California Water Anxiety Syndrome: Feel it yet?

March 17, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

If you live here, you already know: The feeling is inescapable, palpable, more than a little scary.

I’m talking about California Water Anxiety Syndrome (CWAS), of course, that sinking feeling to trump all sinking feelings, that sour knot in the pit of the collective stomach, unnerving and strange and, let’s just admit, unutterably depressing.

California, as you might have heard, is running out of water. Very, very quickly. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

Remember snow? California barely does.

Remember snow? California barely does.

Perhaps you read NASA senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti’s rather terrifying op-ed in the LA Times, declaring that, by all available measures, our state has only one year of water storage left? True. What’s more, farmers are desperately pumping out the last remaining groundwater so fast, just to survive, that the ground itself is sinking. That’s our “backup” water. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Famiglietti declares what nearly everyone already feels: the time to start a mandatory statewide (individuals, farmers, industry, everyone) rationing program is right now.

Care to argue with him? Best go look at this chart first; it shows how the state’s snowpack currently stands at a harrowing 13% of normal, which is itself half of last year’s dismal 25%, which was already a record low. Blame climate change or blame the farmers and their water-intensive crops all you want. Fact is, the state’s been losing massive volumes of water for more than a decade. The problem is everyone’s.

By the way? Winter, in case you missed it, is over. Big rains ain’t coming. No more snowstorms. No more flood warnings. SF had its first ever rain-less January 100 years. Or was that 1,000? Is this drought is the worst in 20,000 years, or just 1,200? Does it matter?

The sad pond formerly known as Folsom Lake

The sad pond formerly known as Folsom Lake

Water Anxiety Syndrome is growing, and it’s something new, something unprecedented in modern life. The prospect of the world 7th largest economy (that’s us, bigger than Russia, Italy, Brazil) running out of water and triggering the collapse of multiple industries, from agriculture to recreational tourism, invites a very unique feeling of epic helplessness.

We cannot make it snow. We cannot ever replace that pumped-out groundwater – need another Ice Age for that. We cannot refill our dried lakebeds. There is no pipeline large enough to transport trillions of gallons over from Boston. This is what we’re not accustomed to: No amount of money, no amount of political posturing, no display of military might, no act of Congress, no amount of chemicals, no amount of whistling by the graveyard can bring more water.

California, meet the Nazca. They ran out of water, too

California, meet the Nazca. They ran out of water, too

It’s even more difficult to fathom if, like me, you believe there’s almost nothing we can’t handle. Our species is stupendously adaptable, exceedingly quick to shift our needs or our usage when called upon. Despite what politicians or Big Energy wants you to believe, we are actually excellent at conserving, at rationing, at getting very serious, very quickly about doing what needs to be done.

And the polls back it up: 94% of Californians – that’s pretty much everyone with a functioning brain – says they’re ready and willing to make some dramatic changes, and soon. When do we start? How do we do it? And more importantly, will it be enough?

History, I’m afraid, is not in our favor. I just saw a documentary, one of National Geographic’s hugely popular “The Truth Behind…“ episodes, on Netflix, each one of which attempts to explain a particular mystery or phenomena (crop circles, Druids, Freemasons, Dead Sea Scrolls and so on). They’re smart, they’re fun, and they mostly get right to the debunking point.

The gods, alas, were not sufficiently impressed

The gods, alas, were not sufficiently impressed

This one discussed the astonishing Nazca lines, in southern Peru, those enormous, miles-long geoglyphs the Nazca people carved, scraped and dug into an immense area of flattened mountaintop between 100 B.C. and 700 A.D.

The region is staggering in size. The Nazca lines, a World Heritage Site since 1994, cover some 190 square miles. Theories as to why a small, rugged tribal people would create such epic carvings run the gamut: were they irrigation systems? Astronomical calendars? Ritual patterns? Landing strips for alien spacecraft?

This particular episode offered a newer possibility. Archaeological evidence now suggests the lines are actually elaborate “outdoor temples,” vast geometric shrines, humble offerings to the Nazca gods, requesting divine favor.

But why? For what? Why would a relatively primitive tribal people go to such intense, laborious lengths to appease the gods? Why scrape hundreds of miles of lines, patterns and shapes into the dry, hot, unforgiving mountaintop? What could have possibly compelled them?

It’s water, of course. The Nazca, some now believe, were fast running out of water. The climate was changing. The already parched region was drying up. The lines are simply a dying people’s desperate attempt to beg their gods to please deliver some rain.

Didn’t work. The Nazca soon vanished. Their culture disappeared forever. Seems the gods, then as now, weren’t much concerned with our plight.

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Mark Morford

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