SAN FRANCISCO– The reality of the California drought is a stark contrast from the lush upper Midwest. While one chooses between ground or surface sources for municipal water and need not stop to think about lush green grass underfoot, the other dons signs along the road reading “pray for rain”. While Minnesota and Wisconsin thrive in a culture of river and lake recreation, California has a website for the drought, featuring Lady Gaga chiming in to get the attention of the masses. Not only are the communities of the Bay area strained by the drought, but a key fertile agricultural land in our national economy is strained, too. Wine, fruit, and especially almonds from Northern California make their way around the country and the world. While the region had built an infrastructure to cope with such water scarcities, the current drought has the reservoirs at record lows. The drought reaches beyond the capabilities infrastructure and now calls on personal water use. Reflecting on our history in water resources, are we really ready for such a responsibility?
San Francisco’s water infrastructure today reflects an ongoing water issue stemming back to the early the 19th century. An earthquake in 1906 destroyed much of San Francisco’s water system, causing a desire for water stability and security. From the 1910’s to 30’s, this hope for security struggled through a debate on a proposed reservoir to be built in the Hetch Hetchy valley of Yosemite National Park. Such a reservoir would procure millions of gallons of drinking water for current and future Bay Area residents. Leading the opposition however, was the conservation legend himself, John Muir. Muir considered Hetch Hetchy to be a “mini Yosemite valley”, abundant in wildlife and beauty, as well as a unique gem worthy of national protection. Other sites were proposed closer to the coast, but in the end the O’Shaughnassy Dam provided for the predicted volume and demand, and was raised in 1937. The dam flooded 1,800 feet of the Hetch Hetchy valley on the Tuolamne River.
So as I hiked around the reservoir, around Laurel Lake, Lake Vernon, and Rancheria Falls, I contemplated the plight of Hetch Hetchy years ago. I imagined Muir sitting in the places I stood, overlooking Kolana rock reflecting the sunset. A mental dialogue with the ghost of John Muir took place in the dry air alongside the sun-bathed black bears and the manzanitas. I struggled with Muir’s quote, “All good things are wild and free”. Although my experience backpacking seems to contain moments of being wild and free, there is always a cost. I paid to get there, to prepare my gear, and to spend time preparing gear and traveling to and from. This experience was face to face with the wild, and was exceptionally good on a personal level. But is “free” an illusion? Weren’t the protesters of the dam paying various seen and unseen costs while opposing the dam? If bad things come from a cost, will good things always be ducking and dodging where those with power haven’t trammeled? Whether or not anyone can create a moral argument on John Muir’s “wild and free” quote, one thing was clear at the end of the trip: the damage was done before the dam was built.
The damage was done when our culture designed a default pattern of water use. When sprinklers, showers, faucets and swimming pools all referred to a general notion of the “limitless commons”. When the real problem slid into blaming someone else. This damage looms with us today as we continue to wade through the history of our relationship with water (no pun intended…). Here in the Midwest, I need only look down the street for a forgotten sprinkler left dabbling water onto the pavement. If the water habits of 1937 created a demand that led to the construction of O’Shaughnassy dam, what would the same habits result to today as we face the drought and political water crises? We’re now seeing that infrastructure alone can’t secure water worry-free.
So facing this choice begs a few questions: How will the rest of the country respond if and when water shortages occur? How much will we rely on infrastructure, and how much on our own personal behaviors and patterns? Who do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to live in? Can, and will, we think of our water use frequently enough to intertwine it with the energy put into our bank accounts and gas gauges?
I had started my trek in San Francisco, where I would fill up my water bottle as I perused the City. The trek would take me from the tap to the source, a dynamic few get to see but all are impacted by. As I sat atop Rancheria Falls in awe of the beauty around me, I felt the heartbreak of many who knew and loved the valley and even called it sacred. I felt that although I have empathy for the plight of dams around the world, the same conflict of control rests within me.
The Manzanitas groaned as the dry summer heat peeled their bark away, toasting the inner layers. Although they’re strained for a time under the sun’s domination, they renew their bark each year and trust that soon the rain will come. As a tear fell down my cheek, a brush of the finger dipped it into the falls, sending it to the reservoir and back to San Francisco.