water. As the late Marc Reisner argued in his book, “Cadillac Desert,” abundant pilfered water not only nourished the city’s development, but also gave L.A. its ineffable L.A.-ness:
“The Owens River [let] a great city grow where common sense dictated that one should never be,” Reisner wrote. Water-swollen Los Angeles, he thought, “was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile. The Owens River made Los Angeles large and wealthy enough to go out and capture any river within 600 miles, and that made it larger, wealthier, and a good deal more awful.”
Awful? Naaah. I love it. I used to live here, and savored each serial catastrophe: the unbreathable air (better now), the 1977 drought, the wildfires, and of course the premonitory, fixture-jiggling tremors of the Big One, the storied earthquake that may or may not lie in the city’s future.
Why do I love L.A.? Because my son found a flyer from “Kingston Care Delivery” in his apartment building, offering 24-7 marijuana delivery. “Must be 18 and over . . . In Strick [sic] Compliance with Prop 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) and B420 (the Medical Marijuana Progam Act)!” the flyer insisted.
But I digress.
So why am I ultra-hydrating here in Los Angeles to avoid kidney stones, while farmers just a few hundred miles away have parched fields? Because, counter-intuitively, California’s cities spent the past several decades planning for droughts and severe water shortages, and the farmers did not. For now, the only cities likely to impose water rationing are in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Fresno counties, where super-thirsty commercial users are soaking up regional water allocations.
In Los Angeles, things are different. The city receives its water from multiple sources, including the Colorado River and the Sacramento River delta. Astonishingly, Angelenos consume less water than when I lived here in the late 1970s. And there are a million more of them. Which is not to say that they are water sippers. A Cohasset resident (64 gallons a day, as of 2011) consumes about half as much water as the average Los Angeleno (123 gallons a day in 2012).
“The drought is statewide, but the emergency is not,” according to Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. The previous droughts “scared the major metropolitan areas into making some smart investments in their water supply systems. They diversified their sources, and they make terrific use of ground water basins to catch and retain storm water when it rains.” Mount is speaking to me from San Francisco. “There’s no sign of drought here,” he says.
I asked Mount: Is this the crisis before the real crisis? “That’s a good question,” he replied. “If it rains next winter, the economic dislocations will be forgotten very quickly. Disaster memory half life is very short in California. If it’s dry next year we’ll have a full scale crisis that will hurt LA and SF much more.”
It’s hard to explain the drought; theories abound. El Nino this, global warming that. Governor Brown, who spent three years in a Jesuit seminary, has a serviceable explanation: “When God doesn’t provide the water, it’s not here.”
Pray for rain.
Alex Beam writes regularly for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.