California Forum

David Mas Masumoto: Will we be wiser about water, now that it’s scarce?

Can the current drought in California make us smarter? Many are feeling the pain of a dwindling supply of water: Farmland sits idle; jobs are lost; cities are forced to make conservation efforts; politicians grope for solutions. Beyond the rhetoric of who stands first in line for this fluid treasure and how best to allocate a scare resource, the reality is that we live in an arid land and climate change will force us to live and work differently. But are we wiser?

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1746

Simple wisdom. We’ve heard of Franklin’s quote before, but this rings true today. For years, many have sounded the alarm about the impact of drought, yet we have quickly forgotten the dry years of 1976-77 and 1987-92. Only in crisis do we act, as Franklin predicted? He may have been speaking metaphorically but today, our well is literally dry.

“Water is the driver of nature.” – Leonardo da Vinci

We forget that da Vinci was not only a great artist but also scientist. He explored the workings of both the external and internal world with an eye to capture meaning. He understood the power of relationships and proportions manifested in his art and inventions. He developed theories of water, its motion and character, and in a simple yet profound statement, understood that too much or too little created a profound impact on life. And water is at the center of life for nature and human nature.

“All water that will ever be is right now.” – National Geographic

Many don’t fully grasp the reality that we can’t create more water. Technology may help cleanse existing liquids, but there is no way to manufacture our way out of this drought. We have built dams and aqueducts to channel water but we can’t invent new water. This is as good as it gets as we head into a world of scarcity.

“With respect to water … (we) suffer from the same disease: We say that it is priceless, but act as if it were absurdly cheap.” – editorial, The Toronto Globe 1998

How do we value water? Some believe economics will solve the problem of allocation, assign a monetary value and people will respect water more. And in some ways, this has worked. Contrary to what many believe, some cities in our Valley do have water meters and charge accordingly. Fresno, after a decade of debate, has water meters and has reduced use by 15 to 20 percent.

But making water a commodity isn’t the only answer. For example, if I could, should I sell my water rights and quit farming? What happens to the tens of thousands of dollars in labor our small farm pumps into the local economy? Should water have a greater value beyond a dollar amount? Can water be part of a public good serving a civic function? Can water be sacred?

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” – Jacques Cousteau

Water does bring life, be it for farmers or urban centers or the environment. The drought forces us to realize why the market economy doesn’t always work: You can’t buy what isn’t there. And even we farmers too easily forget other lives are also affected by water, including the fishing industry and, of course, the environmental community. In the debate about water rights, where should solutions be hammered out? In the marketplace? In court? In the halls of local or state or federal government? In our hearts and minds?

We are entering a new era of shared water. The right to water belongs in the public arena. Ignoring the rights of all will stymie our ability to cope with this drought. My hope is that a sense of the common good will prevail.

Perhaps we should use Los Angeles as a model. Through restrictions and pricing, consumption was reduced, water storage capacity increased tenfold and, though it sounds unsavory, toilet-to-tap reclamation is being explored.

Sadly, though, our future may be guided by a quip attributed to Mark Twain:

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

I fear we are beginning a water war. If the fluid of the 20th century was oil, water will be the fluid of this century. Lives and livelihoods will be determined by water or the lack thereof. Water will bring fortunes and fights, wealth and struggle, and battles between the haves and have-nots.

And we may then slaughter each other as we battle over the few drops of liquid gold left. We will justify our actions with a rationale symbolized in a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, believing we can wash our hands of responsibility because the winner takes the spoils:

“A little water clears us of this deed.”

We are facing uncharted waters – actually the lack of water. Desperate times call for desperate acts as we expose our values and character more than ever. Yet, I hope we can move forward with water wisdom.

“Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” – W.H. Auden

“Filthy water cannot be washed.” – African proverb