Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Water memories fade to brown

Lawns and watering are points of conflict.
Lawns and watering are points of conflict.

The city of Sacramento recently sent me an email about my water use over the past year. It contained a logo of a smiley face and said my usage was down by more than 20 percent.

I’m probably using half of what I did a decade ago when I would soak my lawn almost every day during blazing hot summers. Back then, I didn’t just water my lawn. I babied it. When you walked barefoot across my grass in 2005, it was moist – even in the summer. It was thick and green, like shag carpet. You could lie on it comfortably, in the backyard and in the front.

That lawn symbolized achievement and serenity. You could sit in my backyard and feel peaceful because the lawn, trees and flowers were healthy and lush from plenty of irrigation.

I remember my dad sitting in my backyard and nodding approvingly. Dad always had wanted me to benefit from his hard work. He was a blue-collar, hard-hat guy with little formal education. I had graduated from college, the first in my family, and a commitment to my career had helped supply personal possessions and achievements. One of them was that Pops could sit happily in my backyard and tell me how much nicer it would look if only I wasn’t so lazy.

I didn’t have the green thumb my parents had, didn’t spend whole weekends in the yard gardening as they once did. I had a nice yard, sure, but theirs was something else. I can close my eyes and see the fruit trees and rose beds that my mother nurtured until the day she died. There are old photographs in family albums of visiting family members, always posing next to Mom’s prized roses.

But back to the smiley face on the email. It made me happy to know that my house was efficient and that we were using a lot less water than neighboring households our size. In fact, in the months of April and May – from the last water report I got from the city – nearly half of my overall water use came from outdoor sprinklers.

We had cut back severely on everything else. We take short showers, we don’t run the faucets carelessly as we used to do, we use the dishwasher only when it’s packed, we put in modern and efficient toilets, and we checked and repaired all leaks.

We’re all in. We’re conserving water after taking Gov. Jerry Brown’s message of water conservation to heart. And really, it hasn’t been all that hard.

But it’s made me realize some things about myself and the city. Part of why we’ve stayed in Sacramento for 25 years when the Bay Area, Southern California and the East Coast beckoned is that we’ve always felt part of a larger community here. But another significant part of what we love about Sacramento is its outdoor spaces. They’re points of pride and sites of happy communal experiences.

Now lawns and watering are points of conflict. They can move neighbors to rat out neighbors on social media for overwatering. I’ve seen cranks on Twitter call people out if they spotted sprinklers running at the wrong times.

It’s a drought of fellowship as well as water.

The act of freely watering flowers, grass and trees now is bathed in nostalgia. We moved into the house we live in back in 2000, during the economic boom at the end of the 1990s. This was before 9/11, Iraq, the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and a California drought worse than any in my lifetime.

Our first two summers here, in 2000 and 2001, seem so distant now. I used to water twice a day. Runoff would stream into gutters. By today’s standards, it was wasteful – but who cared? There was no drought and having abundant water meant having a green backyard. Who needed to go to a park when you had one on your property? It was a source of joy to us and to families when they came to visit.

That smiley face from the city? It came at the expense of my backyard lawn, which is now as dead as fried chicken.

We’re keeping the trees alive and we’re watering carefully on the days when we’re allowed to water. But the damage is done. Lush has turned to arid. Green is brown and yellow. You wouldn’t want to lie on that lawn now. It’s as hard as stone.

According to recent figures released by the State Water Resources Control Board, Californians reduced water consumption by 27 percent in June – that’s almost 60 billion gallons – when compared with the same month in 2013. Nearly 270 water districts met or exceeded mandatory water cuts imposed by the state. But 140 came up short, many of them in Southern California.

I have to admit – it made me angry that so many water agencies missed state-mandated water reduction targets. That so many were in Southern California only inspired negative thoughts about people from southern regions often maligned in Northern California.

Water talk has always been fighting words between Northern and Southern California. Brown’s plan to pump water from the Sacramento River to Southern California was already contentious enough.

Now many Southern California water districts are failing to conserve enough water? That creates hostility that is only going to grow.

It’s the collateral damage caused by the drought: people turning on each other as water supplies dwindle.

What I wouldn’t give now for a soothing summer rain, for snow in the winter, for a day free of water shaming – and to stretch out on my lawn and feel free and serene.

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