“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” — John Steinbeck in “East of Eden”
As we stood on the edge of Highway 49 on Saturday looking back across the damned up Stanislaus River below the bridge my granddaughter was stunned.
“Wow, it’s low,” Katelyn observed after seeing New Melones Reservoir for the first time.
It is low. New Melones is at 37 percent capacity. But many 65 miles away were judging our water situation on what they were seeing before them — rain storms and TV footage of Folsom Dam spilling floodwaters
It is human nature to believe what you can see and be skeptical of what you can’t see.
It explains our caviler attitude toward water. We turn on the facet, and it comes out. We open the gate and it flows into the fields. Imagine how big of a miracle that would be to those who lived in any part of California 150 years ago let alone half the world today.
Few of us see New Melones daily and none of us see the underground aquifers as we draw them down to brush our teeth, clean clothes, take a shower, and water lawns.
What we are experiencing right now as you look out the window doesn’t look like a drought. Weeds in January haven’t grown this lush and green for years. But what we see coming down is rain that will either wash down drains and into the river and ultimately into the San Francisco Bay or the California Aqueduct to journey to Los Angeles faucets or it will start a slow journey measured in years to reach the lower aquifers that we tap for domestic water supplies.
But what about the water and snow uphill from us?
Once it hits the ground or melts in the coming months it no longer will be controlled by the basic laws of nature. Instead it will be governed by rules carved out by lawyers and politicians.
Nature still has a say. The Stanislaus River watershed is the weak sister of the great Sierra streams. Hydrology records dating back almost to the Gold Rush show a typical water year yields a million acre feet of water. But that is an average arrived at after some humdinger winters of biblical proportions and many, many more years where storm after storm underperform significantly.
Toss in those politicians and lawyers for various interests ranging from urban users to farming to fish and you’ve got the recipe for what some have called “manmade droughts.”
Let’s be clear on one point. Given we have a population of 39.5 million today sustained by a plumbing system built 54 years ago when there were 16 million people, if nature was left alone we would be in a drought every year.
The answer is not building new plumbing but to stop acting as if water has little value.
The system in place supports more people than it was designed for in the 1960s due to innovations spurred by small legislative steps such as those that led to water meters and low-flow toilets to the need for big water users such as farming to control expenses as they get less and less per unit through the years for what they produce.
Whether this year will mark the end of the current drought or is merely a one or two year pause as has happened in previous mega droughts of 50 plus years that through the centuries have historically plagued the land area we today call California has yet to be seen. How most of us will react to all of the rain and seeing most reservoirs near the brim isn’t so unpredictable
John Steinbeck who toiled one summer in the 1920s in the Spreckels Sugar factory in Manteca where a Target store now stands would have been able to tell you what will happen.
In short we are going to squander what the heavens have given us.
If you have forgotten what you have learned during the past three years, here’s a reminder: You can get by just fine using 28 percent less water.
The Greatest Generation — those that survived the Great Depression, World War II and then rebuilt the world that delivered us the Space Age and Internet Age — are looked back upon by many with envy given they experienced marked annual gains in their standard of living once the smoke of global conflict had settled.
And while they may have done things that we consider wasteful today such as creating suburban sprawl with endless lawns, long commutes, and no recyclables to speak of, those that prospered among the generation married hard work with saving for their future and for that proverbial rainy day.
We need to do the same thing. But given the 39.5 million people, farmlands that feed us and much of the rest of the nation, as well as fish and fauna all need the water that is falling in the form of rain and snow what we need to save for is when the rains don’t come.
Nobody can hack Mother Nature or create virtual water.
Consume as we have in the past as if we were drunken sailors as the population grows even as per capita water use slowly drops is setting the stage for California’s last act.
It’s human nature. You never worry about how much water you have left until the prospect of dying from thirst is a reality.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.