Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone?
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
That water has a timeline struck me loud and clear last week as I listened to BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Business’ programme, The Califfornia Drought (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0644192), with Peter Day. Farmers from the state’s Central Valley told their stories on what the drought was doing to their businesses and their assessments on how much longer they thought they could survive. The programme gave chilling evidence that California’s system for managing water resources is in profound need of a re-think.
Having grown up in California, droughts are not unfamiliar territory for me. I’ll never forget the time my sister and I had to abort our plans to go kayaking on the American River. Just outside of Sacramento we found ourselves checking the map and our directions and then re-checking – because we couldn’t find the river; which was odd because we’d been there many times before. We both admitted to the same sickening feeling when we realised that our map reading skills weren’t the problem: we couldn’t find the American River because it was, effectively, no longer there. During that drought ridden summer of 1977 it had dwindled down to a trickle; and we had driven straight past it.
But even back then you could still go to a restaurant and expect to have glasses of iced water set down at the table before you had even clapped eyes on the menu; and those glasses would be filled and refilled throughout the meal.
Not anymore. According to Peter Day, if you want water in a California restaurant now you have to ask for it, as Californians become less inclined to take water for granted and the current scarcity gives no indication of abating. The drought is now in its fourth year and the farmers Day spoke to say there’s no end in sight. One farmer said: ‘I think we are approaching crisis mode here as we go into the 5th, 6th, 7th year of drought.’
The picture wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. While the Fresno County Farm Bureau opened their summer social with a prayer for rain and people who have been farming side by side for decades are now coming to actual physical blows over water rights, some are still finding that crisis means opportunity.
Many California farmers have a market driven, entrepreneurial approach to what they do. They survive by bringing down their water use and switching their crop mix. Others survive by letting their fields go fallow and selling their unused water allocation on. And then for water well drillers, business is booming.
The fact remains, however, that no one can tell how long this current drought is going to last. And as Peter Day points out, whether the current crisis will show the same pattern as previous droughts by having a beginning, middle and end; or whether we are now looking at a deeply entrenched manifestation of climate change – these are points of serious contention right now in California.
Whichever way you look at it, water has a timeline. My favourite part of the programme was when David ‘Mas’ Masumoto, of Masumoto Family Farm, described that timeline to Peter Day: ‘Suddenly the timeline of water isn’t just five or ten years. It’s a lifetime. That’s why the sustainable model makes so much sense.’
We will be talking about sustainability models for water stressed regions at the Global Water Summit 2016 to be held on 19-20 April at the Jumeirah Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.