Less a Water Shortage than a People ‘Longage’

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

February 1, 2014

A January 19, 2014 article in the San Francisco Chronicle – “California Drought: Water officials look to rules of '70s”– raises the specter of the most severe water shortages in the state in decades.

Last year was California’s driest calendar year since record-keeping started more than a century and a half ago in 1849. So far, the young new year has not lived up to hope that it may break the tenacious grip of this dogged drought. Major winter storms have yet to drench the state and dump badly needed snow in quantity and depth onto the Sierra Nevada.

The spectacular, spear-tipped Sierra Nevada range is not just a scenic wonder; its snowpack is California’s water bank, and the nation’s largest population and economy are utterly reliant on it for their very survival.

The Sierra snowpack is used to irrigate millions of acres of fruits, vegetables and nuts in the productive Central Valley. It slakes the thirst of the throngs in California’s burgeoning cities. Without it, manufacturing would grind to a halt. Yet this vital resource is at less than 20 percent of normal. The state's huge-capacity reservoirs are being emptied, and the water level in California’s rivers is too shriveled even for salmon to spawn.

Illegally dumped car visible at the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, CA.
Illegally dumped car visible at the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, CA.

The Chronicle compares this drought to the one in 1977, also one of the driest years in state annals. That epic event activated the water conservation movement in California and triggered such technologies as low-flow toilets and showerheads, drip irrigation, and water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines. Use of recycled water took off.

The Chronicle also points out that California’s population has nearly doubled from 20 million in 1970s to 38 million today. Every single one of those 38 million residents needs and uses water. And every year, hundreds of thousands more people come to California, mostly because of America’s delusional immigration policies, which are based on the fallacy that there are no meaningful limits – certainly not wimpy water shortages! – that can or should inhibit perpetual growth in California, America or the world.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on January 16. He pleaded with all Californians – agencies, businesses, homeowners and apartment dwellers – to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.

What Brown also ought to do is plead for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in births and a 20 percent reduction in immigration. No word yet on whether he was considering these options, but if he were prudent and realistic, he would.

Instead, he and other California politicos will probably urge construction of more costly desalination plants, so that the perpetual growth machine can tap into the vast Pacific Ocean and do an end run around the water limits imposed by California’s own drying climate.

But they will not be able to do an end run around physics and chemistry. Those desalination plants, using reverse osmosis or any other technology, will use a lot of electricity, generate pollution and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and produce a good deal of briny waste requiring disposal.

Back in 1975, around the time of that other epic drought, ecologist and writer Garrett Hardin wrote a poem called “Carrying Capacity” in honor of fellow ecologist and writer Paul Sears (1891-1990), author of the book Deserts on the March, among others. Here is an excerpt:

“Don't speak to me of shortage. My world is vast And has more than enough — for no more than enough. There is a shortage of nothing, save will and wisdom; But there is a longage of people.”

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