“Lawn, it’s the new fur”, Southern California’s water wars

If you receive this post via your email and want to watch these two videos about water, separated by 69 years, click on the post title, “Lawn, it’s the new fur*”

Sons of the Pioneers, 1947

Tuneyards, 2016

*Fur phrase courtesy of Nick Welsh’s Santa Barbara Independent weekly column.

Southern California—warm sunny days, cool bug-free nights, refreshing breezes, light rainfall, all framed by mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean—everyman’s paradise, just add water. Water, or the lack of it, has always been one of Southern California’s most troublesome problems. Unless water is imported, the Mediterranean climate that draws in so many people won’t support them.

David Hockney, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

Starting in 1905, Los Angeles County bought water from the Owens Valley as needed and the city expanded to the limits of the water supply and beyond, always seeking more to feed the growing beast. By 1926, Owens Valley was completely dry but L.A. continued to push farther and farther, looking for the natural resource necessary to support the profitable sprawl. In Robert Towne’s movie “Chinatown”, villainous Noah Cross said, “Either you bring water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water.”

As the California drought grinds into its sixth year, the Central Coast’s wine industry is booming, with acreage dedicated to growing wine grapes increasing by fivefold since 1990. But Santa Barbara and Montecito water users are afraid that thirsty grapes deplete the aquifers used to water their lush lawns, fill their swimming pools, and irrigate the vegetables on their tables. “All of our water is being turned purple and shipped out of here in green bottles”, says one area businessman. Competing for water pits small family farms, vineyards and wineries against politically connected new arrivals, including Harvard University, which recently purchased 10,0000 acres in Santa Barbara County as an investment, becoming one of the largest growers of grapes in the Paso Robles wine region.

While other states see groundwater as a shared resource subject to state regulation, California allows property owners to drill wells on private land and take as much water as they want. As one Paso Robles business owner said, “Its a matter of who has the deepest pockets and the longest straw.” Historically, Santa Barbara County has been more cautious than Los Angeles County in its relationship with water. The toney communities of Santa Barbara, Montecito and Hope Ranch look to private wells, recycled water, and a proposed, contentious desalination plant for their main resources. Residential water usage in Santa Barbara is 77 gallons per person a day, Montecito-210 gallons a day, Goleta-55 gallons a day, Malibu-300 gallons per day and Beverly Hills-286 gallons a day, with the title of Biggest Water Hog in California going to Rancho Santa Fe at a whopping 584 gallons a day. In Seattle, with the country’s highest water bills, the average daily water consumption per person is 52 gallons.

Even though Santa Barbara residents responded to tough new restrictions by cutting water usage 22% in the past two years, unless El Niño comes through, Santa Barbara officials project a water shortfall by the summer of 2017. SB City Council agonized over whether to ban lawn watering and is considering the use of backyard drones, official water police and neighborhood snitches to identify and punish hose guzzlers.

Before we get too judgey about rich Californians and their swimming pools, let’s not forget how much we love to eat tomatoes, strawberries, and almonds in January. California has taken on the job of producing the majority of the country’s vegetables, which takes trillions of gallons of water a year and if California’s water woes aren’t solved, say goodbye to a major source of the kale, celery, artichokes, lettuce, and thirsty wine-grapes you consume and say hello to higher food prices.

Anyways, these days in central coastal California, only people who live in estates behind iron-gated entrances and long, winding driveways enjoy green grass and cascading fountains, fed with water pumped from private wells using public groundwater. Everyone else accepts crunchy, brown yards, drought tolerant plants, cacti, and sedges as the new lawn. The eucalyptus, oak and palm trees that line the streets, highways, and canyons are in distress and on their own, waiting for the drought to end. 

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