Water Wars

A.V. Walters

Have you ever noticed how folks are at their very best in times of scarcity? I don’t mean hard times generally, but true (or perceived) commodity scarcity, just warms their little hearts. It’s good to watch it on a small scale because it gives you a better understanding of it on a global level—“Worry globally, obsess locally.” So, I’ll tell this tale, but you must remember that I, too, have a dog in this fight. I can rationalize that my bucket garden is already a water-saver, and that the produce I’m growing is for the benefit of everyone on the farm—it’s all true, but I’m sure that everyone who’s got a pony in this show, has good reasons, too.

So, I’ve said, several times, that it’s been a dry year and that we’ve all been concerned about the wells running dry. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’re all trying to avoid that, but it’s in the air. We’ve all seen the news—the record temperatures and drought back east, the fires in Colorado.

I remember when I lived in the city during one of California’s recurring droughts. We were on water restrictions and it became almost a point of pride to drive a dirty car. Everyone was eager to show that they were conserving water. The lawns on our block were dead and our yards all looked like hell. When things start to get really tight though, it degenerates quickly to backbiting and finger-pointing. I had a little flower garden in my front yard then, mostly santolina, rosemary and lavender (all drought resistant), which I watered exclusively from the cold water that ran in the shower before the hot water arrived. I collected it in a bucket and used it judiciously in the garden.  One woman, whose peonies didn’t survive the watering restrictions, rebuked me for having my lovely, little garden. It didn’t matter that it was already a Xeriscape, or that it was watered with gray water, what mattered was that my garden had survived and hers had not. So, I come to this with some history. It’s why I started bucket gardening in the first place.

The landlord has been cautioning us to conserve. One neighbor has a nice garden—not a thirsty one, but she keeps it up. Elmer has complained to me several times (and to her) that she waters too much. She doesn’t really—she chose good plants and now they’re well established and deep rooted. Those comments have left her feeling defensive, so much so that if there’s any interruption in the water—she makes the point, to me, that “It wasn’t me!” By comparison, my yard looks parched. I water a couple of hydrangeas at my front gate, but I let the “lawn” die every summer and only the truly determined yard plants survive the neglect. I stated from the start that my landscaping water goes to the vegetable garden. Since last year there was produce that went to waste, this year we cut back the size the garden. The garden’s total, water consumption runs about 200 gallons per week. So far, I’ve avoided Elmer’s evil eye. In the house, we’ve always tried to conserve water—such as, fewer showers, fewer flushes. We live in California and that has, for some of us, become a permanent, lifestyle adjustment.

Don, with his field of pumpkins and squashes, keeps telling me I water too much. He says he’s keeping an eye on me. Right, like my little bucket garden compares, in any way, with a field full of water-loving squash! His is watered with drip-irrigation but, even then, just one of his waterings drops the level in the big tank by 8 to 12 inches. (He told me so, I didn’t check.) He asked me not to water on weekends, because that’s when most of the tenants are home—using water. I agreed, but said that I’d still have to water new seedlings or transplants. He wagged his finger at me. Last weekend I transplanted the last of the corn—and of course I watered it. Monday morning he commented, revealing that he knew I’d watered. (I’m not sure if he’s got spies or was bluffing!) I felt I had to defend myself—“Only the transplants!” Really, scout’s honor.

Added to the drought-anxiety is that they’ve been working on the water system (again.) Ever since this spring’s debacle with the pop-up tank, Elmer has been working to “upgrade” and add extra storage to the system. This past week, they took one of the older, concrete tanks (it’s more like a cistern) out of service to repair and upgrade it. As tenants, we never know what’s up with the water. (There have been more interruptions to water service this year than in the previous five that I’ve been here.) We are nervous every time the pressure drops—is this it? Did we run the system dry?

Invariably, the problem is with the switching system. It’s supposed to be an automatic changeover—when one tank gets low it should seamlessly switch to another tank. More often, something fails and, because my house is highest on the property, I’m the first to turn on the tap and… nothing! Then, I get to call and report that there’s no water, which only gets everybody started again—finger-pointing and defensive. We’ve offered, but nobody will teach us, (or permit us) to step in and pinch-hit when the system goes down, so we’re always having to call Elmer, or Don, at a family picnic or dinner out. Of course, they grumble and ask, “Well, you been watering today… was So-and-So…?” It makes us all feel a little guilty. (Which is probably the point of it.) The fact is, we’re in better shape than in earlier years because of the added storage. Don tells me that there’s an extra 10,000 gallons, but damned if he can figure out how to get it fed into my system. Only Don and Elmer understand the system and, more often than they’d like to admit, not even them. The system goes back to Elmer’s dad, parts of it at least seventy years old.

It grates on tenants that Elmer harps about conservation and then pressure-washes everything in sight. Spotless trucks and tractors shine, parked next to the shop, while tenants’ gardens wither. Well, that is the landlord’s prerogative, but I don’t think it’s wise social policy. So, the sniping goes in all directions. (Unlike the water!)

I watered Friday night—everything—all three gardens, because I’d committed not to water on the weekend. The pressure was low (don’t ask), so it took longer than usual—hours actually. Rick finally came out looking for me, wondering where I’d got to.  (He doesn’t much like the water-sniping and chafes a little with the scheduling requests and unannounced shut-downs, for repairs. We don’t use that much water!) Saturday morning the pressure was still low but there’s little we could do—Elmer was called away to a family funeral and Don’s on vacation.

Rick and I did “the garden walk” just to see how things were doing. (The garden looks great, except something’s messing with the beet greens—looks like a virus, probably carried by those little light green beetles with the dark spots.) We walked over to check on Don’s squash field. We do that from time to time—mostly because he’s got quite a gopher problem there, and we’re watching to see what, if anything, in his anti-gopher arsenal, might be working. Sometimes we just go and pull weeds there. Lo and behold, Don’s zucchinis have taken off. He has baseball bat sized squash. Don, who last year scolded me for letting the zucchinis get too big, has a field full of them. Apparently eight inches is the commercial standard (insert your own joke, here)—or so he chided me last summer. All of these squash will have to become animal feed. Partly, this is because Don’s on vacation, but it’s also because he planted a crop for which he didn’t secure a market. (I can see Rick’s blood pressure rising.) We’ve been conserving water so that Don could plant a crop that he’s now letting go to waste. (Insert your own profanities, here.)

Well, that night, the taps ran dry. Of course, nobody who knew the system (you know, the members of the secret, Only We Know the Water System Club) could be summoned—I called Don on the cell phone, cutting into his vacation, and he walked me through a manual switching to a reserve tank. As you know, I’m not supposed to know how this is done, and Don commented that he’d catch hell for letting out water secrets. (He may have to kill me.) What’s goofy is that there’s all this secrecy and water paranoia. There’s no shortage. We have an extra 10,000 gallons more than in previous years—we’re just working out the bugs on delivery. Still, there’s a perceived shortage and it’s bringing out the worst in everyone. Tenants bridle because they think Elmer is cowing them into a ridiculous level of water conservation (one man invited Elmer to live with his wife when she hadn’t showered in days.) We’ve come to the conclusion that the bee in Elmer’s bonnet is probably not the amount water being used, but the amount of electricity he’s paying, to pump it.

What’s really worrisome is how badly people behave when there’s a shortage—even when it’s not a real shortage. What happens if the wells really do run dry? Not just here, but everywhere. We really need to look at water issues in this country—nothing is more important, to keeping our world safe and sane, as a sound water policy. (So, why on earth are they permitting “fracking” without safeguards for critical, aquifer protection? We can survive without oil for a lot longer than we can live on poisoned water.)

Anyway, not everyone behaves badly. Sunday morning, Rick got up and installed drip irrigation in the long garden. Smart use of resources is half the battle.