I originally started thinking and writing about water while living in San Diego. Back in March 2005. water shortages in California were a vague annual threat. Complacency usually won out, though, and the issue was roundly ignored. It was hard to fret about lack of water when the sides of mountains were sliding into the ocean and the parking lot of Ralph’s turned into a kayak park every March.
With rationing being discussed in California and surreal photos like these from the NYT, now seems like a great time to revisit our previous proposal to convert golf course communities to food production communities.
Water Problems in Sunny California
San Diego and Los Angeles are, by definition, deserts. (Consensus is that a desert is a place which receives 10 or less inches of precipitation annually. The average for San Diego is 10.34″. Los Angles is 14.93″). Debating whether humans should have altered landscapes to such a degree to make civilization here possible aside, California has swelled and squandered to the point that water scarcity is a real and frightening reality.
Southern California knew it had a problem all the way back in 1902, when the “artesian underwater gushers” which provided water for Los Angeles “became gurgles”, as Marc Reisner describes in Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water.
For seemingly nothing more than the welled up pride of a few original white developers, an alternate development pattern was abandoned for an all out hunt for a new water source. Led by William Mulholland, superintendent of the then nascent Los Angeles Water Department (Did you know he even has a street in LA named after him?), the pursuit turned up the vast reserves of the Owens Valley in Eastern California. After a fierce battle and squabbling over water rights, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913, siphoning a second life and plentiful water for LA. Since then California has endured mudslides, earthquakes, riots and purported chupacabra attacks, but never had to deal with a real water shortage like the one it currently faces.
Where did the disconnect between Water Style and Water Climate begin?
Much like any area, the European settlers arrived with certain set ideas for what they wanted out of their new home. In California they matched the Mediterranean temperatures with the Spanish architecture and landscaping of home, but as it turned out the climate only felt Mediterranean as the normal precipitation was more on par with Riyadh than Rome.
Despite the disconnect, Californians stuck with the palm trees, Bermuda grass and ferns … and just kept on irrigating them. It has become so commonplace to plant nonnatives that rules are written into the various Homeowner’s Associations (HOA) around California that explicitly prohibit residents from planting xeriscapes until last September’s Assembly Bill No. 2104 voided any HOA regulations against “low water-using plants” individually or “to replace existing turf.” Note, the bill doesn’t protect people who want to replace their yard with a garden and is exclusive to just a couple of states nationwide. Since HOAs govern “one-fourth of all the housing units” in California, these lawn enforcing requirements have had far reaching effects!
Quantifying all that Green Lawn
It is stunning that the US has more turf than any (other) irrigated crop. NASA surveys estimate that there is three times as much lawn area as corn field covering this country. Yup, thats right.
That silly sod that fills in all the leftover spaces of our lives accounts for nearly 50% of residential water usage in California. Not food. Not trees. Not drinking. Not showers. Not swimming pools. But turf.
(Frankly, filling a swimming pool could use less water than an irrigated turf lawn since the pool is just filled once and doesnt have to be watered).
More broadly, irrigation of any kind is creating the shortage in California. Wealthy communities in California like Rancho Santa Fe and Beverly Hills are sapping up all the water to irrigate their elaborate ornamentals and private orange groves. The latest proposed California rationing calls out those places and is forcing them to conserve more than urban areas which are already practicing effective conservation methods, in yet another example of urban areas outperforming the exurban periphery in resource usage.
So What can we do?
So could the water shortage crises in California be fixed with a simple renovation of private and public landscaping specifications? You’re not going to believe this in our world of complicated answers, but YES!!
This is a problem we can readily solve with something fairly straightforward and easy to do. Remove your grass, plant desert stuff. Now I’m sure Wall Street will complicate this with some kind of potable water offset credit system so Rancho Santa Fe can retain its horse pastures and papaya groves. But so what. Problem solved. We can’t possibly be so attached to fucking grass, something we fertilize, water, cut down on a weekly basis, that we overlook this super simple solution.
How this affects the Midwest
So that’s California’s problem. What about Chicago? Lucky for us in the upper midwest we have one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Even with most of Chicago’s runoff being redirected to Missouri, we have an endless supply of fresh water. On top of that, some of the most fertile land in the entire world. Unfortunately, we are growing inedible soy and corn in it.
I want Chicago, and our entire region, to position itself as the place for plentiful water and soil in a time of scarcity.
Winter notwithstanding, we could be the country’s main edible produce producer. Along with offering practically free and plentiful water to water starved industry (JOBS! rabble, rabble, rabble). We don’t need to throw this produce party alone. The south can come, too. And while California parches like Marco Rubio while arguing about watering the grass, the middle of the country can become the go-to produce grower for the country.