The San Joaquin Valley’s communities and farms all blossomed our of a desert landscape thanks to available water supplies. But with an increasing population, and global warming, how we use this most precious resource is becoming more and more important. In this edition of FM89’s commentary series "The Moral Is", Fresno State biology professor Madhusudan Katti says it’s time for us to turn off our sprinklers.
Congratulations Fresno! You are no longer an anachronism. Though rather late to the party, Fresno ushered in 2013 by turning over a huge environmental leaf with the announcement that every home in the city now had a water meter installed. So let us congratulate Fresno for joining other Valley cities in taking an important step towards better environmental stewardship!
Many Fresnans had already started seeing changes in their water bills that now show the actual amount of water consumed in the household, and the charge per gallon. For decades, Fresno (alongside our state capitol Sacramento) had been a peculiar holdout, stubbornly refusing to even measure its water use, let alone to make us pay accordingly. This frontier mentality had us living in a semidesert ecosystem (defined as one receiving between 10-16 inches of rainfall annually) but consuming more water than most American cities: over 300 gallons per person per day!
Our profligate use of water allowed us to grow lush landscapes of lawns shaded by trees to evoke ancestral homelands in wetter places. Never mind that we were depleting the valley’s ground water even as our city continued to sprawl. As a recent study from Fresno State found (full disclosure: I am the lead investigator of this project), most of us living here are aware at some level that we live in a dry part of the world. Indeed the lack of heavy rainfall or snowfall may be part of the region’s draw! Yet, most of us also want big lawns where our children can play, and a variety of thirsty trees to shade our yards and homes in the summer.
How do we square this circle then, between our desire for personal landscapes of remembered lushness, and the reality of depleting water resources in the desert we inhabit? We can begin by recognizing the inherent incompatibility. The city, under duress from state and federal agencies, has taken the first big step towards better stewardship of our water supply. We residents can respond in two ways: complain about the suddenly high price of our expansive lawns; or rethink our landscape and its place in local ecology, and transition to water-wise yards that can provide most of the same aesthetic and recreational benefits as before, but less thirstily. Many of us are already doing this, and the new water bills will encourage more to explore alternatives. Let us make this an opportunity to find creative ways to ensure the long-term sustainability of our water supply while making our own habitats friendlier to nature.
Fresno’s water conundrum is a microcosm of humanity’s frayed relationship with nature. The Earth is overcrowded compared to a century ago, but the bigger problem is that each one of us now consumes far more resources (or wants to) than a generation ago. Our very economic model is based on perpetual growth, which is at odds with a finite planet. Time for us to turn off our sprinklers and pause the growth bandwagon to repair our relationship with nature, to stop being mere consumers and become stewards of planet Earth.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.