White sage

Seen in the author’s garden, white sage, or salvia apiana, is an example of the drought tolerance of native California flora. The waxy, white leaves protect the plant from the heat of the day and prevent water loss, or transpiration. 

I am trying to remain optimistic, but it is beginning to look like we are heading into our second dry winter in a row. While that brief and miraculous moment of October rain refreshed native plants attuned to even the barest hint of moisture and abated our fire danger, our water’s cumulative total remains less than an inch as of the end of November. 

Here in southern California, rain is our most precious resource, recharging groundwater, springs and rivers, which are the backbone of the wildly diverse ecology we are lucky to call home. Abundant winter rains fill reservoirs and agricultural wells, and recharge topsoil as well – all essential resources for local farmers and ranchers. 

We live in a naturally abundant world that is equally informed by the presence of water and its absence. Patterns of rain and dry weather over millennia have shaped the evolution of the native flora that flourishes in the salt marsh, along the bluffs and in the front range of the mountains, which rise just behind Carpinteria. Summer dormancy – which looks, to the uninitiated, like a lot of dead plants – sees silvery-gray or waxy foliage that prevents transpiration and has incredibly deep roots. These are just a few of the many brilliant strategies which our plant neighbors have developed to build resilience through long dry spells. 

Many native birds, insects and animals have also ingeniously built their lives around natural rhythms of watery abundance. These strategies include timing breeding and child rearing during traditionally wetter winter months and caching food (which is also a primary water source) for leaner times. 

The rainy winter season was also traditionally a time for Chumash people, the original and still present, politically active stewards of the biodiversity of this region, to practice controlled burning. Nuanced patterns of burning and resting landscapes over generations created wildlands dense with abundance thanks to the adaptations and collaboration of fire-following people, plants and animals. Our state now teeters on the edge of near-constant, incredibly destructive conflagration thanks to decades of poorly informed fire suppression policies and harmful logging and ranching practices. 

We are so profoundly fortunate to live in this beautiful place. But with that privilege comes responsibility: no matter where or how we live, each of us needs to take ownership of the actions available to us to conserve water and other resources in the face of increasing drought and climate disruption. In the spirit of equity and the recognition of profound and growing economic inequalities, those of us that are more materially privileged also have the opportunity to do more to conserve resources.

There is a lot that we can do as individuals and stewards of the places we call home to conserve water. Some of these water conserving measures are now mandatory under the recently declared Stage Two Drought Condition guidelines, such as ensuring that automatic irrigation systems are deployed during the cooler parts of the day and night; not watering concrete and parking lots; manually disabling irrigation systems after nourishing rainfall; and conserving water while performing household tasks. 

As an organic farmer and avid gardener, I would add to such water-conserving measures by gardening and landscaping with gorgeous, drought-adapted native plants – which provide food and shelter to local fauna – build healthy soils with compost and mulch to sink and store what rain the winter allows, install greywater systems to recycle household water to healthy gardens of food and habitat and support sustainable, regenerative farming practices, which conserve our precious resources. 

In the state of California, agriculture uses about 40% of all available water, compared to 50% for environmental resources (i.e., leaving water in rivers and wetlands for the other-than-human world and water quality) and 10% for residential/urban use, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Here in the Carpinteria Valley, agriculture, which includes commercial nurseries, uses roughly 47% of available water (although this statistic is ten years old, I could not find a more contemporary, publicly available breakdown of water use). The vast majority of all agriculture in Santa Barbara, 90%, is based on export to 34 different countries, and includes such thirsty crops as berries, nursery products and more. I wonder if we are entering a future in which exporting so much of our water becomes untenable.

Beyond our individual actions is an opportunity for a greater and more collective shift toward living lightly on the land. Regardless of whether or not we are prepared, it seems safe to conclude that we are entering a moment of ever-increasing climate precarity on a global scale. In our local community, this might continue to look like dry winters and extreme fire danger. As a community, I hope that we can begin to engage more deeply in conversations about preparation and resiliency, the equitable use of our shared resources and the appropriate uses of water, our most precious resource.  



Alena Steen is the former coordinator for the Carpinteria Garden Park. She and her partner now own and operate a small, diverse flower and herb farm just behind town. You can learn more at nightheronfarm.org.


(1) comment

Denny Smith

This is a good overview of California’s chronic water worries. I appreciate the reporter’s healthy endorsement of drought-tolerant gardens. The plants typical of xeriscapes atpund the world are some of the most beautiful, fascinating species that evolution has gifted us. Such organisms faced a mortal struggle to exist, and succeeded. We Homo sapiens often seem less inspired, or lacking in fortitude, than the sagebrush, cottonwood and bristle-cones that called California home long before the settlement of 17th-century European explorers or Paleo-Indigenous peoples of the Glacial Maximum.

The anthropologists, urban planners, environmentalists and citizen conservationists amongst us are generally aware that some communities and individuals, some eras and perspectives, are more water-cautious, less consumption-selfish, than others. Sure, agriculture uses the most water in our region—either by necessity or profligacy. But as Michael Macor of The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week—“Households in Southern California coastal counties use much more water than those in the Bay Area.” And even if we’d like not to recall water under the bridge (sorry), Michael notes that “Not every area of the state will be starting from the same level of water use. A Chronicle analysis of 2020 data reported by water suppliers across the state shows that residential per capita water use varies wildly depending on region. ‘Sometimes, the reason is simple,’ said Edward Ortiz, a spokesperson for the California State Water Resources Control Board, which compiles that data. ‘People in some places use water more efficiently than people in other places. But that’s not always’ the reason. There are a variety of other factors besides those influenced by personal choice that determine residential water use levels, says Ortiz. Key among those factors are average temperatures, precipitation, density and water prices.

“Vaughn Water Company in Kern County, which serves about 33,000 people, had the highest residential use in the state at an average of about 327 gallons per capita per day in 2020. This is in stark contrast to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s 44 gallon per capita per day use, the lowest among any district that served over 100,000 people. The second highest user was San Juan Water District, which serves about 31,000 people in Placer and Sacramento counties and had a 2020 average of about 313 gallons per capita per day. Of the 10 districts with the top water use, only the Vaughn Water Company and the Coachella Valley water districts reported to the state water resources control board that they faced water shortages in 2020. Data showed both districts were in Stage 2 of the state’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan, which requires restrictions for some non-essential uses, including irrigation of landscaped areas.

I am personally frustrated that my 47 years of very, very careful, attentive use of water is utterly unappreciated, even canceled out by lazy Angelenos and golf-cart Visalians. “Bay Area water districts generally have below average water use compared to the rest of California, particularly the south of the state.,” continues the Chronicle. “The state average was about 102 gallons per capita per day, but the Bay Area’s three major districts all had per capita daily use lower than 60 gallons.”

The water slops are not just wasting water, they’re wallowing in precious power supplies as well. Most people never think about it, but water and energy are inextricable as well as indispensable. Contemporary systems of water procurement are Titans, matching—and impossible without—the Goliaths of power production. Think of our water complexities as the arches of majestic, and incredibly effective, Roman aqueducts: “Water quality, precipitation fluctuations, hydroelectric storage, reservoir evaporation, water’s sprawling delivery to homes, industry, agriculture, government and yep, recreation, the treatment of polluted urban and mega-farm run-off, attention to aquifer restoration, wetlands, deltas, floodplains, and byzantine distribution entitlements to ancient treaties and concords. Wars have been launched when men grab critical resources, venerable nomadic tribes evicted to steal their oases, ruins submerged, empires ground to dust, societies decimated by famine, civilizations tortured by cyclical floods, swarming pestilence, deforestation and desertification.

How many Californians are thinking about water—or drinking and splashing and lavishing in it—responsibly?

H2O, as much or more than O2, is the critical element of life on earth. The wasters of our arid West, the selfish slothful of a familiar settler class, could and should face the wrath of thirsty migrants, thrifty workers and dusty landless drifters, one day soon. Climate change is clearly running our disaster clock, already a doozer, faster than before. Years ago, when a friend of mine was dying, he quietly murmured on one, sweet afternoon, that “when we face oblivion, even a glass of water becomes meaningful.”

I’ll never forget that moment of eloquence. The image is sublime—a sip from a simple glass of cool, clean water, waiting for us ubiquitously and endlessly through publicly trusted drinking fountains, garden hoses, from Pleistocene glaciers and ancient artesian springs. Squandering a geologic endowment, and reckoning a human requirement, cannot both petition a parched earth, nor can any spring or stream grant both, forever.

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