• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • September 19, 2014 in Columnists

    There’s a death rattle in the California breeze

    It was one of those nasty dry September evenings. I was sitting on the back patio, looking around at my sad, dry yard. Because of the drought, I’ve severely cut back on watering. The lawn is mostly beige, as are the withered geranium skeletons. My citrus trees are scorched, the cherry trees are yellow and withering. Even the hardy pomegranate tree is struggling.

    Flowers? I haven’t planted any, because flowers require water and are therefore a luxury. Even my albizias, which you couldn’t kill if you wanted to, are showing signs of stress, and dumping their dried seed pods far too early. Ditto for the sycamore trees that line our street — brown and dropping leaves like it’s late October.

    Suddenly, it hit me. It’s not merely dry. Everything’s dying.

    I cracked.

    I watered. God help me, I watered.

    It’s one thing to let the lawn turn brown, but the trees? I planted them myself. I am the Creator of this little Eden, and I couldn’t bear to just let them die.

    One good deep watering, and they lifted their tired, yellowing branches, but it’s only a temporary fix. They’ll need it again. It’s a losing battle. Maybe we can’t have citrus trees and roses in California anymore. Maybe we’ll have to learn to love cactus and rocks.

    Beyond my parched yard, things are infinitely worse. We went to Sonora recently, and the drive through miles of dry grass and dying trees is stunning. The oak trees are dying, people. I’ve never seen that before. Every summer, the hills turn gold and dry, but the oak trees remain a deep, dusty green. Not now. Many of those oaks on the drive to Tuolumne County are the color of rust. You know how long it takes to for an oak tree to grow big enough to replace those dead ones? I’ll give you a hint: You won’t live to see it. Not even if you’re in kindergarten.

    New Melones Lake was stunningly empty, and we passed creek after creek that was just a dry gully lined with dead and dying brush. And this is just one small section of an entire state that looks the same way. Go take a drive and see for yourself. You’ll be stunned. It’s not merely dry. It’s not merely drought. It’s death. California is dying.

    Maybe we’ll view this drought as the disaster that it is when property values start plummeting. Property without water has no value. Do we take our chances and stay, and hope the rain returns, or cut our losses and get out while we still can? People in rural areas tell me they’re already turning on the tap and getting nothing but sputters. So, they dig their wells deeper. But what happens when that groundwater is gone?

    Last week, Governor Brown signed a bill to regulate groundwater pumping, and the ink was barely dry when the California Farm Bureau was blasting out press releases announcing their “disappointment.” CFB President Paul Wenger stated, “We’re concerned that these hastily written measures may come to be seen as ‘historic’ for all the wrong reasons.”

    “Wrong reasons”? Mr. Wenger, tell me what would be a righter reason than “the water is almost gone”?

    Wenger adds, “…groundwater has been under pressure mainly because surface water supplies are in crisis,” and says that the answer to groundwater sustainability is “more surface water storage and better management of the storage we already have.”

    Better storage? Dude, what exactly are we going to store? Air?

    Nowhere in the CFB press release does it even mention “drought.” It doesn’t get any more tone deaf than that. If the agriculture industry, which uses 80 percent of the water in California, is in total denial about the seriousness of this drought, and the conversation is focused on what the Big Bad Governor is doing to farmers, we’re doomed. All the dead cherry trees in all the back yards in all the state won’t make a bit of difference if agriculture is still merrily guzzling water like there’s no tomorrow. (Note: there is a tomorrow. And it’s very dry.)

    Some folks scoff and say, “Oh, we’ve had droughts before” as they’re washing their cars in the driveway, with the hose running into the gutter.

    I want to punch them.

    This is no ordinary drought. It’s not merely a lack of rainfall. It’s groundwater depletion. USA Today used a nifty term recently: megadrought — lasting a decade or longer. What if that’s what this is? What if drought is the “new normal”?

    California is in crisis. The governor gets it. Most residents seem to be getting it, and we can spot the ones who don’t by the water running in the gutters in front of their homes. But is agriculture getting it? What if we’re on a precipice? What if we just can’t grow crops in California the way we used to anymore? How about going forth under the assumption that water will forevermore be scarce, and agriculture needs a major paradigm shift in its attitude about water use? On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t matter if agriculture, or anyone else, “gets it.” You can’t conserve what isn’t there.

    Go take a drive and see for yourself. That’s not the breeze you’re hearing, it’s a death rattle. One north wind and one idiot tossing a cigarette butt, and what you’ll be hearing next is the roar of fire consuming the whole state.

    “Oh, don’t exaggerate,” you scoff.


    How will we fight the fires if we run out of water? The answer is, “We won’t.” We’ll stand by and watch it burn, because we won’t have any other choice.

    Governor Brown already declared a State of Emergency for the drought. But California isn’t IN a State of Emergency. It IS a State of Emergency. And all the brown lawns and dead cherry trees, and fallow land even, aren’t going to make a bit of difference if drought is the “new normal.”


    New Melones Lake in Tuolumne County, CA, on Sept. 12, 2014.


      • Madgew

      • September 19, 2014 at 6:01 pm
      • Reply

      Here in SoCal we can water three times a week for 8 minutes. I only water for 2 as I have drought tolerant yard with no grass(fake grass in backyard) I will not let my Chinese Elm that was planted for the 1936 Olympics and was suppose to last 50 years die. Mine is thriving as I have taken good care of it. Since my water usage is so tiny I can let the tree survive. I also would water fruit trees as they provide fruit for you Debra. There are other ways to save by shutting off water to brush your teeth, not flushing for urine only and using full washers for clothes. We need some rain gods to do their magic to save our state.

    • It seems to me that as a nation we could be coming up with solutions as a team together to help one another out during these times of distress.

      • Maya North

      • September 20, 2014 at 9:12 pm
      • Reply

      Honestly, I’m scared for California. It’s been drier in Washington than normal, too, but not a patch on you guys. Too many people, too much use. There wasn’t that much water naturally in California — California draws water from everywhere and it’s still not enough. There are things we can do, like rainwater collection when it does rain, desalinization (which worries me about the ocean, actually) and such, but still. I grieve for the land, the trees, the creatures that depend on it all…

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