California Forum

And now from California, a little water music, and other songs for these dry times

David Mas Masumoto
David Mas Masumoto

As another drought looms in California, I’ve been thinking about a whimsical project at a statewide think tank where I serve on the board.

The Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California recently made a “Water Playlist.” It may be unusual for one of California’s more established water organizations, but it did give me the chance to hear what researchers had to say (sing?) about the state’s water future.

It also was an opportunity for an organization to engage with the public in a different manner on California’s water issues – perhaps individuals who may not typically pay attention to a research report could connect with a song. Combining art and expression with data and research adds to our shared perspective on how we’ll cope with another potential drought.

And it’s a way to connect: Researcher Jelena Jezdimirovic says that all seems fine in the state until the water shortages arise. Her song: “Water Runs Dry,” by Boyz II Men.

In contrast, Director Ellen Hanak would like to remind that there is such a thing as too much rain (think of 2017 and Oroville Dam). She notes that California needs to spend at least $34 billion to upgrade dams, levees and flood management infrastructure with the song “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin.

Communications Manager Lori Pottinger thought about the complex world of water rights and used “Kern River Blues” by Merle Haggard to ask: “Is the Kern River really fully appropriated?”

Senior Fellow Brian Gray is concerned with the long term consequences of overdraft in our valley. His song? Roseanne Cash’s “The Sunken Lands.”

The comments by these researchers and thinkers offer a broader understanding of water in California. As the story of the potential disaster of Oroville Dam is uncovered, I think of the Led Zeppelin lyrics: When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move/ All last night sat on the levee and moaned.

I can picture the dam and maintenance workers as the emergency evacuation warning was issued last year. The music makes it surreal and real at the same time.

Imagine listening to Merle Haggard’s lyrics while reading a story about the legal haggling over water rights: There used to be a river here runnin’ deep and wide/ Then somebody stole the water, another politician lied.

A researcher’s music selection and comments do not necessarily reflect their assessments. But it can expand our thinking and broaden perspective. Water is not an abstract idea or concept; it’s real.

A younger audience listens more than ever, not to lectures and talks, but to music and meaning. Public policy does have a demonstrative side, full of emotion and impact for the general population.

In 2018, we will have the opportunity to vote on at least one, and possibly two new water bonds, asking if we Californians support water issues with our own money. What song stirs in you, your neighbor or your millennial children who might support or cancel your vote?

Senior fellow Jeff Mount chooses the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” to remind us that the real action is in surface water-groundwater interactions. As a farmer, I worry about the diminishing groundwater supply. The haunting lyric “water flowing underground” may indeed be just something that we get to squander once in a lifetime.

Like PPIC’s Theresa Dang and the song by the rock band Garbage, I’m “Only Happy When It Rains.” Her choice, I feel, captures the farmer’s eternal optimistic complaints about the weather.

And I wonder about the potential for playlists to expand the reach of other organizations and causes.

What would be the playlist for your workplace or office? What songs could capture the efforts of your local nonprofit, city council or school board?

I bet we’d be surprised at what ends up being included, sometimes agreeing, sometimes shocked by self-perceptions and agendas. Old problems might gain new perspectives, with the power of song.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” To hear the whole playlist, go to YouTube.com and search for PPIC Water Policy Center Playlist. Contact the author at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

The PPIC Water Playlist

  • 1. Raimon a Xàtiva – “Al meu país la pluja”
  • 2. TLC – “Waterfalls”
  • 3. Garbage – “Only Happy When It Rains”
  • 4. Led Zeppelin – “When the Levee Breaks”
  • 5. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime”
  • 6. Boyz II Men – “Water Runs Dry”
  • 7. Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me a River”
  • 8. Alison Krauss – “Down to the River to Pray”
  • 9. Roseanne Cash – “The Sunken Lands”
  • 10. Merle Haggard – “Kern River Blues’
  • 11. Dire Straits – “Water of Love”
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