California Forum

Living the story of water in California

Special to The Bee

How do you tell the story of water in our Valley and state?

The drought amplifies the significance of water; we can no longer take it for granted. While I fix a leak in our farm’s irrigation cement line, I think of water in new ways.

First, I cringe at the wasted water that the seeps out of the concrete pipe with a hairline crack – a problem I noticed years ago but now feel compelled to fix. Can this be a metaphor for our approach to water: leaks and waste throughout the system?

Second, I try to grasp my relationship with water; it’s not just for economic benefit, but it also must be seen as a limited resource, something sacred, with value. For me, water is personal with meaning: It’s a story that matters.

How we compose that story will frame our understanding. Water is much more complex than imagined, and the intricacies and ramifications are a challenge to communicate. For many, the narrative is overwhelming when we ask basic questions: Where does our water come from and who owns it?

If I were to write the story of water, I’d begin with this inherent conflict and tension: We can’t create new water; all we have is what we have now. Ben Franklin understood this when he wrote: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

Next, I’d ask if water should be ascribed in the singular or plural. Do we say “my” water or “our” water? The difference will shape our basic approach as we tackle complex issues of water and property rights, and configure jurisdictions of local and regional control.

The current water war divides us into tribes: urban vs. rural; coastal vs. inland California; cities vs. agriculture vs. environment. For a farmer, add into the equation irrigation districts, regional boards, watersheds, groundwater basins, state water and federal water – these hands all touch my water. They also advocate on my behalf to protect, shelter and control water. The inherent competition and struggle make for juicy animosity in our current water drama.

Yet the main character in our story remains totally unpredictable: Weather gives rain and takes it away. We pray for storms, beg for rain and swear at high-pressure systems that block hope. A fickle nature dominates our lives in the arid West.

We endure a Kafkaesque drama. Franz Kafka was a German writer 100 years ago whose main characters were thrown into bewildering situations with terror of the unknown. His subjects were psychologically ripped with confusion and overwhelmed by systems and bureaucracies. They suffered in nightmares of desperation and disorientation. In one book, “The Trial,” a man is arrested and prosecuted by an inaccessible authority. The nature of his crime is never revealed. He has no clear course of action and no escape. Helplessness permeates life.

Sounds like our drought and water woes. Much like Kafka’s characters, we too face situations that seem incomprehensible. Pain and anguish and blame become the norm.

Stories help capture the complex context of life. Our water stories happen whether we like it or not. My goal is that we help find and ensure that voices are represented. We need to monitor what’s included and what’s not included. My hope is that as the drought continues, we find the voice that allows articulation of a common bond: We are all connected by water.

As we look forward, what becomes the theme of our story of water? We recognize the current players: power, money, politics and geography. We are living in a world of struggle with loss, pain and fear. Complex sentiments of shame, anger and frustration will also play a role. Unfortunately, only when individuals turn on their faucets and find nothing will they engage. Then water becomes personal and emotional.

Our plight will transform our communities. We will adapt, answers will be painful, compromises agonizing, most will lose something. We are entering a new realm with ethical and moral dimensions. Solutions will not be found solely in technology or politics: We will survive with a combination of elements and approaches, giving rise to a new culture of water in our daily lives.

The setting of our story takes place in a geography that’s alien to much of the public and policymakers. Few pay attention to watersheds that now divide our state with natural boundaries. Much of our “drought” water supply is invisible, buried beneath us in a geography that has yet to be graphed.

Ironically, in this era of data and information, a simple map may be the best tool to tell the water story in a compelling way. Imagine a relief map in three dimensions with ridges or deep gashes and basins you can feel with your fingertips to comprehend the aquifers beneath your home and community. How might this change our perception of where we live and the water we bank on for the future?

Finally, what plot captures our water story? Are we in a comedy or satire? How else can you cope with the politics of water? Or is this a drama or tragedy, with some of the potentially biggest decisions made during a crisis? Will this crisis turn out to be costly and send us in the wrong direction, such as Australia’s expensive desalination plants built during their drought that now sit idle? Or might this be a mystery, part of working with nature and climate change? Is our future less about solving problems and more about a mystery to be lived?

The story of water is not a simple linear narrative. We face a wonderfully complex future. We are witnessing a revolution, and we must cultivate our resiliency. It makes for a great story, and we are living within it with every drink.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach” and “Wisdom of the Last Farmer.”

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