It’s Only Water, Right?


A week or so ago, I found myself in a room full of people talking about water. It sounds like a simple idea, but the more listened, the more I began to realize that beyond the tired cliché that “our bodies are over 70% water,” water is a subject that, pardon the pun, underlies everything. It is interesting that the deeper you go into discussions about water, the more that water metaphors inhabit the language. This is only the tip of the iceberg (here we go again…) of how much water is a part of our everyday manner of being.

Growing up in northern California, water was always there. In fact, much of the time, there was just too much of it! Remembering the 1964 Humboldt County flood, I can still see the vista of the entire Ferndale valley looking like a lake, with the old stone and concrete bridge sitting out in the middle, apparently unanchored as if it somehow floated down the river with the huge logs that seemed to be everywhere. After that, my parents moved us to dead center in the Sacramento Valley, ostensibly a drier place. Yet, when riding in a schoolmate’s father’s private plane, our little town, surrounded by vast rice fields, was surrounded once again by water. There was even another small nearby town aptly named Grand Island. The land all around was barely above sea level, and the massive river that bisected the valley was cautiously encased in tall, sturdy levees. In many places, the level of the river was higher than the surrounding farmlands, even in midsummer.
After moving to the city, water became something we all took for granted. You turn on the faucet, and out it comes. In this land of plenty, we were not even charged for it. A water bill was something you read about in a novel, and not a part of everyday life. This was California, after all, and swimming pools and lush landscaping were part and parcel with the territory. And who could forget the Pacific Ocean, limitless by anyone’s standards, and just over the mountain.
It was not until I moved back to Mendocino County, ironically, another place where, in the winter months, there was so much water it brought down hillsides and covered roads for weeks at a time, that I began to have an appreciation for how vital and yet how limited this resource is. For the first time in my memory, there was no local salmon in the markets or on the tables. The intricacies of “in-stream flow” and “baseline ambient temperature” and “turbidity” were beyond anything I had encountered, yet I know something had shifted. This spring’s twenty-one days of freezing temperatures had emptied the numerous catch ponds that dotted the vineyards and provided much needed water to the vines through the dry summer season. Though the floods had closed the roads in January, an annual occurrence, rainfall was below normal and some coastal homeowners were already at the bottom of their wells. Everyone was murmuring about where the water went, and who used too much, neighbors grimacing at neighbors, and then the fires came.
On a humid June Friday evening, a freak lightening storm peppered our bone dry hills and forests with over one hundred fires. Smoke choked the canyons and the valleys, and people walked the farmers market with masks covering their nose and mouth. Thousands of fire fighters from all around the world converged on our small towns, and miraculously, began to beat back the flames that had become a part of our everyday lives. The helicopters dipped water from the rivers, from the ponds, from the already shallow reservoirs, and even from the ocean itself. The communities pulled together with the help of the armies of fire fighters, and suddenly, it didn’t matter whose water it was, as long as it went to help quell the fires. Almost a month later, the fires are almost out, but we are left wondering what to do next.
If Mendocino County is to survive, much less thrive, we must answer to this core issue. This is why I again take up the textbook to learn the lexicon, to explore the questions, and most importantly, to reach out across ideological and geographic lines to find solutions to this new dilemma. Farmers, foresters, loggers, environmentalists, politicians, grape growers, ranchers, and all the myriad of people in our towns and cities who depend on the fact that the water will come out of the faucet must set aside their difference and forge alliances. All of our other issues will be moot unless we can address this one. I hold out hope for gatherings such as the conference I attended, sponsored by an organization called, appropriately, MendoFutures. If we can all sit down in a room together, setting aside our differences in support of our common future, then I know that we will succeed. My father always taught me that if I were not part of the solution, it was likely that I could be part of the problem, and it is in that spirit that I dedicate time and energy to sustain this place that I love, not only for myself, but for those that follow.
If you think it is “just water,” try spending a full day with limited or no fresh water. Write down each time you reach for the faucet, the handle on the toilet tank, or the hose. The results may shock you, and again, they may not. At the end of the day, ask yourself what each one of us can do to ensure that water will be there to meet the needs of the communities of the future. It is time to begin to frame our future rather than just reacting to it. For more information on how you can get involved, go to
Post by Julia Conway on July 21st, 2008