Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Keeping the Spigot Throttled Back

I’ve recently seen something that’s been missing from the North Bay for the last couple of years, pallets of sod stacked on sidewalks and ready to be laid.  I’m unhappy about what I’m seeing.  I’m far from convinced that the California drought is over.

Sod-happy homeowners aren’t the only ones calling for what I fear would be a premature celebration of the end of the drought.  Some public officials in the North Bay have begun calling for an end to water use restrictions.  And an East Bay homeowners association is threatening to lock out homeowners who don’t green up their lawns.  (For the record, I share the homeowners association distaste with brown lawns but, rather than making renewed watering an option, I would have pushed for sod removal and low water-demand landscaping.) 

Those arguing that the drought is over in the North Bay point to full reservoirs.  It would have been a compelling argument in 1979, but not so much today.

In 1979, we had a fairly good understanding of long-term weather patterns.   We understood that the drought that was then ending had been historically severe, with a long recurrence interval, and that we were returning to more normal precipitation.   So easing drought restrictions was reasonable and appropriate.

But in 1979, the world was about to change, in a very literal sense.  Today, with climate change well underway, we don’t know what a normal precipitation year looks like.  We know that the current water year seems destined to finish about five percent over the historical average, but we don’t know if the historical average will have any relevance in coming years.  Instead, we have good reason to suspect that it won’t.

At least one theory of climate changes argues that the weather will tend toward extremes, with long periods of drought interrupted by shorter periods of heavy rainfall.  It’s a description that seems similar to recent weather patterns.  Three years of deep drought, followed by the recent mildly wet winter.  Perhaps it’s the pattern that will become common.

The situation becomes even more disturbing with a closer look at this past winter.  Because of El Nino, many experts anticipated a high rainfall total.  Instead, we got a winter that was barely above the historical average.  Perhaps this past winter will become the “wet winters” of the future, with far less rain than the wet winters of the past.

I’m not suggesting that my crystal ball is perfect.  I don’t know what the future rainfall pattern in the North Bay will be.  But neither does anyone else.  And I suspect that my scenario of frequent drought years interspersed with years of close to historical average rainfall will be nearer the coming reality than will be a return to the historical rainfall pattern.

Besides, it’s not like we were unduly burdened by the drought regulations.  As far as I know, no one died of thirst.  And I didn’t find myself in more crowds than usual in which I wondered about the personal hygiene of others.

Faced with meteorological uncertainty and the fairly low inconvenience of being conservative, caution seems the only reasonable course.  If we act otherwise, we might well irrigate the new sod of 2016 with the water we’ll desperately want for toilet flushing in 2019.

 Nor is justifiable caution the only grounds for continuing water conservation standards.  As I’ve written previously, there’s a logical argument that California, with a surfeit of arable land and a paucity of precipitation even under historical conditions, has always been in a state of drought.  Conserving domestic water use and instead routing it to agriculture, whether for vineyards that produce wine to be sold elsewhere, bringing cash to the North Bay, or for crops targeted for local tables, is reasonable public policy.

So there you have two good reasons for continuing water conservation.  I don’t think any more are needed.

Before closing, I should respond to an argument that often made at this point of the drought discussion, which is that the North Bay should halt all development until we understand the ramifications of climate change on regional water available.  (A similar argument is often made on traffic.)

At first glance, it’s an intuitively compelling argument, but quickly falls apart in a free society.

We don’t put up barricades barring movement into communities during constrained times.  And as the North Bay is an attractive destination, whether for work, lifestyle, or both, people will still move here despite a drought.  If we’re not building new homes, then they’ll buy existing homes, pushing out those who lack the resources to compete for housing.

(It may seem surprising that building million dollar homes reduces the stress on the lower end of the demographic scale, but it really does work that way.  If someone who can afford a million dollar home wants to move to the North Bay but those homes don’t exist, they may buy a less expensive home and put the extra dollars toward upgrades.  The impact of that decision propagates down the demographic scale until someone is displaced at the bottom.)

The inevitability of new residents and the desire to accommodate them without displacing current residents, along with the goal of building homes near jobs to reduce commutes, is why regional agencies require all Bay Area cities to have housing plans that allow reasonable growth.

So, if water and traffic capacity are constrained, perhaps forever, and yet growth will still occur, what kind of growth should it be?  How about walkable urbanism with its reduced car trips and lesser water demands?

I love it when all the pieces fit together nicely.

Oh, and the dry fountain shown in the photo?  It’s now filled with soil and low water-demand plants.  I doubt it will ever again be a fountain.  I miss the burble, but life goes on.

Although it nearly slipped past me, Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday was this week.  I’ve written about Jacobs many times in the space.  In my next post, I’ll link some of the past posts and also draw a lesson from one of her few failures.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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