Editorial: Less than half full: beyond basic conservation

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Most of us have seen some water apocalyptic type photo — no snow in high altitude mountains, dry aquifers and lakes and rescinding ice caps. But in the state of California, the severity of our drought has increased at an alarming rate. We are in the fourth year of the worst drought on record, with record low snowpack. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared California’s drought a state of emergency and two months later, in March, signed a one-billion dollar emergency funds package for “drought relief and critical water infrastructure projects.”  Even amidst these critical water restrictions, the State Water Resources Control Board reported that water conservation in the month of January, the driest January on record, fell from 22 percent to nine percent. The drop in conservation efforts is a testament to the fact that many people don’t understand the intrinsic severity of a drought, especially if they hear of or experience a rain storm. Water conservation, conceptually, is difficult for many people if water still flows from the tap per usual. Seeing is believing, right? But, as a frustrated Jerry Brown explains, “You can’t just live the way you always have.”

And water conservation simply isn’t sexy. There is no sexual allure in a reusable water bottle, wet with condensation. You can’t accessorize with colorful tote bags or belong to hip social groups. There is very little glory or recognition in conserving water because most attempts will go largely unnoticed by other people. The chances that someone on Tinder will swipe right because your hobbies include water conservation are slim, and that is the society we live in. We are mostly self-serving and driven by incentive, and for some reason, preserving the natural state of our environment isn’t incentive enough. Consider this:

In July of 2013, Detroit became the largest US city to file for bankruptcy, and what followed was the city cracking down on it’s public and municipal funds, looking for gaps in taxpayer money. The Detroit mayor’s office found their water department had done a poor job of collecting money and many people were behind on their water payments. The city began to shut off water in homes with delinquent payments, 26,000 in six months which prompted a response from the United Nations Human Rights team. Access to water, they explained, is a fundamental human right. The UN nodded to an article in their 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which gives each member of society the “resources of each State…indispensable for his dignity.” Living without water is a matter of indignity.

Fast forward to March of 2015, and the state of California, amidst the worst drought in state history, is facing similar questions of access to water. If water is a component to living a life of standardized dignity, what happens when a state is unable to provide water for all of it’s community members? Or, when water, a basic fundamental human right, becomes a precious and highly limited commodity? We cannot wait for the state to answer these excruciating questions. We need a paradigm shift that sees brown as the new green.

Our understanding of droughts and water conservation has improved, and many of us on our college campus have adopted a bare-minimum conservation effort. Yet, impactful water conservation requires we know to what extent water is used to bake our daily bread.

We are inspired by green.The vast, green stretches of golf courses throughout California, seen as a symbol of luxury and sport, beautifully manicured front lawns and perfectly green and maintained sports fields: we are accustomed to gorgeous greenery. Yet, the miles of golf course require an estimated 312,000 gallons of water a day and according to the EPA, people maintain their front lawns per day at a cost of 120 gallons of water.  It is hard to imagine growing up while playing on harsh, brown grass, or watching a baseball team play on grass the same color as the clay dirt. In theory, water conservation disrupts our traditional aesthetic of beauty. But if we aren’t prepared to sacrifice aesthetics for the future of our state, we must be prepared to goodbye to more than lawns and golf courses.

Currently, agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water. One pound of almonds requires 2,100 gallons of water, the equivalent of taking a seven-hour shower. The alfalfa crop alone uses 20 percent of California’s irrigation water to feed the most water intensive livestock, beef at 1,900 gallons per pound. The products we consume on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, have extremely high, hidden costs of water use. We don’t think to connect the dots between the water used to grow food for cows and the amount of beef consumed, or the water used to make plastic packaging and the amount of plastic we dispose of from the products we buy. We buy in bulk to save money, and throw away half a pound of freezer burned chicken that took 146 gallons of water to produce. By raising the cost of water, the state of California is sending the message that wasting water directly wastes money. However, we need to be wary of policies that look categorize a human right as a commodity that can potentially be limited to those in more affluent communities. Even amidst our emergency drought, California’s wealthiest cities like Beverly Hills, Malibu, Palos Verdes and Newport Beach use double the amount of water per day than less affluent cities. If the UN council on Human Rights is correct, and access to water influences dignity of life, everyone must work to protect something fundamental, but not guaranteed.

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