To grow up in California is to be raised in a place that is always going into a drought, in the middle of a drought, or just coming out of a drought.
It is impossible to live in this state without a keen awareness of water, but that awareness is on the same cycle as our droughts – we care deeply about water only one-third of the time, when we must face the reality that it is not the unlimited resource we would like it to be.
I frequently hear people in Merced County acknowledge that we live in a desert, though such statements are almost always tempered by the reminder that our particular desert is irrigated.
I do not often consider what living in a desert really means, but what it means is this: We get an average of 12 to 13 inches of rain each season, though this year we have gotten just less than 5. In a typical year, we have about three months with temperatures in the high 90s.
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By comparison, the Sahara, which is the hottest and one of the drier deserts on earth, has an average annual rainfall of 4 inches. It has four months of temperatures in the low 100s.
Still, it is the dryness and scorching sun of the Central Valley that I fell in love with when I moved here about 35 years ago. I liked how everything seemed to move slower, like honey pouring out of a pitcher, during the hot months of summer.
The pace of the long days never seemed to pick up speed, even at twilight, because the heat was always there. It pressed down and forced everyone – kids riding bikes near Applegate Park, pedestrians crossing Main Street, waitresses taking orders at the Barbecue Pit – to conserve their energy.
Driving around Merced for the first time, I admired the post-Korean War neighborhoods with their single-level ranch homes spread out on large lots with sprawling green lawns.
My parents had recently moved to a home on East 20th Street, a place built in the 1950s on a quarter-acre lot. There was a pool (“Olympic-sized,” my father said, though this was not, in fact, true) and grass.
It was my parents’ dream home, the prize at the top of the ladder, and when my husband and I were able to purchase our own property in the 1990s, I wanted a home modeled on what my parents had bought in 1981.
When we moved into our house on an acre, the front yard was already planted with grass but our back yard was knee-high in weeds. If we had been smart, we would have seen those weeds for what they were – native plants.
We might have found a way to incorporate a landscaping scheme without a lawn, using hardscape and trees and maybe even the weeds best suited to this environment. But instead we planted grass. We put in a sprinkler system.
I did not think about water then. I did not worry about our well going dry, though everyone else around us for 3 square miles had wells on acre lots, too. I could only imagine a home surrounded by an expansive lawn, one that harked back to my parents’ house on East 20th, a home built for an era that was 40 years in the past.
Now, in 2014, half of our front lawn has turned dry. All of the landscaping – the fescue grass, the Lady Bird Johnson roses – is dying because we have decided not to water our yard this summer.
I wish I could say our decision came from an intent to lessen our personal environmental impact, but it did not. It came simply from fear. I am terrified of getting up one morning, turning on the faucet to brush my teeth, and watching in horror as the last few drops of water from our well sputters out and slides down the drain.
However, meteorologists are predicting that next year we will have an El Niño winter, which could mean 12 inches of rain for Merced, and possibly more. California will be coming out of another drought, and for many of us, our concerns about water will conveniently disappear.