This is the way the world ends: Once-in-a-millennium drought a wakeup call for America

California is buckling under the strain of an environmental catastrophe — and it's only going to get worse

Published March 30, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 25, 2013.              (AP/Jae C. Hong)
A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 25, 2013. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

In a 90-year-old mansion built of hand-carved stones, my host lamented the dire water situation in Montecito, the millionaire’s haunt near Santa Barbara, Calif.: All of the Golden State was in a mega-drought. Things were so bad that not even the State Water Project, which serves 25 million people in Southern California, would deliver a drop for the first time in 54 years.  Things were so bad that 17 small cities of field hands and trailer-park residents will have to truck in water by Thanksgiving. In fact, it was so bad that in Montecito -- a lair of hedge fund managers, corporate tycoons and Hollywood producers -- there may be no water come July. As our host went through this litany, my dinner companions picked at their food and politely murmured assents. Yet we all avoided the issues staring at us in this quasi-desert.

Finally, someone blurted. “Did you know that three mansion owners in Montecito use as much water as 300 homes in Goleta, a middle-class suburb 10 miles away."

“We should print the names of those people,” said one woman.

“Yeah,” the man next to me agreed. “Shame them publicly.” Clearly only our host lived in this picturesque hamlet but the rest of us looked at one another in horror while trying to keep our jaws from smashing into our plates.

Was water about to become the next status symbol of the uber-wealthy?

* * *

There’s an old saying in the West. “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

This year, water fights are breaking out in private dining rooms and public meeting halls throughout the West. Federal officials have designated drought-stricken parts of 11 western and central states as natural disaster areas. They stretch from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, to California, Oregon and Hawaii. But few spots are thirstier than the Golden State, where 62 percent of the state is now in an “extreme” drought.

Most of these fights center on how neighbors use, and misuse, the life-sustaining liquid. Some of the quarrels trace back 100 years, to the ugly days of legendary water thief William Mulholland and the hapless Owens Valley farmers. Back then, when the state had 2 million people, politicians and businessmen used “chicanery, subterfuge … and a strategy of lies” to grab more water than they were entitled to. The water grabs continue. But the problem is bigger than it was in Mulholland’s day, as there are now some 38 million Californians who are facing what could be the worst drought in 500 years.

Part of our problem is Mother Nature. Remember that nasty weather pattern that pushed the “arctic vortex" down to the eastern half of the U.S. earlier this year? Meteorologists say the same high pressure is diverting Pacific storms toward Alaska, depriving us of our glorious rain. But most of our troubles are borne of the delusion of wealth, the denial of reality, and the competing entitlements of a place built on cardboard myths and the unending horizons of personal potential. This is particularly true in a place like Santa Barbara County, which is large enough to encompass the entire range of social classes yet small enough so that one can see the issues staring you in the face. For example, the north county is home to Big Agricultural interests with their strawberry farms, broccoli fields and vineyards tended primarily by low-wage migrant workers and meth-lab habitués. Half of the county’s schoolchildren are eligible for federal school lunch programs.

The south is increasingly populated by Big People, including those who live in manses built long ago by the Pillsburys, the Spauldings and Du Ponts and who still maintain their lush arboretum-like landscapes. (Eric Schmidt of Google bought a place with an amazing pool. Oprah Winfrey is replacing the gilded mirrors on her 50-acre estate.) Many such owners who live here part-time are earning extra cash by renting out their sprawling villas for weddings and to movie producers. Venture capitalist Frank Caufield, co-founder of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, rented his manicured 11-acre place to Kim Kardashian for her over-the-top wedding to NBA basketball star Kris Humphries. The loud and excessive reception so angered neighbors that the local sheriff shut the party down early.

People still talk about the late Harold Simmons and the state of his 23-acre estate during the last drought. At a time when many Santa Barbara residents were flushing their low-flow toilets once a day, I had driven by the leveraged buyout king’s lawn, which he had planted with thousands of yellow, thirsty daffodils. As the drought stretched on, Simmons paid $25,000 in water fees one year just so he could dump 10 million gallons into that lawn. The outcry forced him to drill his own well.

But Montecito’s underground water table has been drilled to perdition, and no amount of money is going to change that.

This time, there is talk about the “equality of sacrifice.” Last month, the Montecito Water Board laid things out in a standing-room-only meeting. In addition to hearing about the three estate owners who guzzled enough water to supply about 300 less luxurious households, we learned that several residents spend $8,000 a month to water football field-size lawns, and that Montecito customers use 290 gallons per person per day, compared to 66 gallons per day used by the Goleta customer 10 miles away. Montecito residents who take more than their fair share could face consequences, said the board president, including fines of $30 or even $45 per hundreds of cubic feet (HCF), or 750 gallons, after their monthly allotment. If they continue to overuse after two months, they will have to pay for a flow restrictor, which reduces water pressure. And if they still hog water, they will lose their allotment entirely.

But to citizens like Harold Simmons and Frank Caufield, those fines are chicken feed, Jonathan Rodriquez said during the meeting. “If we think charging $30 [per HCF] in this ZIP code will make a difference, I think we’re smoking crack.”

On the northern end of the county, the Santa Ynez vineyards and Santa Maria farms are part of the state’s $45 billion agricultural industry, which harvests much of what the nation eats. Wags call the San Joaquin Valley “the food basket of the world” for good reason: In just eight counties of the Central Valley, farmers grow your raisins, oranges, grapes, lemons, tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, alfalfa, asparagus and almost every other sort of vegetable you can name. The world’s largest cotton farm, J.G. Boswell Co. in Kings County, will no doubt continue to operate despite that crop’s thirsty nature. But a friend whose family runs a small almond orchard in Visalia says they’re letting some trees die or are pulling them out completely. “We expect hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Central Valley to go unplanted," Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the San Jose Mercury News. Small operations will be the hardest hit this summer and that will trigger even more economic problems in the poorer, rural parts of the state.

What this means for the rest of the country is that the price of fruit and vegetables will rise later this spring. You may not see any artichokes, cauliflower or celery this year. This drought is a wakeup call, a reminder that our current food supply system doesn’t make sense. Instead of depending on one vast agri-dustrial realm, it’s better to build some resiliency into the system by growing fruits and vegetables in hundreds of yards, gardens, one-horse hamlets and community orchards around the country. Of course, this is what the foodies and locavores from Berkeley to Brooklyn have been saying for years. Yet, Americans still buy most of their fruits, nuts and vegetables from a handful of California counties. Reality keeps calling but we just let it ring and ring ...

It’s time to treat our water more thoughtfully. The average American consumes twice as much water as she thinks she does, according to one study. Who knew that it takes 70 gallons of water to fill a bathtub for mom’s quiet meditative time? Most of us lose 10 gallons a day (or 14 percent of our indoor use) to old pipes and leaky faucets. That may not seem like a lot, but wait until your water supply is sharply restricted and you’re forced to limit the number of glasses your kids can drink this summer. It’s a conversation that many of us are already having, and it’s frightening.

As for solutions, they’re as rare as H2O itself. Governors have declared states of emergency, officials have allocated money, and boards have called for mandatory and voluntary cuts in water use. But most Westerners know these are stopgap measures. The mind reels at what the worst-case scenario could look like. In the old days, desperate ranchers hired dowsers and “water witches” who used twisted hazel twigs to locate underground springs. These days, dry districts such as Santa Barbara County’s Central Coast Water Authority are hiring brokers to help them find water. Some districts store or “bank” their unused water as if it were silver and these brokers and their cellphone “divining rods” are frantically searching for the closest source. Another possibility is to tap into the ocean off California’s coast. Water desalinization plants could remove the salt from sea water and become potable. But those facilities are expensive. Besides, people here are already paying $50 million a year to be part of a state water system that isn’t delivering a drop.

Beyond the blame and shame, however, lies hope. In early February, when things looked the driest, about 300 people gathered at Old Santa Barbara Mission to pray for a miracle. Associate pastor Father Larry Gosselin, Native American drummers Pete Crowheart (Comanche) and Mathew Zepeda (Little Dog Creek Apache), Mama Pat’s Gospel Choir and Santa Barbara Mayor Helen Schneider took turns addressing believers. As the brown-robed friar looked on, a wizened Crowheart opened with a prayer about how “we keep taking” from the earth, and how it’s time to stop. “Although we are worried about rain … it’s coming,” he assured the crowd. Then, the Comanche and Apache started drumming. Dancers of all shapes and sizes started shimmying on the steps of the pink mission, and by the time the firemen and audience joined in, the rain dance was snaking toward the mission’s 200-year-old Moorish fountain.

It looked pretty silly. But three weeks later, a five-day storm dumped about 12 inches into Santa Barbara’s watershed. It didn’t alter our emergency conditions. But rain dances have broken out all over the southern part of this state.

Except in Montecito, where some residents have more money than God. Denizens of such a world spend money on Piaget watches, bespoke safaris and tropical islands to silently announce their worth. But what kind of world will we live in when something as clear and common as water suddenly becomes the rarest of status symbols?

By Kathleen Sharp

Kathleen Sharp reports on business and entertainment from Southern California.

MORE FROM Kathleen Sharp

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California Climate Change Drought Water Wildfires