The Lighter Side of Drought

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Water is a great leveler. Water doesn’t care if you’re a busboy or a billionaire; if it’s not there, you won’t be either. But in this period of climatic travail, as we watch our reservoirs evaporate and our roadways subside, it helps to remember that drought brings with it a few advantages.

I’m one of those oblivious slobs people who wash my car on an average of once every two years—just on general principal. Sometimes I’ll give it a quick hosing so I can get the door open or see out the window, and occasionally (very occasionally) I’ll chip the pine sap off the hood so the cats don’t stick to it during the night and make a fuss. But basically I see no point in cleaning something that’s just going to get dirty again as soon as I drive it – especially up here on all these dirt roads. So I don’t.

Instead, I rely on the elements to clean away the top three of four layers of dust, and if the rains don’t come (as they haven’t for the last fourteen years or so,) I just play the “conspicuous conservation” card and bask in my rationalizations. I’m not slovenly, I’m doing my civic duty. Now that there’s official drought, I have a great excuse!

This week I took a chainsaw to the orchard, and it was with great reluctance that I hacked my once-verdant friends down to their stumps. Watching them die over the last few years has been heartbreaking; Alec and I planted those eighty trees ourselves, dug the post holes, set the fences, trenched and laid the irrigation lines, planted and fertilized the seedlings, kept them from the deer until they were tall enough to survive nibbling, and harvested their fruit every spring and summer thereafter.

But now they’re withered by drought and its fellow travelers, the bears, who broke off whole limbs climbing into them to forage. The branches were mangled by raccoons, and the last of the fruit was stolen by thieving hoards of jays and grackles before it even had a chance to ripen. Given the mess, there was little else I could do but saw them down and hope the roots go deep enough to sustain them through dormancy until the rains decide to return.

I told myself I simply couldn’t spare the water to irrigate them properly (and I can’t), but the truth isn’t quite so simple. Keeping that orchard going by myself is a pain in the ass after twenty years. In addition to the constant battle with the wildlife, the fencing and irrigation need repairs after every winter’s freeze, the grounds need clearing, the trees need fertilizing and weeding. Then there are the bugs and the pruning and the picking and preserving and…. I tell myself, don’t forget, fewer trees means less pollen come spring. What a boon to the seasonal allergy sufferer!

So there’s that.

Being a good water-conserving citizen in time of drought gives me a dandy excuse not to do the dishes/laundry/floors quite so often in order to do my part to preserve our precious natural resource. For someone who grew up with a mother who insisted we five kids share the same bathwater (in our six bedroom house), wash our dishes in a plastic tub in the sink (as the dishwasher stood idly by), and never ever leave the water running while we brushed our teeth, there’s no real sacrifice here. It’s not like the dogs and horses care if I’m stained or their feed bowls are sticky.

Another advantage drought brings us is the opportunity for introspection. Last weekend I attended my friend, BobbiKing’s annual fundraiser for the Montecito Trails Association. For those unfamiliar with the area, Montecito is the hideaway enclave of such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges, and Julia Louis Dreyfuss (yes, those Dreyfae) –the Old Money Malibu, if you will.

The day-long event hosts a horse trek into the hills as well as bicycle and foot races along the Santa Barbara mountain trail system, all culminating in a lavish sit-down BBQ for 200 participants and supporters that afternoon. It’s quite the affair. But the real fun for me (besides seeing the elite of Santa Barbara County streaked with dirt and soaked with sweat) is the legitimate excuse to peer into their backyards and houses along the way.

Now, all the casual visitor to Montecito sees is its opulent villas and haciendas nestled discretely behind the stone and wrought iron fences that line its manicured country lanes. But the drought, which in Santa Barbara is also extreme, has taken its toll there, too. From the road, one catches glimpses of once lush rolling lawns, now scrubby and brown, as spare and seer as a September desert-scape. Maybe an SUV or BMW sits forlorn in the cobblestone car court, its custom paint job diffused by the dust that’s settled on its hand-lacquered surface. Even the olive trees look choked and parched.

     But from the trails up above, one can look down onto the vast green lawns in the rear, the sparkling infinity pools, the burbling fountains and the 16 car garages with the full-time car washer busily hosing down the overflow. Behind the semi-public façade of the street, it’s whole other world—one where $12,000 a month gardener bills are mitigated somewhat by private wells not subject to the heavy fines the overuse of (sniff) municipal water entails.

Of course we all know that those wells tap into the same aquifers that serve us all, and that the groundwater they suck is being depleted at an alarming rate, but it’s easy to delude oneself when vanity and comfort are on the line. It will be interesting to see how the swells react when they turn on their gold dolphin faucets one day soon…and nothing comes out.

Maybe then, when California farmers and ranchers, homeowners and public officials realize that 23 million people live in a semi-arid desert and there’s no more water, some of the frackers and land developers and freaking rice farmers who export their crop to Japan for fucks’s sake (and who survive here only because of the massive tax-supported water subsidies they receive from the state), will pack it up and move with their minions back to wherever they came from—and leave what’s left to those of us who know how to live here without air-conditioners, and golf courses, and our increasingly hollow suppositions.

And that would be a real advantage.

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Fresh from my utopian daydream, I returned to my own tattered, scrubby lawn. Once cool and inviting, it now resembles nothing so much as the desert from whence it sprang. As I surveyed the carnage, it occurred to me, it’s not that way from a lack of water, it’s that way from an excess of entitled puppy. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere….

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