(Photo: a cityscape of downtown Los Angeles, California)

Downtown Los Angeles, California Cityscape | © SeanPavonePhoto \ Fotolia.com

California once possessed one of the most precious and critical natural resources of the North American continent. The Redwoods, also known as Sequoioideae, are the majestic, mystical trees that line the Oregon and California coast by the thousands. They are a keystone species, the pillars of an entire ecosystem that affect and support thousands of plants and animals around them. In just over 150 years, human activity has reduced the great Redwood forests to just five percent of their original population. But the Redwoods are just one component of California’s complex water story, a story that spans webs, streams and systems.

In Sonoma County, in late 2012, a group of permaculture students sat down to begin an afternoon talk on water. One of our teachers, Erick, began by telling us that we’re facing today “is not a water crisis, it’s a runoff crisis.” It was with considerable foresight that our discussion began on the topic of water harvesting as California was entering it’s first year of drought.

In the 1974 film Chinatown, Jack Nicholson plays a private detective who accidentally uncovers a municipal scandal while investigating a murder. The film is a depiction of the California Water Wars, a series of water struggles at the beginning of the 20th century between the growing city of Los Angeles and farmers in the countryside. In 1913, the construction of an aqueduct was completed, diverting water to the city from the Owens River. In the 1920s, so much water was being diverted from Owens Valley that agriculture became nearly impossible, and the situation grew so dire that farmers attempted to destroy the aqueduct in 1924. By 1926, Owens Lake had been completely emptied, and in 1941 Los Angeles began diverting the Mono Lake watershed north of Owens valley. These were early warning signs that California’s population was already exceeding its natural resources at the beginning of the 20th century.  

More urbanization means more paved roads, more concrete, more suburbs, and more artificial conduits to divert and lead water to all the wrong places.

Today, California is the most populated state in the US. It is also the state with the highest urban population density in the country: 95 percent of California’s population lives in cities. More urbanization means more paved roads, more concrete, more suburbs, and more artificial conduits to divert and lead water to all the wrong places. The shortsighted razing of Redwood forests and failure to recognize their ecosystemic value is also costing California’s ecology dearly; clear-cutting is a major cause of water runoff.

Coupled with the impact of climate change, the history of California’s water woes will have been the history of its unchecked urban and industrial growth. Having notoriously mismanaged its natural resources, California today is again facing a water crisis of sizeable proportions, now entering into its fourth consecutive year of drought.

Many factors directly or indirectly lead to drought and desertification; there are a few that relate to California’s particular situation. Climate change is certainly having an impact. 2013 and 2014 were two of California’s three driest years since it became a state in 1850, and recent years have possibly been the driest since 1580. But the changing climate is only one factor in a perfect brew of circumstances. Human activity is also a big promoter of drought and desertification, mainly from industrial agriculture practices: chemicals that deplete soil health, water-intensive monocropping, and tilling practices that lead to surface runoff.

But what the state is facing today may also be spurred by cyclical climatic events. Mega-droughts are generally defined as prolonged droughts lasting two decades or longer, and they have plagued California in the past. In a study released by NASA in February 2015 linking mega-droughts with carbon emissions rise, the lead author, Ben Cook of Lamont-Doherty Observatory at Columbia University, concludes that the American southwest has a high probability of facing severe drought conditions likely to last 30 to 35 years. The study finds that if emissions stop increasing by mid-century, the likelihood of a mega-drought still stands at around 60 percent, and at 80 percent if emissions continue to rise.

Water and food production

Which leads us to California’s unique role within the industrial infrastructure of North America, coupled with the fact that water and climate are in direct correlation with our capacity to grow and produce food.

For decades California has played a major role in US food production; the country’s agricultural powerhouse, as it were. California produces two thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, and one third of its vegetables. In 2013 the state accounted for about 15 percent of the country’s total agricultural exports. California leads the US in the production of almonds, apricots, artichokes, avocado, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, sweet corn, dates, eggplant, figs, garlic, multiple varieties of grapes, herbs, lemon, lettuce, limes, melons, olives, peaches – I’m going alphabetically; you get the picture, the list is long. California also plays a leading role in dairy and cattle production. So yes, the current drought and water crisis represents changes in California’s agricultural capacity that will cause major reverberations in North America’s industrial food system.

Agriculture in California, most of it industrial, accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use.

Agriculture in California, most of it industrial, accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use. Currently, that is an average of 35 million acre-feet of water per year diverted from lakes, rivers and groundwater. One acre-foot is just under 1,234,000 litres of water, times 35 million – you do the math.

Which brings us back to the runoff crisis. Plainly and simply, we North Americans are not managing our water properly. Water’s trajectory within human created environments, primarily cities, is a reliance on natural cycles. Water originates from mountains, lakes, rivers, watersheds, and through rainfall and evaporation and with the seasons, water comes and goes and cycles again through the system. But more and more, water is asked to traverse and overcome cities, urban sprawl, suburbs, industrial agriculture, all great generators of – you guessed it – runoff. With decades and centuries of urban and industrial expansion we have undone the natural cycles. We have unraveled the ecological environment within which water operates.

This begs for solutions that will again allow water to flow freely and naturally, that will undo the artificial systems that force water to flow in finite, terminal directions.

Where water harvesting comes in

The World Day to Combat Desertification on June 17th is a call for everyone to reflect on the world water situation, and the theme for 2015 is “The Attainment of Food Security for All Through Sustainable Food Systems.” Water harvesting immediately comes to mind. Water harvesting is about more than just capturing water; it also calls for working and designing the land in a way that reintroduces water into a holistic, integrated system. We can turn previously parched land into lush forest gardens and drought-proof farms by digging swales, planting fruit trees, and capturing runoff to spread it and sink it. Nature is an ensemble of functions that work interdependently, and we can allow for these systems to flourish yet again through regenerative ecological design.

Regenerative ecological design, or permaculture, amongst many things, is the study and practice of mimicking the beneficial relationships of nature in designing communities and environments in which humans live and work. A few key principles of permaculture include the aforementioned water harvesting with swales, terracing, cisterns, water catchment. A zero-waste system where all waste must equal soil or energy is another example. Permaculture involves a general practice and understanding of a closed-loop system, a relationship where water, soil, gardens, food, animals, and organic materials of all kinds all work together to recycle waste and produce energy. Permaculture means designing homes, environments and communities in the most comfortable, ecological, and sustainable ways possible.

The most important resource

But in order for us to reach sustainable living, we first must reevaluate and redesign our relationship to water – the most important resource of all.         

Historically, megadroughts have led to mass migrations – the ancient Pueblo of the North American Southwest, the Maya in MesoAmerica, and the Tiwanaku of Bolivia are just of a few examples of civilizations that have had to relocate entire populations in response to climatic events, droughts, and the subsequent inability to sustain irrigated agriculture. There are just under 39 million people living in California today, more than the entire population of Canada roughly within the geographical area of Newfoundland and Labrador. Needless to say, a megadrought in California today would have catastrophic consequences. It is up to us to embrace the sustainable solutions at hand to avoid the food scarcity, violent conflict and mass displacement that are so closely interlinked with water and drought.  

A Columbia University study on ancient droughts in North America points out that “The great cliff cities in the Four Corners region of the West such as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde were all abandoned towards the end of the drought. These societies were based on irrigated agriculture.”

The water crisis may well mean the abortion of unsustainable and entirely sedentary urban concentrations.

Before the advent of urban and industrial societies, prolonged droughts meant that largely hunter-gatherer societies needed rely on their nomadic proclivities and move camp. Today, the water crisis may well mean the abortion of unsustainable and entirely sedentary urban concentrations. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a University of Waterloo professor who specializes in environmental stress and conflict, remarks that “the stability of food production is the foundation of social order.”

The capitalist development model in North America, through deforestation, industrial agriculture, and urban and industrial growth has altered the geographical landscape, unraveling water’s natural cycles and leading us to the runoff crisis. Timelines are important, and it is our generation’s responsibility to take note of humanity’s ongoing relationship with water. A larger view of time and a life model that prioritizes water and food over infinite industrial growth is a real possibility. Always and forever, water has been and will be the key to all life. Whether it provides for the animals, waters the seeds that we plant, or hydrates the deltas that give life to the world’s flora and fauna, above and beyond a resource, water is an element we cannot live without.  

Julien Lalonde is a writer and organizer in Toronto who focuses on ecology, permaculture and local food systems. He has written for the Earth First Journal, The Dominion, Rabble.ca and Towardfreedom.com. 

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