Water: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

I’m standing on the deck of a modular home, looking out over the seventh hole of a golf course. The course is a lush green, palm trees lining the edges, as they do the boulevards and along the streets

Last updated on May 04, 23

Posted on Apr 09, 09

3 min read

I’m standing on the deck of a modular home, looking out over the seventh hole of a golf course. The course is a lush green, palm trees lining the edges, as they do the boulevards and along the streets.

Lifting my eyes over the row of similar homes on the other side of the fairway, the real sight is the tan, gray and purple of the Little San Bernadino Mountains that fill up the horizon. The mountains are omnipresent here in the Coachella Valley, their rough, bare surfaces a reminder that I’m in the desert, though ranges of sand, scrub brush and cacti are also a pretty good clue that water is scarce. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the way towns have popped up all over the place surrounding Palm Springs, once the winter playground of Hollywood’s golden era and still a popular spot.

Later in the day, I’m checking out a sprawling ranch-style home in a more upscale neighbourhood, one where homes that not long ago sold for half-a-million are now going for a third of the price, a palpable reminder of the subprime mortgage meltdown. The house is empty now, the water in the pool turning a shade of green that once graced the scorched lawn. The neighbours, however, have underground sprinkler systems that come on regularly, even in the heat of the midday sun. It’s an effective strategy: the lawns are a nice deep green.

Out here in the desert, you’ll find built communities to fit all budgets – gated, of course, as is increasingly the norm in the U.S., and particularly in California.

It hardly seems possible so many houses and people could be here given the lack of readily accessible water. But these places continue to grow at a rapid clip. It makes me wonder how we can be so worried about water back home: landlocked as it is, Waterloo Region is in far better condition than this valley, though this is a much more desirable location.

Still, water – or the lack thereof – is an important consideration everywhere, as our population grows and we draw on increasingly polluted, overtaxed and under-replenished supplies. If the worst-case scenario of climate change models starts to emerge, we’re in for serious consequences, the kind that spark riots, revolutions and wars.

As with many issues, from car fuel efficiency and safety standards to planning initiatives, California is at the forefront of coping with water shortages. It has to be: Its geography and lifestyle make it a beacon drawing in a steady stream of new people, continually adding to the ecological burden.

Along with the conservation methods now common in Waterloo Region – including low-flush toilets and modified shower heads – the state is increasingly keen on water recycling, which reduces the demand for freshwater while lowering the amount of wastewater discharged into the system. The use of so-called grey water is climbing, for instance.

Despite those efforts, however, officials warn conservation can only lessen the crisis, not avert it. Having come through another drought year, California is bracing for even bigger cuts to the amount of water available in 2009.

“The outlook for water deliveries is grim and will put local water agencies in critical territory this year. As water agencies continue to deplete their reserves, more and more Californians will face tighter restrictions on water use, including mandatory conservation, rationing and higher costs for water,” say Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).

“We’re in a new era, and Californians are going to have to rethink the way they use water, not just during this drought but from this day forward.”

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, officials have already predicted that some agricultural contractors stand to receive no water deliveries this year, while municipal contractors can count on receiving a 50 per cent supply. Urban and agricultural customers of the State Water Project stand to receive just 15 per cent of requested supplies, among the lowest forecasts ever.

“Extremely low reservoirs make it clear we are in a drought, but there is more at work than back-to-back dry years. We have a water supply system that simply cannot support everything we are trying to do today, whether it’s protecting species, adapting to climate change or meeting the needs of a growing population. Layering on a three-year drought just magnifies the problem,” says Quinn.

Touring through southern California, as I’ve been doing this week, it’s not difficult to picture the future water crisis experts say is coming for all of us. Even without the fantastic geography, ideal weather and attractive built environment, Waterloo Region is likely to see growth that will tax its water resources; more so if climate change progresses as predicted. We may have shied away from the Great Lakes pipeline scheme, but you can bet a thirsty U.S. population will be eyeing the largest supply of freshwater.

Something to keep in mind with summer on the horizon, even though it may not feel like it just yet (well, not in Elmira, at any rate).

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