WATER, WATER NO WHERE

By Paul M. Lewis

To say that California is dying of thirst may be something of an overstatement, but there is no argument that the state is becoming more and more parched. The statistics don’t lie. Average rainfall has been off significantly for the last several years, and most disastrously the Sierra snowpack is so low as to be almost nonexistent. The annual measurement at Phillips Station, for example, just off of Highway 50, would normally put snow levels at above 66 feet for this time of year. Instead, it is now completely devoid of any snow whatsoever. What this means, for anyone unfamiliar with how things work here, is that the snow that normally accumulates in the higher levels of the Sierra Nevada mountains and slowly melts as the weather warms up, giving us lowlanders the benefit of regular runoff, is simply not there. That’s bad news for residents, for agriculture, and for all living things.

Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and mandated a 25% reduction in water usage. Given record low rain and snowfall amounts, this is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. We all have to do our part. Homeowners must reevaluate those thirsty, lush green lawns so favored by most of us, and we’d all do well to be thinking of replacing them with native, drought-tolerant plants. Even restaurants are being told that customers should only get a glass of water with dinner if they specifically ask for it.

But is everybody doing their part equally? It seems as though that hasn’t been true at the residential level, for one. Wealthier enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Newport Beach use far more water per capita than lower socioeconomic areas. And it’s not just because of those big swimming pools in their big backyards either. Take a drive around and compare the sumptuous lawns of Beverly Hills to what you see in Compton or Santa Ana. First of all, there are far more apartment buildings in poorer areas, but even single family dwellings in less affluent parts of town tend to have browner front lawns. Who knew that it wasn’t just politics, but water too, that followed the money?

As striking as some of this is, residential/urban use accounts for only about 20% of water allocation in the state. Included in this number is approximately 6% for industrial usage (it’s also interesting, by the way, to note that half of residential usage goes for outside watering). But agriculture uses up the remaining 80%, even if not all agriculture is equal. Here are a few interesting statistics:

COMPARISON OF WATER USAGE (in gallons per pound)

  • beef—1847 vs. chicken—518
  • almonds (shelled)—2126 vs. walnuts (shelled)—1226
  • rice—287 vs. corn—161
  • brussel sprouts—258 vs. broccoli—34
  • grapes—80 vs. potatoes—38
  • green beans—74 vs. carrots—26
  • eggplant—48 vs. tomatoes—26

In other words, it’s not just whether we do away with our lawns, or take shorter showers, or wash our cars a lot less often that makes a difference. Our choices as to what we consume also have an impact. The Los Angeles Times did a very interesting spread in their April 4, 2015 edition, in which they showed a photo of a plate of food. On the plate were pictured the following: an 8 oz. steak, 6 oz. of rice, 8 oz. of lettuce (i.e. a salad), and a 4 oz. glass of wine. The total water footprint for this meal comes in at just over 116 gallons of water—102 gallons of which are accounted for simply by the steak alone. So suggestions about cutting back on how much meat we consume, beef in particular, are reasonable from many different perspectives.

California, a state where every area is in severe, extreme, or even exceptional drought, currently provides 25% of food consumed in the United States. And yet, agriculture represents less than 2% of GSP (Gross State Product). But 85% of the Sacramento Irrigation District’s acreage is devoted to the production of rice, one of the thirstiest of cultivated plants. Does that make a lot of sense, at a time when mandatory water rationing is taking place for residential users? Almonds, too, another staple of state agribusiness, bringing in almost 6 billion dollars a year, require a gallon of water per single almond produced.

When Gov. Brown was asked recently if the state ought to be telling farmers what crops to raise and which ones not to, his reply was that it was not up to government to tell people (i.e. agribusiness) what to grow. But why not? Government regulates business all the time. Just ask the Better Business Bureau what it thinks about the supposed burden of laws pertaining to everything from the health and safety of workers, to fair payment of wages (e.g. minimum wage laws), working conditions, privacy regulations, truth in advertising, and of course a whole host of environmental laws.

To be fair, it is also worth noting that farmers have had their own difficulties, and many of them are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops healthy, due to decreases in deliveries of water. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has mandated that no water be delivered to farmers with “junior water rights.” This speaks to the way water is divvied up in this state, which is arcane at best, and it’s an understatement to say that huge political pressure has come to bear on how water is allocated. As just one example of that complexity, certain types of water rights (so-called “senior water rights”), including groundwater, riparian, and pre-1914 appropriations, are excluded from the State Water Board’s authority. In other words, agreements that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the state had a mere fraction of its present population (1.2 million compared with 38 million—projected to be 50 million by 2050), and when we were not in drought, are still in effect.

No one is saying that the swimming pools and lawns of Beverly Hills ought to remain exempt, but neither is it fair to balance overuse of water by cutting Compton more than Newport Beach. Nor should farmers and ranchers whose families happen to have settled here in the 1890’s get a pass. Times have changed, and we have to change with them. California definitely needs to do something about its water problems. No argument. But that’s true for all Californians, not just residential users and some farmers. Everyone would do well to remember that no natural resource, water included, is unlimited. These last few years it’s been California’s turn, but Australia went through the same thing not so long ago, and larger and larger portions of the Sahel—the geographic region located between the Sahara and the plains and forests of north central Africa—are experiencing ever-increasing desertification. Weather patterns are shifting along with the warming of the globe and alarming increases in world population. One way or another, this will come to have an impact on everyone.

The water shortages in California are undoubtedly due to some combination of natural variability, changes in climate caused by human activity, our own choices as to what to grow and eat, and the enormous increases in demand that have come about over the decades. This is emblematic of a larger global problem, and the same complexities seen in California will eventually come to influence worldwide water supplies. It’s only a matter of time. What we do to address the consequences of such changes, and how people here in California and elsewhere decide to react, represent a set of choices that only we, humans, can make. Whether we make those choices wisely, or foolishly, is in the end up to us to decide.

PREJUDICE AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM

By Paul M. Lewis

As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.

At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.

It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.

Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.

Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.

Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?

This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.

Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.

Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.