California: A Conservation Classroom

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Matt McGee

For the past four years, California has been in the grips of what is widely considered the worst drought in the state’s history. According to the American Geophysical Union, this is the driest the state has been in 1,200 years - a far cry from John Steinbeck’s “full green hills” and “grapes swelling on old gnarled vines, cascading down.” Shrinking reservoirs, dropping water tables, and a nearly-nonexistent snowpack have forced California’s policy makers, farmers, and everyday people to conserve the state’s water, and also confront the prospect of a future marked by growing demand and shrinking supply.

Two sisters, Kate and Laura Nicholson (McMurtry ’16 & ’18), wanted a closer look at the causes, contexts, and community actions surrounding the California drought, and a better understanding of how water exists as both a natural resource and human right. From February 27th to March 5th, the two led an alternative spring break trip called “A Glass Half-Full: A Look into the Current Water Crisis in California and Strategies to Preserve our World’s Greatest Resource” that began as an afterthought but became something unforgettable.

Originally, Kate and Laura had planned to lead a trip to Florida, where they would observe oyster habitat restoration and ecosystem preservation. But after several weeks of planning, decided to instead select a trip that would provide a blend of environmental and social justice. At this point, Summer of 2015, the California drought was in full swing and seemed to fit the bill. The only problem was that no precedent for this trip existed, and no university contacts or program affiliates were in place. Everything would have to be planned from scratch.

Never ones to be disheartened, the Nicholson sisters quickly set out to build their own network by reaching out to family friends and cold calling unlikely acquaintances (think “horseback riding coach’s mother,” who happened to work in D.C. on California water policy). The result was an incredible outpouring of support for the trip. Laura and Kate have since written over 40 thank you notes to the people who came together and made it possible. They are also incredibly thankful to the Center for Civic Leadership, without whose advice and flexibility the entire experience could not have become a reality.

The trip began in San Francisco, with a look at the unexpected ways drought can impact our natural and human environment. Just outside the city, there existed an inaccessible beach at the foot of some seaside cliffs – its only connection to places further inland was a creek running to the coast and down the cliffs. However, years of drought have since dried up the creek and left nothing but a smooth riverbed – the perfect path to a once-inaccessible seashore. Now waves of people visit the beaches to throw parties and nighttime raves, but with the people have come new problems of trash and litter. The Nicholson’s ASB group participated in a beach cleanup in an effort to restore and maintain this formerly pristine site, and in the process came to realize that the effects of drought can truly be unpredictable. No one could’ve guessed that a dried out creek would result in a polluted beach, but there were signs of hope. Sprinkled along the path to the shore were patches of graffiti imploring people to respect nature and reduce litter, a grassroots gesture both unconventional and undeniably appropriate.

Following their time in the City by the Bay, where they also met with The Environmental Justice Coalition on Water, the ASB traveled on to Sacramento, to explore the political dimensions of water in California. Thanks in no small part to one John Kingsbury, the executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, Kate and Laura’s ASB had the chance to discuss water politics with several state senators and assemblymen. California is notable in that it is the only state to have passed legislation adopting the core principals of the UN’s Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainability. Additionally, the preeminent status of agriculture in the state has long made water a key part of its political dialogue. Nevertheless, problems in the system certainly exist, and inevitably place certain parts of California’s population at a disadvantage.

Take the town of Foresthill, which the Nicholson sisters visited. Although the town sits on an aquifer brimming with water (a rarity in the state), its residents struggle to afford their water utilities. The small town’s demand for water is too small to create sufficient economies of scale, and by virtue of using so little water its residents are fiscally punished. Because of a convoluted and outdated system of water rights, Foresthill essentially has to sell its surface water rights to a nearby river to consumers downstream in order to afford the operations required to pump water from its own aquifer.

A little further West, surrounding John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, the ASB group learned how the produce grown in the region has effectively become “The Grapes of Wrath” – the fertilizers used to enhance the area’s agriculture have also tainted its groundwater with high levels of nitrate. Those who bear the brunt of this contamination, often field workers and their families, are unfortunately those without the knowledge or resources to address the issue. According to Laura, this portion of the trip helped highlight “how interconnected everything is - how we’re all part of this giant web,” especially regarding the nexus of water, industrial agriculture, and everyday people.

Nevertheless, some farms are doing what they can to create a healthy balance between water, food production, and people. The Nicholsons scheduled several days for their group to have a farm stay at BeeGreen farm in Three Rivers, a farming operation with sustainable agriculture at its heart. Here, they learned about the challenges and problems sustainable agriculture and alternative food movements face. Although BeeGreen’s function is to grow food, its primary goal is to educate future generations about good stewardship of our natural resources. In fact, the farm’s owner let the group stay for free because she believes young people should have a chance to understand the facts and realities of our natural environment.

Beyond understanding environmental circumstances, the Nicholsons wanted the members of their ASB to be able to appreciate the natural environment itself. And what better place to do that than under the soaring redwoods of Sequoia National Park? The group met with park rangers, researchers, and conservationists to learn what sustains this impressive natural ecosystem, and how the prolonged drought has affected it. But the most important thing each student left the park with was a newfound reverence and respect for nature’s majesty. Throughout the trip, students were asked to keep journals and reflect on their experiences. For Kate, the most rewarding part of things was watching “people grow and change their opinions, and getting to see that evolution.”

The trip that Kate and Laura Nicholson set in motion eventually ended in Monterey, CA, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There, they discussed the benefits and drawbacks of desalination systems - a solution often proposed as the perfect fix for California’s water worries. The aquarium operates its own desalination system, but incidentally only uses the water it produces for toilet flushing and other low-priority functions. The regulations on producing water for wider use make it unattractive to extend the small operation’s scope. Additionally, the group was also taught that desalination projects increase salinity in their immediate vicinity, putting local ecosystems at risk - this is the main reason why widespread use of reverse osmosis technology could be infeasible.

Ultimately, what started as a second thought and last-minute scramble evolved into an experience that taught its participants the value of conservation and sustainability. The Nicholsons, through perseverance and no small dose of optimism, managed to turn half of California into their classroom. The group learned from advocates and experts, and gained the tools to help build a better world, one that protects and respects our natural gifts - especially water. At the time this article is published California’s largest reservoir will have reached 86% capacity, and although the current drought may be easing, it’s critical that we not discard the lessons it has taught us about our relationship with “our world’s greatest resource.”