Thanksgiving thoughts about water

Nov 21, 2012 / By Serena
Posted in Good Ideas |

I follow what I call the “9 out of 10” rule. That is to say, most of the time my activities are determined by what is enjoyable but also taking into consideration the people around me, and environmental considerations like use of fuel or water. I commit to doing things this way – vacation, meals, outings – as much as I can without feeling torn up over my necessary imperfections.

On these more thoughtful trips I don’t sacrifice a good time – on the contrary – I feel that exploring with parameters can often yield a more memorable vacation. (Like when I tried to be a pescatarian while staying with a family in Hiroshima – we’ll all never forget my pitiful Japanese explanation and the meal made together of whole roast mackerel over fresh dashi with udon.) But freedom and independence are our core values, us Americans, so anything that restrains a vacation on the outset tends to end up in the “fail” category.

Vacations, then, can easily become a chance to say through our actions that we can’t be inconvenienced to modify our behaviors to benefit those around us. And that has some how equated to having a good time. Taking, quite literally, a getaway.

I read on a sign in Joshua Tree National Park about a cactus that is extremely hazardous to humans but creates a home for the desert wren and food for the kangaroo mouse. People see no value in such a personally harmful plant if it does not serve to profit themselves, the sign went on to say, when talking about early Western pioneers perspective on the Cholla, or Teddybear cactus.

Water conservation is our collective cactus. It isn’t our town. It isn’t our water bill. It isn’t our energy bill. We’re not going to be left with the consequences of our actions in the same way. When you’re off for a waterfall hike you don’t want to let extra planning steps interfere with the fun, and being conscientious takes planning.

I’ve been considering these facts:

-Las Vegas gets water and energy from Lake Mead, but the lake’s water level is projected to decline to the dangerous no flow height of 1050 feet in less than four years.

-One glass of wine takes an average of 32 gallons of water to produce.

-Steak? Just four pounds requires enough water to fill a pool, one with a deep end.

-The largest lake in California, the Salton Sea, is a linchpin of the Pacific Flyway bird migration route but loses 1.3 million acre feet of water a year and has reached unnatural salinity levels 50% higher than the ocean. (Read more posts on this here.)

-Without the Salton Sea, the Imperial and Cochella Valleys would be un-growable dustbowls, and between the two valleys America could count some 50% of its fruits and vegetables off supermarket shelves.

-San Diego has virtually no fresh ground water to provide its million-plus residents with, so it syphons nearly half the flow of the Colorado River to water in order of magniude the Imperial Valley crops, people’s lawns and private pools, and golf courses and public use lawns in a geographic area designed for succulents. Let’s remember – those are the plants that hold moisture inside their pores during the day and breathe out at night to conserve water. We haven’t designed our lives as smartly as these plants.

(Several of these factswere derived from the new, well-researched documentary Last Call at the Oasis – I highly recommend it.)

Many of these places have other stories to tell – in San Diego’s northern Solana Beach neighborhood I found the best stuffed French toast at a platinum-LEED certified restaurant Claire’s on Cedros. Down the block is one of the most creative succulent shops I’ve seen, with entire wrought-iron love seats collaged with aeoniums and adromischus. These shops represent the unique character of the area, attract a healthy local crowd, are standout places, and are much more in line with the realities of their environment. Usually they aren’t the spots with much of a marketing budget, so it takes time to find them, but then the getaway can commence without being at the expense of the community or environment. It takes more work to seek out, hopefully you’ll find some in my books and online archives and the growing number of  other like-minded resources. You don’t have to be in the undesireable position of having an environmentally-blindfolded vacation, or a guilt-ridden one.

When we go to resorts with no sustainable practices in place, when we embark on cruise ships destined to dump trash in the ocean there is a social acceptance that allows these things to pass, unrecognized, by one in the vacation mindset. In fact, as I have found out many times, it is very uncool to think about these things, much less mention them. Even if you’re just curious and trying to be open-minded as possible.

At this point the water issue means too much to me, and I’ve been witness to too much to keep silent. I feel like Martin Luther King Jr. is staring down, eyes like lightening, preaching, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity!” Then I think that none of this was done with malice, but silence has allowed the problem to flourish. MLK’s voice is in the back of my head: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, a great deal of the travel industry, my industry, goes to ends to hide any difficult realities about their place to travelers. A concern in the Palm Springs area, for instance, is that folks won’t come back if they understood the complexities of the water and air in the Cochella Valley. They want a vacation – an escape, they don’t want to be reminded to turn off the water while brushing their teeth. (The valley does employ several admirably savvy techniques, such as showing off their success sustaining the valley with wind energy and you can find proud turbine photo post cards around town to prove it.)

The way we have come to expect our vacation time to go, and the places we’ve made so popular have mostly been designed in a bubble, free from long term planning.

America is such a great nation. I love being American. I am discouraged by people’s unending faith in the concept of America, however, I feel that America is something we have to make great now, together. It isn’t the bedrock we all think it is, it won’t protect us from the damage we’ve inflicted on it. We go on our vacations knowing we’re American and everything will be fine because we’re part of a great nation that will protect us from danger. Yet everyone in this country is living in drought conditions, even the Great Lakes are effected. The water cycle from elementary school forgot to mention balance – we’ve taken more of the 1% of earth’s water that is drinkable than can be replaced by the system. The aquifers that took thousands of years to fill and we are told will never run out are vanishing, land crumbling on top of them. De-salinization takes way too much energy right now to be a real solution.

I would rather stay observant than dictatorial, but at this point there’s one thing I have learned while researching this: the government isn’t saving the day, at least right now. The budget to make a dike in the Salton Sea that would bring salt levels down lower isn’t funded… The options that the Southwest are researching mostly involve pipelines to the Rockies, which will run out too.

My conclusion is that there is no vacation from water conservation, as punny as that may sound. We have the chance to make this country mean what we want it to mean. I find it patriotic in the best of ways, to simply use less water. Treat it like a fun new hobby and file it away in the pottery or Chinese class part of your brain so it doesn’t bum you out. Stay open to the idea that living within parameters can be fun, and vacationing within them, too.

This might be a time when peer pressure is a good thing. What if it you were starred down for buying plastic water bottles? Or take it up a notch… What if it was illegal to water your lawn?  NOT “what are you willing to sacrifice,” but “what are you able to learn?” On a recent trip I found a fabulous new use for the fridge that saves me shower time  – an aryuvedic-style cat bath with cold washclothes (after all, it is over 100 every day where I was staying.)

I feel more grateful and appreciative with this mentality – like there’s more in my life, not less. And I’m no zen.

Happy Thanksgiving!

desert dead endpicture from the Di Young Museum showing how people live in desertsdesert natives replenished their rugged home environmentdesert watermelon, why else do you think a grocery in Maryland can offer the stuff in December?Above the Cochella Valley, you can see the smog and dust heading back and forth from LAprecious water reserves at a farm in Cochella Valleywhat much of the West, Southwest looks like, er, would look likesummer tomatoes benefited from waterThe Bay watersbounty of wineSalton Sea, important habitatdried part of Salton Sea - mosquito breeding ground and toxic dustPacific Flyway illustration at Sonny Bono Wildlife Preserve, Salton Seawatering the sidewalk?