My Firmest Faith

I read on line last month, with some alarm, of the rapidly depleting
Ogallala Aquifer–a vast reservoir deposited beneath the Midwest prairie five to 10 million years ago as runoff from the Rocky Mountains. It had slept all that time untapped until 150 or so years ago. And now, apparently, it’s on the verge of running dry.

It is estimated that the Ogallala supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced nationally. But the recharge rate is tallied at less than 10 percent, which means that for every 10 gallons pumped out, less than one is replaced by rainfall–which in western Kansas, at least, measures 14 to 16 inches annually.

Once emptied, geologists figure it would take 6,000 years for the Ogallala to refill.

It was at this point in the article, with all my hair fully on end, that I thought of California. Our Central Valley Aquifer, according to NASA satellite data, is under the most dire strain of any in the United States. The situation is so bad that, by 2040, California will be on a footing to monitor its groundwater.

But–drought or no drought–we have it lucky.

To begin with, we use our aquifer more like a bank. It’s there to be tapped–as it is, heavily, now–in times of drought. Yet in many places above the Ogallala, pumping is the only option. Here in California, mercifully, we have surface water and snowmelt–however meager–regularly.

More than that, though, we have a system in place to deliver this water across the state.

You can scream and complain that it amounts to highway robbery for the crowded Southland to siphon water from northern California–but it’s akin to the miraculous that we can do this. You can scream and complain that it’s a crime to let fresh water flush the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but really it is a necessary sacrifice for the health of that ecosystem. It’s what keeps the salt water literally at bay.

What this all means, of course–however convoluted and ever-evolving; however, sadly, unsatisfactory–is that our water delivery system affords us options. And we need them. More than half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States are grown here. Having a bevy of choices, however poor, is better than having no choice at all. Just ask those farmers who rely solely on the Ogallala.

Now, I wouldn’t call the situation here in California a good one–but I do have to admit it is an opportunity. We are learning, in the evolution of our water delivery system, how to contend with the next drought Mother Nature sends us. I don’t suppose climate change will do us any favors, but I’m hopeful that we’ll adapt nevertheless. It’s what we do as a species.

Still, I don’t feel very secure. Getting thrown out of your family home will do that to you. And when my wife and I talk about where we’ll live out our days, her chief concern is water. I tend to think more along the lines of how many children we’ll still have living with us–or future grandchildren–but she is adamant.

“We should move to Washington,” she says.

Not a chance. North of the 45th parallel the sunlight is all wrong. It slants–dishonestly, somehow–against the planet in such a fashion that I am dismasted. I can’t have it. I might be able to endure the rainfall, but I could never remain in my right mind in that oblique light. Because I was born there, and raised in the East Bay, I’d agree to venture so far northward as San Francisco. I don’t even want to visit what they call “the Great Northwest”–except to see a couple of our kids who live up there.

I’m thinking we’ll stay somewhere in Central California. I’m thinking the drought will eventually ease and rainfall once again will bless our basins. It is my firmest faith that normal, for California, is, by turns, cycles of drought and wet. And I’m betting that, by the time the next drought hits, we’ll be better equipped to contend with it.


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